Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Teaming up for La Tomatina and a tattoo with Ally!

(This is a long time coming... but here we go. Better late than never)

We didn't even have two weeks together; 4 nights in Barcelona, 3 in Valencia and 3 in Madrid. But it was AMAZING!! So much fun, and so many activities (right Ally!?).

Barcelona... I loved Barcelona. It just has a great vibe to it. And Gaudi's architecture everywhere is really impressive! I also liked how signs and tv/radio were more often in Catalan than Spanish, only the really touristy things had English too.
Ally was practically a local having been there not long before on her top deck tour, so I got to sit back and enjoy the ride (even more than I had been..? Haha). She did most of the decision making. It was a surprisingly nice change! I basically had a tour guide. Saying that we spent most of our time wandering the streets and exploring, often paying more attention to each other than our surroundings -we had a lot to catch up on!! However we did get to a great walking tour the first day. We learnt heaps of interesting stuff about the culture and history in Barcelona, and the growing Catalonian independence movement; the guy was really engaging and I learnt a lot - love those tours! Plus it got even better when it ended at a sangria place. (Not difficult seeing as most everywhere is a sangria place at the tourist end of town in Barcelona). Another day we spent a sunny (aka very very hot!) afternoon in Gaudi's park and came across the coolest street performing band ever! (They're called microguagua - maybe they're on YouTube?). There were 6 of them.. with guitars, drums, a saxophone, a trombone... and a lot of dreadlocks! Very entertaining! Another time we visited Sagrada Familia which is huge cathedral designed by Gaudi that has been under construction for over one hundred years and probably will be for a hundred to come! It's like nothing I've ever seen before. We stood in a line so long I can't believe we even considered staying to wait, and on top of that it poured on us most of the time we were waiting. Then it cost a bomb to get in and the top was shut due to the weather. But it was worth it. There's a Christmas tree with big red bows and a big golden star on top carved into one of the outside facades, and the inside is immense and curved parabolically... it makes you feel like Alice in wonderland down the rabbit hole. I have to go back when it is finished, if it's done in my lifetime!
So that was our history and culture quota.
We did a cooking class too, not sure how cultural it was though... Haha it involved a lot of Sangria and tapas, then a paella cooking demonstration. I can't remember how to make it anymore... But we had a great night!
The rest of the time we spent hanging out, cooking up delicious food with red wine, drinking sangria and walking miles and miles to and from the beach and clubs. One afternoon we went to go to the beach but didn't make it, there were far too many incredible shops on the way! Such a shame I'm a penniless student... Such a tough life. Jokes! I'm the luckiest girl in the world!
Another fun fact about Barcelona is that there are beer fairies. They pop up when you least expect it (and often when you most fancy a beer) saying "cerveza??" with an expectant little smile. Only a euro. Pretty sweet deal really. Especially when you've just walked out of a club by the beach that charges 10euros for the same thing but give it to you in a glass and won't let you out on the sand.

By this point I'd decided that travelling in twos is pretty awesome, and I should have been a little more pro-active and/or persistent and done more of it in Europe. You see less culture though, and are less inclined to make the effort to meet new people. But European backpacking is different to Latin American backpacking. Everyone has a more clear agenda, it costs more money so if you're going to fork out you want to do what you want to do, and there's such a multitude of different options for itineraries that no one is doing to same thing. In Central America all you need to know is whether someone is going north or South and you'll know their next destination. So what I'm trying to say is that European backpacking is more suited to a well planned trip with one or two mates, and Latin American backpacking is better suited to buying a one-way ticket for yourself and buggering off with whatever measly savings you have. It's a different thing. Both great though.

Next we went to Valencia!! and this is why we met up in the first place, we just had to throw tomatoes at each other at la Tomatina! la Tomatina is in Bunol, a tiny little village just 30km from Valencia. So Valencia was packed with Aussies, and other nationalities, but mostly Aussies. It was fun. Valencia itself was pretty nice, just a pretty little Spanish City. We wandered the streets of the old town and found the markets. But la Tomatina... Now that was crazy.
We started the day nice and early, as you do. Our bus left at 8:30am to go to Bunol but we had to get into town and pick up our entry wrist bands beforehand. Epic fail by the organisers - it was the first year they'd had tickets -  basically no one knew where to get what or when they were supposed to, if they were supposed to. And the queue was insane once we'd finally managed to figure out what to do by talking to other bewildered tourists. We got there in the end. Later than expected but with enough time. Then it rained on us, a lot... freak rain for the time of year too (August 28). Very weird. So walking into the centre of the quaint little town was kind of like being in a giant cold shower with a crowd of people dressed in red and white. We did have some sangria to raise our spirits which was lucky, I have to admit I was nearing the screw-it-I'm-getting-a-bus-home-now level of cold. My lips were blue. My fingers where blue. I was cold. Glad I didn't though!! When the official throwing actually started, and the trucks of tomatoes rolled on through I forgot all about being cold. Plus was warm in the mosh pit of people and flying tomato lumps. After 10minutes there was a squishy layer on the  street, and after 30 we were wading in tomato purée. People were lying down and swimming in it!! Hahaha I regret not wearing the recommended goggles. Next time. Poor Ally couldn't handle the smell of thousands of squashed tomatoes (it was compared to vomit by many different people) and had to avoid the very centre of the fight. It meant that she managed to wash the tomato out of her hair first time around though which is a plus! I didn't mind. My white clothes were completely pink and I had mushed tomato everywhere. It was AWESOME! so pointless and ridiculous but absolutely hilarious too!! Good stuff.
By the time we had been hosed off by locals in the street and the bus made it back we were in dire need of a shower and some dry clothes. We hadn't planned ahead especially well... So ended up sitting on the bus in just our bikinis all the way back. Wet clothes = heat loss = way too cold. Pretty hilarious. We got some odd looks.
Due to overly pre-booked accommodation etc etc we ended up in a fancy hotel that night (only paid for one and booked early so it was still cheap!) ...and this big hotel had a SAUNA! So I got to defrost nicely and siesta in style before we hit Valencia for tapas and dancing ;)

