Day 77 – Cost and Costa Rica

If travel was based on intentions rather than actions I would have been around the world by now. The flexibility that is the cornerstone of the Gump Method has resulted in a series of loose travel plans which have been rehashed and abandoned as quickly as I came up with them.

A few months ago I was set on Nepal after reading that October was a great time of year to see the Himalayas. Kathmandu then became Kathmandon’t as I chose an unconventional alternative: Spain.

Yes, I wanted to improve my Spanish, but there was also an economic angle – with a mid-November wedding in London I only had 3 weeks to play with and decided against the expensive return flight to Nepal for a short trip. I then proceeded to spend so much money in Spain that it probably would have evened out financially. And I didn’t learn much Spanish.

My trip to the Americas would definitely be starting with a month in Cuba, until I was put off by it’s reputedly terrible internet access. Yep, Jonesy aka Phonesy aka Blog Boy just couldn’t handle the thought of being away from his one true love: the world wide web. Ok two true loves – I forgot Nandos.

Next on the magical list of countries I would talk about and not go to was Nicaragua. I found a perfect flight but then hesitated on making the booking and it went up by £200; another plan scuppered for financial reasons.

Finally I found a cheap flight to Nicaragua’s southern neighbour, Costa Rica, and pulled the trigger. Landing in the capital city, San José, I soon realised (and had been warned) that Costa Rica, as with most countries frequented by American tourists, is quite expensive. My saving on the flight was another false economy.

Looking back on all this – Cuban internet crisis aside – I have clearly allowed financial considerations to take too much precedence in my decision-making. With a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do whatever and go wherever, I’ve been letting Skyscanner determine my itinerary.

The added irony is that money isn’t even the major constraint in my travel planning, at least not at this early stage of shunemployment while the coffers are still in good shape. Having zero income for the first time in 12 years seems to have had a disproportionate impact on my decision-making. The real constraint, as always, is time.

Costa Rica

After all this self-flagellation one might assume that I did not enjoy the start of my Central American adventure, but thankfully Costa Rica’s incredible collection of wildlife ensured that was not the case.

Swapping a cold, wet and windy London for a warm, wet and windy San José didn’t feel like a good deal, until I made my way up into the mountains to a town called La Fortuna which thrives in wet weather conditions (as it must with average annual rainfall of 3.5 metres, approximately 6 times that of London).

With constant rain forecast for four days I cursed Skyscanner and my schoolboy decision not to bring walking boots or a rain coat, but refused to let the weather win by signing up for the first activity I could think of for which fun is directly proportional to rainfall – whitewater rafting.

The river was high and the rafting was exhilarating, but what made it for me was the wildlife. While paddling frantically I spent most of my time looking upwards as the guide pointed out howler monkeys, cuckoos, kingfishers and a large iguana chilling out in a tree.

The highlight for me was a sloth descending for its weekly poo. I know many people who take pleasure in going about their natural business but just look at the pride this sloth takes in its work. Observed by two teams of rafters it took its sweet time and maintained its idiotic but endearing perma-grin while we captured the moment.

Sloth

After getting a taste for what lay within, my second day in La Fortuna was also spent in the jungle with a nature walk around the base of the Arenal volcano.

I had spent a lot of time watching hummingbird hawk moths during the French ayahuasca retreat, mesmerized by their dexterity. Here I was treated to the real thing as a team of hummingbirds drained pollen with absolute mastery.

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Costa Rica is also a lepidopterist’s dream with over 8,000 species of butterflies and moths. We saw more than I could count, but I was blown away when a Blue Morpho flapped within a few feet of me – one of the largest butterflies in the world, it was the size of a human hand, and a real treat to see in the wild.

We saw two varieties of toucan, one better camouflaged than the other despite its ridiculous multi-coloured beak, and a wild turkey that was visibly delighted to be running free in the Costa Rican jungle on the day of Thanksgiving. On percussion was a solitary woodpecker.

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When the tour was officially over we made our way back to the bus and witnessed one of the best spots of the day. A young ocelot, which hadn’t got the memo about being a wild nocturnal hunter, was scavenging for food at the back door of a restaurant kitchen.

Ocelot

For my final “things that are good to do in the rain” activity I took advantage of the ‘hot river’ in La Fortuna. Naturally heated to around 38 degrees by the volcano, there is plenty of room for everyone as locals and tourists bathe side-by-side in nature’s hot tub.