Then we went to Madrid, and got tattoos!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ...and didn't see that much of Madrid to be honest, I'll have to go back! We wandered around exploring and window shopping, and just soaking up the atmosphere a lot. And we took an entire day to work ourselves up to getting tattoos. Don't worry I've been toying withy he idea for years. It was the perfect time, and I love it! I got a small hummingbird on the left side of my torso, at the bra line. It's amazing!! and it will always remind me of my travels, and the way I see the world because of this year. It's about living in the moment and the beauty and magic of being alive :)
Needless to say that night we celebrated pretty hard, which is another reason why we didn't see that much of Madrid. Moving wasn't a great idea the next day! Hahaha incredible night though! We were at a party hostel with a bunch of really great people, and their pub crawl was too good value to be missed ;)

...and that was it! I flew off to Mumbai and Ally went to Paris. What a whirlwind two weeks! Only one month to go before home. Crazy.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

A glimpse of the African continent in Morocco

I made it to another continent!! 
Cue music:  "da da  da . dada hey hey!  ....... so this is Africa!" - supposed to be shakira. Anyway...

So it isn't exactly real Africa by any stretch. It seems more like the Middle East to me... But it's there in the continent :) one store owner seemed to be a bit offended when my friend and I mentioned that we were in Africa in a conversation, that he had roped us into to try and sell us something. Whoops! Interesting though. But even if it isn't stereotypical Africa-Africa it is still a whole world away from Europe. And absolutely incredible. I really love culture shock, it's kind of what I look for when travelling ;) and trying to navigate your way to a riad (traditional style building for lots of people to live in with a central courtyard that everything looks onto) in the the narrowing maze of backstreets in Marrakech definitely counts as that. 
Don't shake the hands if the shopkeepers. If you do... they will (ever so nicely) pull you in to offer you a good deal and some tea, and to show you everything they have as well as all their brothers stuff next door and their uncles things round the corner. Seriously. It can take a while and it's difficult to leave empty handed! Hahaha 

My journey to that hostel in a riad in marrakech was hectic. Amazing hostel though, totally worth it. They offered me breakfast and tea when I arrived! Nyaww! Traditional Moroccan stuff too!! 
It lasted about 20 hours door to door. Walk, bus, walk, bus, walk, ferry, taxi, train, petit taxi, walk.  The highlights? I got a photo (all sweaty with my backpack) with Miss Gibraltar who was raising awareness for Alzheimer's disease as I passed through town to start with. They sold fresh coconut on the streets in Tarifa where the ferry left Spain for Morocco. The ferry stopped halfway across because we had spotted a little dingy with three men waving their arms stranded and had to call a rescue boat for them (!!!)  illegal immigrants? Waiting for my overnight train their was a fair on next to the station, typical sort of fair with dodgems and fairy floss but they also had chickpeas with chilli spices served in a little ceramic bowl (eaten at the stall). so cool. Had to have some of that! Yum! The train was booked out for the sleeper class so I went second instead of going fancier... I sat up all night with so many people around that some had to stand. Wow. And some guys were illegally smoking a weird tabacco that smelt really really bizarre at the end of the carriage... They had to hide from guards in the toilets and behind seats! It worked for a while but then at about 3am there was an argument with some guards. (!!) I had a little boy sitting next to me though, he didn't smell or take up much space and he offered me some of his sandwich :) nyawwww!! I think I slept 4 hours in hour chunks over the 10 hour trip. Not too bad considering. I got to see a giant red african sun over the dessert sunrise from the window too - absolutely magical!! 
But yeah, breakfast and tea at a friendly hostel was just what I needed by the time I made it. Phew. And since it was so not and they have a small rooftop terrace we slept up there under the stars... !!!!!

Marrakech is insane too, after recovering a bit I went out to explore the souks (markets) for a couple of hours. Literally couldn't do more than that because it was sooooo hot! And somehow there wasn't much shade around. I wanted to buy everything, but couldn't be bothered fighting with shopkeepers to get a decent price... haggling sucks. That's one way of saving money I guess! Haha 
I met a really cool Aussie guy called Ollie at the hostel too, he arrived on the same train as me but had a sleeper. We went out to jemaa el fna (which is the main square and my favourite place in Marrakech - especially at night) for dinner. It is just hypnotic! That's the best word! There are snake charmers and  people with monkeys and we even saw a guy with a giant vulture in his bag... That he just whipped out randomly in clear spot. Though those are difficult to find. The square is HUGE and gets packed like its New Years or something every single night! wasn't even high season, the hostel was pretty much empty. So the animal people make money by donations for photos, then there are your beggars and street performers (most of whom don't really do anything... Hahaha), musicians who set up chairs around a wonderful carpet (carpets are to die for here) as a makeshift stage to play their banjo-like instruments, pipes and awesome drums. Then there are also Moroccan fair games and all the food and drink stalls. Soooo many!!! And there's only a limited number of different types too which is funny. For drinks there are about a hundred fresh orange juice places, then incredible spiced tea (also with really strongly spiced cake). Then food is a mix of various meats (including brain and tongue) or couscous and tajins. Ollie had brains twice. It was fun to watch. Hahaha they also have a spice soup as a starter, no idea what's in it. Tastes good! Desert is local ice creams or deliciously sweet and sickly nut/fig based pastries. Hmmm... Or just get  bag of dates for a dollar. They have stalls just for dates. 
Yeah. I love jemaa el fna!! In the day time it's more about henna (the ladies actually grab your hand and start before you pull it away!), weird potion sellers, sheeshas/hookas and all your market brick-a-brack. Still awesome but not as magical ;) 

I had another day in Marrakech before I left early for a dessert tour to Fez (!). So I wandered around exploring and visited a few things... palaces and monuments, as well as temples and some tombs. The architecture is soooo cool! Extremely intricate and beautifully coloured with tiles and the white washed sandstone. I got some henna too, that way I can wave it at all the people who ask me if I'd like more ;) 

Then I was off! I did a 3 day - 2 night tour to the desert and some small towns and sights along the way. It was incredible, a great way to see the country in such a short time too! did mean a lot of driving though. But I had a front seat in the mini van which meant great views at least :) 
We drove up through the Atlas Mountains which was stunning... stopping only for photos until we reached Hait Ben Haddou, a small and very old heritage listed town. It is made of sand bricks and piled onto a hillside with a castle/fort at the top. They have filmed heaps of blockbuster movies there apparently! Haha and you can see why, definitely the perfect Arabian nights/Aladdin sort of setting. We found out later that a big archway leading into the town, which was really impressive, was actually fake. Just part of a film set that they didn't want to take down. Everything else was real though!! ...they said. After having a tour of a traditional house and the village we went to a cinema museum full of more sets nearby. Cool! 
From there we drive past heaps more beautiful look out points and changing landscapes to our hotel in a valley. So fancy. I was in a suite, sharing with two Japanese girls who were super nice. I'm not used to this sort of luxury!! Haha though the AC didn't actually work as promised. Typical morocco. 

The next day was the best though, we went to an amazing gorge, full of picnicking locals avoiding the heat, and then a carpet weaving place surrounded by date palms. At one stop my friend and I went to try and pick some dates and a little local boy saw what we were doing (obviously we stood out a bit, and were doing it all wrong) so he took us to another tree and picked a couple of handfuls for us each!! So sweet!! And I ate fresh picked dates from the dessert!!!! and I love dates. Mmmmmm... 
Then in the evening we had really reached the Sahara (means desert in Arabic... Haha). We could see rolling red sand dunes stretched out ahead of us. This is where we got out of the van and onto camels!!! It was almost 2 hours on the camels both at sunset and sunrise, because we camped in a traditional Berber (local people) camp under the stars. Not that we could see that many because there was a blue moon (!!!!) which was absolutely gorgeous but also very very bright. 
Don't really know what to say about that night. It was amazing. We rode in, had traditional tajin for dinner, then the guides got out drums and played incredible music (and taught us the camel dance - we were such noobs, it was great). The keen ones climbed to the top of the highest dune, the camp was under it's shelter, for the breathtaking view. And it was breathtaking in more than one way. That was one serious climb!! But completely worth it. 
Then we were back on the caravan of camels at 6am. We had breakfast at the camel farm where the van dropped us and there was water ;) 

The group split from here. The Japanese girls and I went to Fez via public chicken bus.... Which was supposed to be an AC group taxi. Hem hem. But anyway, priceless experience that's for sure! 10 hours on a windowless bus (designed for AC) without AC packed to the brim with locals besides us. And it stank of sweat before anyone was even on. And it was 50 degrees outside in the shade. I'm not even kidding, this is the Sahara. We all bought 2L frozen water bottles and hugged them for as long as they lasted to stay sane. I think I sweated a lot more than that too....  But the locals were very friendly and took care of us as much as they could! I think they thought we were mad. We saw some cool corners of morocco though, I like to think it was a bit of real morocco ;)  we were all pretty happy to arrive and find our respective hostels/hotels though!! 

Fez was really cool, I would have really liked to stay longer but I had a flight to catch to Barcelona to me ALLY!!! The next day at 15:20. I did manage to catch up on a few things Internet wise, before joining a walking tour of the old medina (town) that morning before flying out. It was a great tour actually! Saw a lot of the main sights in a couple of hours; a beautiful mosque and koran school in one, the blue gate in the city walls (very pretty and famous), some of the backstreets and markets, the water clock (one of two in the world!), the town centre... And we had a tour of one of the tanneries! That was my favourite bit. It really really stank. They gave us all sprigs of mint to hold against our noses to help. Thankfully! They use bird poo and naturally materials to cure and colour the hides. But it smells mighty lethal. After the tour we had the obligatory tour of the shop and we told I great detail about the amazing deals they could give us. Lol! 
At about this point of the tour I realised I had to move FAST to get my flight. So then it was a race against the clock to find the hostel, get my backpack, taxi to the train station to share cab to the airport (via an Internet cafe to print my ticket) and then check in and security etc etc... I made it. Just. Lucky I was alone because even I got a bit worried at one point when we were stuck in traffic. And I don't worry about these things unless its really seriously likely I'm going to miss it. Plus, I didn't get flight insurance. Duh. ;) hahaha

But I made it to the hostel Ally had booked us in Barcelona and she was right there wondering where the hell I was! :) :) :) :) :) 
So suddenly Africa was over and I was no longer travelling solo, now that's a change! ...but dear Africa. I will be back!!

Monday, 2 September 2013

My mini Euro-Trip through Spain, Portugal and Gibraltar

Absolutely incredible ...but also a great way to spend money. I miss Latin American prices! But anyway, for this little segment of my journey I was racing to see everything. I just had to fit in Morocco after spending a month in England (that's how I justified it to myself anyway!). This meant skipping San Sebastián on Spain's north coast, and Granada-Malaga etc on the east... and Porto in Portugal... But besides that I think I covered most of the best bits! 

My itinerary went like this:
3 nights in Salamanca (Spain)
1 in Caceres (Spain)
2 in Evora (Portugal)
4 nights with Sofia and Nuno in Lisbon and the Algarve Coast (Portugal)
2 nights in Faro (Portugal)
A day in Tavira (Portugal)
2 nights in Sevilla (Spain) 
2 nights with Lianne (Gibraltar) 

So I started in the golden city of Salamanca. It's known as the golden city because of its many many gorgeous golden buildings: from grand cathedrals, convents and monasteries to intricately carved town halls and public buildings such as the exquisite (and oldest in Spain) university or Casa de Conchas (house of shells), hotels, palaces and the grand central Plaza Major. It really is golden too, the stone they are all built from glows golden in the half light of dawn or dusk. Which makes the perfect setting for some tapas or ice cream at 8:30pm! I met some really cool backpackers there, lots of other solo travellers which is always good! One guy Javi from Argentina was really cool, and gave us all insider tips like ordering red wine with lemonade (what the Spanish-speakers drink instead of Sangria - cheaper and more modern) and hilarious facts like "concha" having a double meaning (shell and also vagina. So... umm... the Queens's palace is called the house of vaginas). You don't read that on wiki travel!! Haha 