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Returning to the town I passed a curious looking coatimundi – another first for me – as it scraped the dregs from a discarded coconut.


In just a few days I was lucky to be treated to a fantastic array of natural beauty for very little effort. Following on from my ayahuasca-fuelled visions of the rainforest a couple of months earlier, Costa Rica was the real deal and I loved it.

A local guide book claims that Costa Rica has 5% of the world’s animal species, an incredible fact (if it is one – I haven’t been able to verify it) for such a small country. While the line between wild and tame was a little blurred at times, the Costa Ricans appear to be doing a great job of protecting their natural treasure, with many designated national parks and high quality, professional guides.

Despite travelling to Costa Rica for the wrong reasons and spending far too many Colóns while I was there, it was money well spent and I would highly recommend a trip into the rainforest. 


Next Stop: Nicaragua

What is The Gump Method

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Day 65 – Not Really Travelling in Madrid

Word of the Day

Travelling

Going from one place to another, as on a trip


Oh hi blog fans! I enjoyed my two week sabbatical but it’s good to be back. Allow me to explain.

With my recent lack of activity the default assumption seems to have been was that I was still in Bilbao practising the YMCA with Vissi. In fact I had made the 4 hour drive down to Madrid, ‘hosting’ my journey on Bla-Bla-Car, a ride sharing service, which was great fun.

Once in Madrid I enjoyed the city so much that I changed my plans and just stayed there, Gump Method style, for an extra week. I half-wrote a couple of blog entries but didn’t get around to posting, so this is a 2-weeks-in-one-post extravaganza. I’ll keep it snappy.


My time in the Spanish capital was, for the most part, pretty wholesome – visiting museums and galleries, signing up for Spanish language school and finally getting back into the gym at Raw Madrid.

While I of course sampled the nightlife, the addition of routine into my days, with early morning gym trips and afternoon language classes, gave me a sense for living in the city rather than just travelling.

I wasn’t the only person to notice the lack of travelling. Realising that I would soon be relocating to a less accessible continent, Mama Jones made a pit stop in Madrid to give her big little boy a hug. We had a lovely couple of days, and when I added photos of our mini family reunion to Instagram one amigo back home saw an opportunity:

“Jonesy, can you confirm you’re still classifying being in Spain with your mum as ‘travelling’? I’m driving my mum to the station this afternoon – stay tuned for the blog”

Touché. I won’t mention his name but he lives in Portsmouth and has big goggly eyes.

mama j

Despite the cultural and climatic differences Madrid, more than any other capital city I have been to, felt like home: a more compact version of London with a familiar buzz and layout, plenty of green space and the welcome addition of consistent November sunshine.

So, with thanks for your patience and apologies for the lack of mileage, here is a quick highlight reel of my time in Madrid:

1. Watched Some Football 

My first stop in the city was the Santiago Bernabeu stadium – watching Real Madrid on home turf was a genuine bucket list item. The ground and the atmosphere were incredible but, as is often the case when Cristiano Ronaldo is present, the evening was all about him.

He was the best player on the pitch, but while his teammates revelled in a comfortable 3-0 victory, Ronaldo’s inability to score resulted in a series of hissy fits from the 32 year old, whose three children would struggle to throw a better tantrum. Despite his short temper the man is still a football genius and even watching him get increasingly disgruntled was strangely compelling.

2. Looked At Some Art

Madrid has an impressive collection of art galleries and museums, most of which offer free entry for a couple of hours at the end of the day.

The Museo Nacional Del Prado houses an enormous and impressive collection of masterpieces gathered by Spain’s 16th- and 17th-century monarchs. More to my taste was the Reina Sofia, Spain’s national museum of 20th century art, which houses Picasso’s master of all masterpieces – Guernica. 

This wall-filling monster, nearly 8 metres across, was painted after the Nazi bombing of Guernica to raise awareness and cash to fight the fascist Franco during the Spanish Civil War. It has since become a global symbol for peace and might be the most impressive and powerful piece of art I have ever seen. It certainly beats queuing for hours to squint at the Mona Lisa.