Then I was off to another very historical medieval city called Caceres. In transit really. I did some speedy sightseeing, checking out a few cathedrals, museums and church towers for spectacular views all in one afternoon :) then had a delicious typical Spanish breakfast (included with the accomodation) of churros, coffee and fresh orange juice at a little cafe round before getting my bus to Portugal the next morning. Perfect final Spanish meal for a while! 
My shocking Spanish skills also got a bit of a work out on the bus which was good, I sat next to a chatty Brazilian (who was also very patient!). He told me all about his family and work across Brazil and Portugal and even bought me a delicious lunch at the bus pit stop! Sweetie! He also taught me a few phrases of Portuguese which was awesome considering I got off that bus in Portugal ;) 

I absolutely LOVE Portugal by the way. It is just beautiful. And the people are all lovely. They also make incredible wine, invented Port and specialise in almond and fig based pastries... That definitely can't hurt!
The most exciting Portuguese thing I did after arriving that day was savour a glass of local port in a small square just after dusk. It was incredible. 
Evora is also another exquisite tiny medieval town, like Caceres but Portuguese. So over the next couple of days day I meandered through more quaint medieval cobblestone streets on my way to various museums, cathedrals, roman temple ruins (and an aqueduct) and international art exhibitions. Oh, and wine and port tasting at fancy places! haha I'm learning for my future ;) The hostel was super small and cute too, with an eccentric but totally harmless owner and a bunch of cool travellers around. Evora is a little off the beaten track which gives it a different vibe. It has the cool chapel of bones too :D Good spot. 

From there I went to the Capitol Lisbon and couchsurfed with an incredible couple who have hosted about a zillion times and are the best ever!!! Nuno and Sofia :) with their gorgeous cat Duchas of course. If it wasn't for their incredible hospitality and advice I would have never managed to see or do nearly as much as I did in Lisbon. And I swear I still only skimmed the very surface! Lisbon is a really awesome city.
The way it was I did a day in the city centre, a day in Belem (a suburb off-center famous for its pastries and monuments/attractions etc) and a day in Sintra (a fairy tale town an hour out, full of palaces and gardens and more incredible pastries). Plus one night I went and had dinner in the central "barrio alto" at a tiny local fado (typical Portuguese music) place because Sofia had to work late. Unfortunately staying with them I couldn't go out properly and really experience the insane nightlife that Lisbon is famous for... But it was definitely worth missing it. No question. Sofia and Nuno are incredible.

We all went down south to stay a night in a tiny little town to visit Nuno's  parents. ...they let me come with them to see it and stay a night!! Such a wonderful family!! We arrived late Friday night and even though it was a super tiny rural town Nuno, Sofia and I still went and got a drink at the local bar and there were plenty of people around enjoying the slightly cooler night temperatures! Then the following day we slept in and prepared an enormous traditional Portuguese lunch with grilled salmon and sardines over an open flame, fresh cold tomato and other vegetable soup/salad (Gazpacho but mot pureed?), local breads and cakes, a Portuguese potato dish and fresh melons for dessert. Then we went to the corner cafe for coffees afterwards. I think we finished around 3 or 4pm? Haha. amazing!!!

Sofia and Nuno took me to the beach at Portimao (via Serpa to pick up some of their famous cheese) and then to a crazy medieval fair in Silves later that day/evening too. We road tripped across most of the Algarve coast in one arfternoon! The water was a lot colder there, not the Mediterranean this time! I mention it because it reminded me so much of Perth, and swimming in the sea back home!! Made me a little homesick. Way more refreshing but you can't stay in as long ;) The medieval fair was especially authentic and amazing due to it being held in a medieval town. So cool. Absolutely enormous too! Europe has so many festivals in summertime...!

After all that I just slobbed for a day in Faro. Needed to chill! So I cant't tell you much about the place... the hostel was nice! Haha but it's got to be done sometimes. 

I left early after my second night in Faro so I could stop off in Tavria especially to visit the 11km white sand beach on the Ilha de Tavira. Only a 15min ferry from town. I'd heard many good things. I spent pretty much the entire day on the beach... read my book, worked on my tan (lol jokes). I even did a bit of topless sun baking for fun. Hey, when in Rome! Haha then I was off again, got to keep moving to reach Morocco!! I arrived in Sevilla that evening. Another awesome hostel. I think I'm getting better at picking the cheap and good ones now ;) this one had an amazing rooftop terrace and cheap sangria as well as a big and clean kitchen!! Umm... Wow!

Sevilla was cool, but not really especially different. I visited the second oldest bull ring in Spain though, and a really good flamenco dance museum! I went for a run one evening and just abut died though... So hot! And humid. Well I hope it wasn't just me being unfit anyway... !! Haha oh well!

From Sevilla I left Spain again and ventured into Gibraltar. I think it wouldn't be a great place for just anybody, there are definitely going to be those who appreciate it and those who don't. But for me, it was just priceless!! The most hilarious and crazy place... A total mixing pot of cultures. You walk down the street and pass Arabic style buildings with beautiful curly arches, flat roofs and colourful tiles next to Spanish white washed houses with shutters and distinct European features, next to English town houses... Say what!??!? And everyone speaks English, they use pounds Stirling and have red telephone booths, post boxes and one red double decker bus. Not to mention there is a Morrissons supermarket, Marks and Spencer's and plenty of pubs advertising cooked Sunday lunch and fish and chips with mushy peas and gravy ...despite the intense heat all year round. Though... the giant rock that forms the 7 square kms that is Gibraltar does attract its own cloud that likes to hang around, and that's pretty English! hahaha 
The thing is they all speak Spanish too, and there are Spanish churros places etc too. And a moorish castle overlooks everything from the top. Crazy. And there are Barbary Macaques (tailless monkeys pretty much unique to Gib.) that you can visit whilst hiking the rock and exploring the impressive cave and war/siege tunnels they have inside the rock. 
My favourite part still might be the fact that the runway for their airport crosses the only road (and the main road for Gibraltar) that goes to Spain perpendicularly. They literally have to close the road and hence all Spain-Gibraltar access every time a plane lands or takes off (!!!) ...and they only fly to England. Maybe the UK. But not elsewhere. So funny. 
While I was there I stayed with Lianne (couchsurfing again) and she introduced me to a bunch of her friends and we went out one night :) it was awesome. Great place! They all said they loved it, but liked to get out a bit too. You get the small-town gossip affect a bit it seems! Super fun couple of days. Such a cool place and Lianne was an amazing host!! I hope she comes to Aus someday in one of her many travels!! 

And there we have it, my (solo) mini euro-trip. Next stop Africa!! And I didn't even have to fly. They have ferries. Have I mentioned how tiny Europe is? And close to everything else too?!! 
These people don't know what they've got, especially now Ryan air is around! :) 

 Hasta Leugo!

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Plus belle la vie en France!

My fortnight in France was based on a mix of two things: summertime in the south and catching up with old friends/family ...and you can't get much better than that! I started with a couple of days in Nice with uncle George and Ally, then went west to Avignon and caught up with my previous au pair host family the Martinez-plans before visiting my French exchange host family the Brions in Cazaux near Bordeaux, here's a run down of what happened :) 

I flew in to Nice early (a whole 2 hours from England - Europe is so small) and was walking along the Mediterranean coast, surrounded by the beautiful French language and creperies by noon = Encroyable!
Buuuuut... I soon realised that my French skills left much to be desired. Trying to block out French and learn Spanish for 5 months really makes it difficult to remember French again. I kept on getting muddled between the two! And having three possibilities for a word running around in my head (that's the best case scenario here) meant that I was slower responding with the French that I did know! Le sigh. Haha. It got better slowly. 
I think it took about a week to really get back into the swing of it. That's a long time! So anyway, to start with it was pretty shocking :(

Uncle George and Ally were incredibly generous and good fun to hang out with! I stayed with them for two days, crashing the last bit of their two week vacation ;) They had a great apartment in Cagnes sur Mer; the surrounding area wasn't too touristy but still had a tourist office and jet skis for hire etc. (this is the Côte d'Azur people), walking distance from a nice beach and cafe/bar strip, there was a small local market and to top it all off there was an amazing pool! Nice! (Excuse the pun). So the day I arrived we hung out in town and by the pool before cracking out the wine and nibbles on their balcony at dusk (which is around 9pm!! Awesome!!). 
Then the next day we got the train to Cannes, just over half an hour away, and spent the day there. It was amazing! It really fitted my imagined Côte d'Azur stereotypical town. You know, packed out beach, big fancy hotels, expensive restaurants, colourful umbrellas and deck chairs you have to pay for, wrinkly topless sunbathing grannies more tanned then you ever thought possible (as well as the young supermodel equivalents and the ones who aren't so young anymore with fake boobs), designer sunglasses and chihuahuas in handbags... Plus lots of tourists. You don't only hear French  here! Haha, in short it was perfect :) 
We came back after a good long sun bathe and some window shopping to get freshened up (and have a siesta in my case - making a bit of a habit of it now) before hitting the town for George and Ally's last night! We had a lovely meal and even a cheeky dance later on. great fun ;) Thank you so much guys!!  I had an incredible time with you! 
The next morning they were off nice and early, and I headed into Nice for the day on my way to Avignon armed with all the leftover food - didn't need to buy anything all day = score! I spent the day lying on the beach (galettes/pebbles here, not so nice, but at least you don't get sand everywhere!) and wandering the town. It is a gorgeous place! Really French ;)  ...So I saw three towns in three days! Going strong!

Avignon was a bit more chilled, and I slept in a bit more... but that was fine because the kids like to do that too in the summer :) I stayed five nights and it was really nice being able to catch up and spend some time with the whole family: Marie-luce and Joel (the parents) and Hugo and Laurianne (les enfants) ...who grew up a lot since I was there looking after them four years ago!!  In the afternoons we went to the beach or into Avignon town to see a show (since the Avignon festival was on for the whole of July), took the dogs to the lake and paddled in a little row boat and/or swam in the pool until 9pm... It was wonderful! and you could tell we were definitely in Provence. I walked past orchards of fruit trees packed full of ripe apples/pears/peaches/small plums (mirabelles) on my way to the local market... whilst being serenaded by cicadas. Wow. Love it. 
It was really strange to sleep in the same room and bed that I slept in four years ago! So much has happened since then.. Really fun too though, bit of a trip down memory lane. I got the bus into and out of town all by myself just like old times!! Haha and once again I was spoiled by my hosts... (!!) incredible food, people fussing over what we should do each day, big bed, my own shower. It was amazing. They were incredible and helped me to no end, especially when it came to me arriving and leaving, which I was very unclear about a lot of the time!! Whoops.. Sorry guys! Thankyou for being so patient and flexible!!

To get to Cazaux (near Arcachon) to see my exchange host family I tried a new thing I'd heard about - carpooling. There are a couple of websites that you can organise it through, and for the journey across the south of France you can save serious money and time! So I went with Camille from Avignon to Bordeaux and only caught the train for the last bit. It was awesome! More direct and more comfortable plus you meet cool local people. It's also better for the environment, saves you money and helps the driver with the cost of the trip. Everybody wins! I've done it again since and it's been really good. Definitely going to keep an eye out for more opportunities like this :) 