(I got in trouble for taking this photo 🙂 Full image and explanation here)

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3. Cycled Around Town

While cycling in Madrid is really just a series of near death experiences (another similarity to London) I found it an enjoyable way to get around the city. Madrid’s idea of a cycle path is to paint a bike symbol on the 6th lane of a superhighway, and drivers are not sympathetic to the cyclist’s plight, ducking between lanes and leaving a few centimetres of space if you’re lucky.

bike-lane-e1511485200887.jpgWith the odds stacked against them Madrid’s cyclists have fought back with a powerful trump card: the bikes-for-hire are electrified. Boris bikes have got nothing on these bad boys – stick them into assistance level three and the electric motor whizzes you around at high speed with minimal pedalling. The scheme is called Bicimad for a reason as they are completely mental and great fun – regular cycling will never be the same again.

4. Learnt Some Spanish

A key objective of my trip to Madrid was to “brush up” my Spanish before travelling to Central America. I had massively overstated my ability, and after 12 hours of high quality group lessons at Inhispania I felt like I’d taken a toothbrush to clean up the elephant enclosure. A shocking 19 years had elapsed since my GCSE Spanish results (A* obvs) and I had even forgotten how to say the number one (apparently it’s not ‘uno’). I was the worst student in the class but really enjoyed it and feel I will get there with (a lot of) practice.

Here is a picture of me with my classmates on my first day at school, looking like a 5 year old with learning difficulties – a fairly accurate description.

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5. Went Out And Stuff

There were many people I enjoyed nights out with in Madrid from the one and only El Coco (hi Jimmy) on arrival, to multiple jaunts with my language school buddies (hola amigos), to some very welcoming Madrileños I was introduced to (hi Alvaro and Iñaki) and another rendezvous with the Chilean I met in San Sebastien (hi Stifmeister). From tapas bars and sangria to salsa dancing, clubs and a very weird 7am underground afterparty I got a broad taste of the Madrid nightlife and absolutely loved it.

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Goodbye Europe, Hello Proper Travelling

My experience in Madrid has added to my belief that there is something uniquely enjoyable about ‘travelling’ in cities where most people are not on holiday. As I heard somewhere recently, “work isn’t supposed to be fun, that’s why they have to pay you for it” and after 2 months I have found not working to be pretty good, consistent fun. Doing what you want to do every day is fun; even sitting in a classroom is fun when you’ve chosen to be there.

With my time in Europe at an end it will be interesting to see how the fun, and the travelling, evolve. I have rented out my London room for the next 7 months meaning I am now a fully committed nomad. As I move on to tourist destinations where I am no longer in the minority, the proper travelling starts here.


Next stop: Costa Rica

What is The Gump Method

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Day 53 – The King of Bilbania 

Word of the day

Chartreuse

A pale colour between yellow and green, named after the French liqueur (and David Hirtz’s favourite alcoholic beverage) Chartreuse


Blog roll

The internet has agreed that there are approximately 2 million new blog posts written every day. Ridiculous. Let’s assume they’re all written in English, averaging 500 words each (totally made up number): that’s a billion words a day.

Since I never read more than a few thousand blog words in a day, some of which are my own, I am unqualified to judge the calibre of the blogging masses. I imagine every blog has at least one dedicated and delighted reader (its creator), but considering the amount of dross in the media, penned by people who are paid to write words, I can’t help but compare this high volume of blog output to the notorious ‘long drop’ toilets at Glastonbury. While many festival-goers drop something useful, namely toilet paper, into the gruesome cesspits and occasionally something really valuable is dropped, like a beloved piece of jewellery, they’re mostly just big piles of shit.

glasto-long drop

As 21st centurions we are lucky to have the knowledge and understanding of humanity accessible online, but with so much ‘content’ and so little time (even when travelling) we need to be more selective than ever about what we choose to read.

Whether you think my blog roll is full of crap or that I’m churning out nuggets of a different colour, my intention has always been to post only when I have something to say, rather than just blogging for the sake of it.


Bilbao

After a disappointing 24 hours in the Basque Country’s most populous city, with just a few hours of daylight remaining before an early morning departure, I had already decided not to write about Bilbao as I had nothing much to say.

Yes, the Guggenheim museum is an architectural masterpiece and there were a couple of decent Picassos knocking about elsewhere, but I’m no art critic and, after an extremely underwhelming hostel experience, I chose not to threaten anyone’s time or good mood with a negative post.

Guggenheim

Then an Albanian man called Vissi offered me a satsuma and it all changed.