Then I was in Cazaux with the Brion family again! Yay! Four and a half years for this one, crazy. And they remembered that I LOVE the chèvre (goats cheese) they get, so they got me some especially! Nyawwww! Soo much good food again. Yum. We went around and re-visited familiar sights for me like the market, the beautiful houses and lookout tower in the ville d'hiver in Arcachon, St Elme (the school I went to for 3months) and the lake in Cazaux. It was very different from what I remembered because I stayed  in winter, and Arcachon is a beachside tourist town so it comes alive in summer! It was beautiful! I think i like summer better, not so cold. hahaha. I think the council had been busy too, there are a lot of very nice new buildings I hadn't seen before. We also stopped by to visit Nathalie's parents (they were my host grand parents I guess), who I saw a lot of when I was there.  It was lovely to see them again! They are such a sweet couple. They even asked about Anna and my family back home :) 
We also went to a few places that I never made it to last time - there's always more to do! :)  We went to the Cazaux zoo and some little towns on the other side of the bassin d'Arcachon. Then on Sunday night Nicolas, Nelly and I road tripped down to Bayonne near the Spanish border for the final night of the Fete de Bayonne. Ahhh-MAZING!! It is the towns' festival. Lots of (basque?) towns have a crazy folkloric festival each summer... they get pretty big. Bayonne is one of the biggest and goes for four or five days. They had bull shows instead of bull fighting where there are two teams of 'fighters' (one from Spain and one from France) who dodge and jump/flip over the bulls when they charge at them (!!). They are awarded points for each round, and there were 10 rounds (ie. 10 different bulls) then the winning team was announced at the end. And in the opening and closing ceremonies they have heaps of extra flourishes such as singers, dancers, smoke machines, a brass band, those insane riders who do handstands and stuff while their horses gallop around the ring and make get their horses to rear up and dance around with their heads bent right down... It was incredible!! ..not too sure if I agree with the crazy over-trained horsemanship, but it was VERY impressive all the same! 
Besides the show, which was in an arena a kilometre out of the old town, they have a fair ground and different stages around town for popular bands as well as traditional basque music, and they had fireworks, and a parade...!!! 
But my favourite part was the fact that the cobblestone and windy little streets of the old town were teaming with thousands of people all dressed in white with red bandanas, berets, scarfs and sangria stains ;) and everyone was there to have a good time! The festive atmosphere was contagious! We did the trip as an all-nighter pretty much, driving down and back with just a couple of hours sleep in the car. Poor Nelly had to go to work that afternoon! But it was worth it - what a night! :D Thankyou so much to Nicolas and Nelly for driving and making it possible!
After that I took a day to recover before I said my goodbyes and was carpooling off to Salamanca in Spain!! Back into youth hostels now! 

It was so nice to be able to see my incredible host families again and spend time witth George and Ally. All of you were so generous... Putting me up and entertaining me, and still picking me up and dropping me off places even though I could barley tell you all where or when more than 24 hours before...! It is such a different experience travelling around and seeing people like this, you get a completely different perspective compared to staying in hostels, not to mention saving a lot of money... Thankyou guys I can travel at least a week longer now!! Please come and stay with me one day in future so I can return the favour!

So... what a cool fortnight in France! My French did get a lot better by the end too, phew! It's not all gone. Hahaa 
Now to see if my little bit of Spanish is still there...

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Taking a break and seeing the fam' in the motherland, June 17 - July 17.

Where to start... I had a whirlwind first 2 weeks seeing pretty much everyone and going to the MAY BALL!! With Alex and Sam. Then I got stuck because my new debit card hadn't arrived yet. Things slowed down a bit at 67 park ave while I checked the post religiously and got settled in - I was there about 3 weeks in the end I think... 

When I arrived at Heathrow I got a train straight to Cambridge and pretty much went straight to sleep. I badly needed to catchup from the long journey and last days in Lima, and I needed to get prepared for another night's sleep to be missed! I got to Cambridge about 9:30pm on the 17th and the ball was the 18th :D perfect timing. 
It all started with a hair appointment at 2pm; Kelly (Sam's girlfriend) had organised for Kirsten and I to have our hair done at the same time and place as her. It was very luxurious!! We all had our hair down and set in curls, but by the time the ball rolled around, and we'd waited in the cue to get in - which was over an hour long and wound through the grounds of St John's College - mine were pretty much gone! Damn. I managed to repair one of my cracked falsies (nails) that I had done cheap in Lima though, crisis averted there! Haha ...such first world problems. But this was definitely a first world affair. The most luxurious, extravagant and ridiculously posh event I have ever dreamt of going to. Our motto for the night was "because we can", it didn't matter if we swapped a half drunk fancy cocktail for the next one we wanted to try. It was there to be tried! The event itself was spread over the whole of St. John's College and each courtyard or grand hall had a different "art for arts sake"-related theme. So for each of the 8/9 areas there was a different type of fancy food, a different type of fancy drink, decorations and a form of entertainment or two.  It was incredible. And of course everything was of the highest quality! I was so busy trying all the incredible food and drinks, and trying not to miss the best entertainment (they gave you a program) that I didn't even take off my 4-inch heels until 4:30am! we played mini golf after that and I scored a hole in one fist shot ;) such a pro.  I'd say easily more than half of the ball made it to the survivors photo at 6am! We definitely did. Then headed upstairs from the main courtyard to Sam's room and proceeded to sleep most of the day. 
Amazing. Partying in absolutely luxury in a surreal castle, with the very bet of entertainment, food and drinks... they'd lit it up the castle with bright pink, blue and yellow patterned and moving lights, it looked  like a fairytail castle! 

The rest of the time in Cambridge was spent hanging out with my awesome cousins Alex and Sam :) we had to pack up all of Sam's stuff to take with us the next day when we drove up to Hartford to see the rest of the Blayney family. It's the end of the academic year in the northern hemisphere! Haha 

Hartford was amazing. I love hanging out at Angelbeck house, good spot. We took a country walk, had a pub dinner, went ice-skating, I watched Michael and Kate performing at different recitals, we had a hilarious and inventive cocktail evening. Overall it was just really great to catch up with everyone and spend some time together, not that it was very long! after a couple of nights I was off to Nantwich to stay with Grandpa and Elizabeth!

I only stayed two nights in Nantwich, but we were busy the whole time! The first we went out to see a play called "widowers houses" at a round theatre - it was really good, strange ending... But really good! The next day we went shopping in Chester and had coffee at the fancy cafe with the butler that we always go to ;) it was great, and Grandpa was very generous and bought me bunch of new clothes! ...really nice to have a few different things to work with actually. My wardrobe is getting a bit tired! Haha lucky I could leave a few things with Grannie and Keith (my next stop) so I didn't mind adding a little weight to my backpack... even though it was almost bursting at the seems at this point and had a hammock strapped to it...!
I had time to walk around Nantwich with Grandpa and to relax with a cup of tea at many an opportunity while I was there too, and I managed to shatter my iPad screen. Whoops! It's ok, Keith was a miracle worker and found a place close by to get it fixed only a couple of days later. Just the screen broken. 

From Nantwich I went to Northampton and caught up with the Civil side of the family :) the evening I arrived almost everyone managed to pop round and say hi for at least a little while which was so nice!! Family reunion!! I think I stayed one night there before we headed off to Askrigg for the weekend.
Askrigg is absolutely beautiful, I LOVE the tiny English country roads lined with stone walls, and the rolling green hills spotted with bedraggled sheep and black and white spotted cows! The houses are old stone and often have thatched roofs over there too. It is gorgeous! And we actually had good weather!! Still cold by my standards (20ish?), but we saw the sun for more than 5 mins and it barely sprinkled with rain. Crazy! 
Driving in we came up over the mores for Keith to take some photos of grouse and that too was really impressive! Misty and flat with just heath and grass covering the plains. 
All 7 of the family were only together with Grannie, Keith and I for the first evening. Then Alistair and Kirsten went to London and different kids disappeared at different moments for friends birthday parties etc. but we did get a wonderful full-group pub dinner in before that happened. Awesome. So loud... Haha some things don't change, it was great to see everyone again. I love visiting family. Plus, everyone fusses over me! I don't think I know how to look after myself anymore! Haha
Over the weekend Annabel, Rosalyn and I went to Hawes (a neighbouring village) with Grannie and Keith to explore. Grannie bought pie, Keith took photos, I admired the quaint English village and surroundings, Rosalyn played in the park and Annabel came along for the ride :) We ended up at the Wensleydale creamery and I tried all there cheeses while everyone else had more tea. It was great.  Later on when there were more of us together again and we all had icecream and played in the park. Got to make the most of sunshine in Askrigg!!  

After that wonderful weekend in North Yorkshire (I really wish I had stayed longer!!) things started to slow down. I was back in Northampton and my new debit card had still not found me. I'd had news that it had arrived in Cambridge, but the porters seemed to have lost it. So I ended up ordering a new card AGAIN and having that sent to Jack at home to forward to me. Again. 
Anyyyyywayyyyy.... So I spent 2 weeks a least from this point hanging out with Grannie and Keith. I pretty much moved in ;) haha took a little while to get settled because I kept on expecting it to arrive any day. Once I'd accepted that it would arrive eventually and I should just relax and make the most of my time there I really got into it! I even knitted a cover for my phone. Grannie helped me :) lots of stuff was going on in Northampton though - its summer in England and the weather was amazing!!. We went to Carnot sale, the parish fete, a dragon boat festival and a waterfront festival, I walked through Northampton... went to the markets, the hospital where Grannie sells her baby cardigans at their charity shop, did a bit of shopping. I even got to go horse riding with Clare one afternoon. That was amazing! We trotted between gorgeous fields in the countryside for half and hour or so, wonderful! I got to spend a lot of time with my beautiful cousin Mimi, she is only 6 with Down's syndrome and loves to dance in the garden :) 
The day when my cards actually arrived I had bitten the bullet and gone to London for the day - amazing day, gotta love London. I spent the whole day wandering around the streets and exploring :) :) it's only an hour on the train from Northampton, just 30£ for the return ticket. So worth it. 

So when I got back it was time to organise my flights to France and let my host families from 2009 know a specific time to expect me! ..I'd told them approximate dates but everything was very fuzzy when it came to details. I even fitted in a bit of last minute shopping before Grannie, Keith and I shared some sangria to celebrate my continuing travels!
And I would just like to say that they were absolutely amazing, thank you so much guys!! For putting up with me and entertaining me for such a long time. I really appreciate it and had a lovely time with you!
...I calculated that it was 41 days from wallet stolen to new card arriving. Wow. Thank you Jack for my western union money instalments to keep me going! And all the incredibly generous and lovely family who put me up for free! It really helps!! 

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Perahhh darling, Perahhh. With Machu Picchu and the llamas.

3 weeks for the whole of Peru doesn't really work out to be honest. I managed to do and see quite a bit... But it was just a taster for Peru really, but I had a date in England and my flight was booked!
Peru is amazing though, an absolutely incredible country. If it hadn't been where the pickpockets succeeded in stealing my wallet I'd only have the best things to say about it!! ...But as it is I've had to extend my family-visiting in England while trying to replace my bank card quickly, which has in fact ended up being very slow. If it wasn't for those pickpockets I could have been in France/Spain by now! Sigh. but it's been really great catching up with family, love 'em, being fed and housed for free!! YAY! haha ...and the weather has been beautiful! In England... Go figure!? It's actually hot sometimes!

Back to Peru though, it's much more interesting... a completely different experience to the colombian Amazon! It took a while to get there, I flew in to Lima and then got a 23hr bus straight to Cusco. When I got there my bum hurt from sitting for so long but I was well slept!  the bus has recliner chairs and provides food! Not good food... But still, ~$40 to travel 23 hrs and get fed is pretty sweet. 
Cuzco sits at 3400m altitude and I could really feel how thin the air was trying to walk up stairs! lucky I had a couple of days to acclimatise before I wanted to start my trek to Machu Picchu. It was cold too, the coldest place I've been.... Peru was my winter quota for the year :D  Min - max was something like 2-15 Degrees Celsius!! That's freezing!! 

My favourite place in Cuzco is San Pedro market, I think I went there for food or souvenirs every day I was there. Absolutely amazing, and I'm a sucker for markets. They had some crazy stuff like in the Amazon too! Cows noses, lips, hearts... Frogs being killed and gutted by old ladies (with their nails)... cooked whole cuy ie. guinea pig... There was also a restaurant/food stall area at the back where you get 3 course menus for $2! Pus the usual fruit and veg. And souvenir stalls. including winter coats and countless colourful beanies with llamas on them. They also had football sized avocados, literally, and an incredible fruit called Lucuma. So delicious!! 
Another place I spent a lot of time meandering around was La Plaza de Armas, a beautiful old square in the heart of the historic part of the city. All cobblestone streets surrounded by gorgeous churches, cathedrals and halls. Just stunning with the mountainous background and vibrant gay pride flags lining the streets. The flag is actually the Cuzco town flag and also Inca culture, but it's identical to the rainbow pride flag. Lol! 