Albania 

Before we get to Vissi I need to sketch out my first day in Bilbao’s Pil Pil Hostel, starting with its 12 bed, men-only dorm. When empty, the room had the aesthetic of a psychiatric ward. When full, it developed the fetid stench of a post-match locker room.

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Its inhabitants seemed to be suffering from a variety of ailments: snifflers and sneezers gave way to loud snorers and sleep-talkers as the lights eventually went off – there was no way I was getting my 8 hours and I hardly slept at all.

During a silent breakfast the following morning the assembled zombies munched on cereal and avoided eye contact. I realised how lucky I had been in Biarritz and San Sebastián, internally declaring my hostelling love affair to be over. Cause of death: sleep deprivation and smelly feet. RIP, which is what I hoped to be doing in my private Airbnb bedroom in Madrid.

With a couple of drunk guys talking and slamming locker doors at 2am the noise was really bothering me and one group of lads in particular was getting on my tits. Ever-present in the hostel, cooking and talking loudly in a language I couldn’t pinpoint, they came across as brash and mildly obnoxious. This hostile assessment was all about my lack of sleep and nothing to do with them.

Until mid-afternoon I stayed in the communal area reading, dreading my second night in the battery farm and wishing these lads would be quiet. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and, as I sat there minding my own business, one of them smiled and offered me a satsuma.

I gratefully accepted, ate it (and another two), exchanged names with Vissi then remembered I had a couple of beers in the fridge as we embarked on a silent game of bilingual Chinese Whispers using Google Translate. One of my opening gambits was intended as a mildly humorous compliment:

“You’re a good cook – that pork you made yesterday looked tastier than my pot noodle”

Whether it was the choice of words or the technology, this rapidly escalated into what I thought was a decision to cook together later that day.

I told Vissi I was going out but would be back in time for food, depending on when he wanted to eat. That message clearly didn’t get across as intended, he asked if I was hungry (answer: yes) and suggested that we go to the supermarket together.

I held the basket and Vissi led the charge, navigating the aisles instinctively. The first of our three arguments came at the checkout: he insisted on paying but I ripped away his banknote, replacing it with my own in the hand of the perplexed cashier. Fifteen love.

The second disagreement regarded who would carry the shopping. Vissi demanded that I give the bag to him, I initially declined, but he insisted and I gave way. Fifteen all.

This scene unfolded entirely through body language with smiles, frowns, head-shakes and finger-points serving our communicative purposes.

It wasn’t until we got back to the hostel and Vissi had carefully prepared the meal that I realised what was going on: he had already eaten lunch and was cooking just for me. What an absolute dreamboat.

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Vissi wasn’t travelling alone and desperate to make friends – he was staying in the hostel with his cousin Gazmend. He was just being nice.

Our third dispute was over the washing up. This time I refused to back down. While the argument battle ended 2-1 in my favour it was a Pyhhric victory as Vissi had already won the war.

We cooked another delicious meal as a three for dinner and communicated later that night in the universal language of Oktoberfest. I was sceptical at first but no one in Bilbao gave una mierda that it was November, the German four piece band absolutely smashed it and we had a brilliant night.

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Bilbania

I learnt a few things in the day I hung out with Vissi.

The first is cheesy but worth saying: whether it’s a pizza slice in Biarritz or a satsuma in Bilbao, small acts of kindness open doors and start friendships.

Vissi’s kindness and generosity were palpable in every movement he made, from the way he interacted with the supermarket checkout lady to sharing his last bit of pork chop at the dinner table. While language helps us to communicate, I learnt from Vissi that you can be a great lad without saying a word.

In an effort to bridge a language gap as wide as the Grand Canyon I also learnt a couple of Albanian words, namely faleminderit (thank you) and, of course, gëzuar (cheers).

I learnt that avocados, a brunch staple in New York and London, clearly haven’t made it to Albania yet, as Vissi and Gazmend prodded the creamy, chartreuse flesh with a mixture of curiosity and disgust.

The final, and by far most entertaining, thing that I learnt was that Vissi cannot do the YMCA. We were a few beers down and my one-handed directions clearly weren’t helping but it was so funny and endearing, the three of us watched it repeatedly that night and it gets better every time.

Despite all the beautiful holiday destinations in the world, for me it is nearly always the people you meet, rather than just the places themselves, that make experiences memorable. For that reason I will always remember Bilbao as Bilbania, and Vissi as its King.


Next stop: Madrid

What is The Gump Method

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