One morning I got up super early to hike/run up to the closest Incan ruins (before the guards got there and people start checking tickets after 7am). Definitely worth it despite the half and hour hike making me ridiculously breathless and it being freezing cold that early. Plus rain. I did start to question how much fitness I'd lost over the past couple of months... And whether the Salkantay trek would be too much for me after all...  (I'd heard it's pretty tough). Just a little apprehensive! Hahaha I never suffered altitude sickness though so it's all good. The site is called Sacsayhuamán, and it was really impressive, especially in the early morning mist.
I highly recommend the free walking tour of Cuzco too, heaps of taste tests and funny guides :) 

I love Cuzco, except so do lots of other people... So there are lots of tourists and that means lots of pickpockets. So the rest of my stay was a bit tainted by a lucky pickpocket getting about $300 USD and my bank card and drivers license off me one evening in San Pedro market... 
I realised pretty quickly and reported it and everything... But still. I ended up without ANY money for 24hrs... I had to leave one of my passports as a deposit at a call Center (so I could call my insurance company and bank to organise everything) since I had no cash... I sweet-talked dinner off a friend.y policeman (who gave me his number! haha)... and I had to get half of my Salkantay trek deposit back just to buy food the next day... then I had to postpone my organised trek since I couldn't pay... Not so fun really. It's definitely an interesting experience not having enough/any money to eat. Turns out you can't withdraw money from a bank even with photocopies of everything and two forms of passport ID... You need that magic little magnetic strip in your card and can only use ATMs. Thank god for western union! 

I did get on my trek though, and only one day late! 5 days and 4 nights. You go over the Salkantay pass (4600m) and through jungles and cloud forest finishing at Aguascalientes on the 4th night to hike up to Machu Picchu on day 5. Absolutely incredible!!! There were 16 of us in the group with 2 guides. They were really good, told us heaps of fun facts and pointed out things. Now I know which flower the incas used as an anaesthetic and the hundreds of wonderful properties of coca leaves and coca tea ;)  We hiked 6-10hours each day, day 2 being the hardest with 10hours hiking at the highest altitude after a night camping by the glacier (3900m and very cold!!). Day 3 was much shorter and ended at gorgeous hot springs, a chance to relax and soften sore muscles as well as get clean ;) The camps were really nice,  just tents and no hot showers or anything but good food prepared for us (wake-up coca tea for altitude sickness!) and we didn't have to carry all our gear or set up etc. Pretty sweet deal as far as I was concerned. We had a bonfire party on the last night camping which was fun!! haha dancing round the fire :) On day 4 we got a glimpse of Machu Picchu from below! And walked along the train tracks from Hydroelectric to Aguascalientes, just getting from A to B really. It makes day 5 even more exciting! MACHU PICCHU!!!!!! 
I took soooooo many photos. We got up at 4:30am to hike to the bottom of the 1000 stairs that opens at 5am, and there is a queue (we were almost at the front)... then there is another queue at the top gate for when they open at 6. This time there are more people because a bus also goes up to the main gate. Then you're in! Tickets have to be checked though so get to the front and you still have a bit of time before the view gets filled with tourists. 
Not that it really mattered much in my opinion. Still breathtaking...!! 
The trek included a tour with our guide Reynaldo which was really interesting - bit of culture ;) then we were free to explore. I opted for the extra option of hiking the Montana (Machu Picchu mountain) which was another 2000 steps up. Pretty tough after 4 days hiking and 1000stairs at 5am, but it was 100% worth it. Best view. We were really lucky with the weather too, pretty much clear skies and it was sunny the whole time!! Beautiful!! I also hiked across to the sun gate which is about half an hour walk from Machu Picchu town. It's where the real inca trail enters, and you also get an incredible view from there since its higher up too - so I did do some of the official inca trail! Haha
I met a whole bunch of really cool people on the tour too, I find you always do on these things ;) ...I was the only Aussie! But there was a group of 4 Americans who were hilarious for my English language needs ;) otherwise the languages floating around we're pretty much only French, Polish and a bit of Spanish (but of course). My roomie/tent buddy, Linda, was German but like all Germans she speaks perfect English, she's awesome! Now I have another person to visit in Germany! We ended up being the only two on the afternoon train back to Cuzco.. Weird tour group organisation there. 

I only stayed in Cuzco until the following evening when I got the looooong bus back to Lima. But in that time there was an amazing street festival with all sorts of fun (and delicious) stalls lining the plaza de Armas and many of the side streets right up to the markets a couple of blocks away! and just about every child in town was dressed in a specific traditional dress, in groups so I think they organise it by class at the local primary schools. Each group of children did a specific traditional dance in their specific traditional dress, and the groups made up a parade that went through the town stopping every 100m for their short dances to be performed. I don't think it travelled very far... There were adults in traditional dress too! But I didn't see them dancing. It was incredible!! So many vibrant colours and intricate costumes... And I think the whole town had come to watch, you had to squeeze through the crowds to get anywhere! I tried cuy (guinea pig) and lots of the traditional sweets and other dishes like causa, and a drink called poncho.. and pisco sours and chicha morada... So many delicious things! I didn't try them all on the same day ;)

In Lima I stayed with Thalia, a couch surfer who I had been contacting. She is amazing!! Along with her whole family :) they were so welcoming, generous, kind and helpful! I am so lucky to have been able to stay with them. They have an awesome shower too, really hot with good pressure. I really appreciated that! Haha I was only there a couple of days but they helped me pick up money from another western union place (no bank card still...) get my hair and nails done (preparation for the May Ball in Cambridge!!) and Thalia took me out to the tourist center miraflores one night and clubbing with her friends another. It was so fun!! Thalia studies communications and film etc at uni in Lima, she loves Harry potter and has awesome taste in music. It was great :)  The morning before my flight to England it was Father's Day so the whole family was tied up with a big meal, but they all made sure that I was set up to catch a bus into the City Center (gave me the right card and money and directions) so that I wouldnt be bored. Then when I got back they set me up with boxes of incredible leftovers to eat for the flight and the biggest slice of an amazing desert they'd just had before driving me personally to the airport, an hour away, because they said public transport is too dangerous. In short, nicest people ever!! I love Lima because of them really, otherwise it was just an averagely nice big grey city. One fun fact though, it never rains in Lima. Legit. It reaches such high humidity that it doesn't need to for stuff to still grow etc. and it just never does. Crazy!! 

...and that was all I saw of Peru! Iquitos, Cuzco, the beautiful scenery and small towns through the Salkantay pass and up to Machu Picchu then Lima really quickly. It's a big country, and an incredibly beautiful one with an awesome culture - I will be back one day! In a trip devoted entirely to South America. Yeah. :)