Day 146 – Plant Therapy – From Cocora Valley to San Pedro via Yoga

Word of the Day 

Dendrophilia: the love of trees. The term may sometimes refer to a paraphilia in which people are sexually attracted to or sexually aroused by trees.


Since starting my travels I have often oscillated from one extreme to another in an effort to derive some kind of balanced existence. This has taken many forms: periods of aggressive partying will be followed by abstinence and a renewed interest in the gym; after travelling with friends I have enjoyed some alone time (and vice versa); from the bustle of city life I’ve yearned for the tranquility of a beachside bungalow or a mountain retreat.

One of these switcharoos was required after the work I had put into my recent attempts at self-improvement. In search of relaxation and serenity my destination of choice was Salento, a breezy 9 hour bus ride through steep winding roads from Medellin.

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Salento sits in what is known as the Zona Cafetera, or Coffee Region, of Colombia, as its consistent year-round weather conditions are perfect for growing the stuff. It is a quiet little town surrounded by lush countryside which for me (and anyone old and British enough to remember) is reminiscent of the backdrop for Postman Pat, with hills and trees so green and perfect that they must be fake.

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Other than visiting one of its many coffee farms, which is a pleasant way to spend a few hours, you can also play Tejo, a Colombian sport/pastime (depending on who you ask, a bit like darts) which involves throwing heavy metal pucks at a gunpowder-filled target 20 metres away, creating a mini explosion on a successful impact.

My game, including a cameo performance from two visiting Profumos (hi Proffo and Steph) was, as usual, accompanied with a bottle of aguardiente, so we sensibly played the gringo version from half distance. Still, with the neighbours’ pucks whizzing past our ears at great speed we were relieved to emerge unscathed.

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Tree Love

The real draw that brings the backpackers to Salento is a tree – Colombia’s national tree – the wax palm, which is most prevalent in the nearby Cocora Valley.

I didn’t realise I was a dendrophile (not in the sexual sense, I might add) until recently but, on reflection, I have been fascinated and surrounded by majestic trees since my early childhood. Living in a house called Redwood, named after the giant conifer in our garden, I also loved the weeping willows of our neighbours, the towering oaks at my first school ‘Oakwood’ and the ancient yews of the nearby Kingly Vale (see below). The mystical power of trees is hard to put into words but Herman Hesse does a pretty amazing job here (thanks for the assist Julia).

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The wax palms of Cocora Valley are very different from all of the above but truly spectacular as these trees, sometimes growing as high as 60m, all trunk and no leaf, seem to have somehow outpaced evolution. With no obvious need to be so tall relative to one another or their neighbours they are really just showing off.

Often compared to the Truffula Trees in Dr Seuss’s The Lorax, their dimensions and general appearance are certainly surreal. With the perfect sunny day and a mountainous backdrop we couldn’t help but keep taking photos.

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Yoga Love

Returning to El Viajero in Salento after 6 hours of walking, a free yoga session put on twice a week by this excellent and great value hostel (shout out to my El Viajero amigos) was the perfect way to stretch out and wind down. Yoga, a traveller staple, has not played a huge part in my trip but I have enjoyed it when available, always feeling energised and motivated by the practice.

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The yoga sessions in Salento were hosted by Vladimir, an excellent instructor with an immediately warm and loving energy. He was spiritual in a genuine and unforced way, and sang beautifully at the end of each class.

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I felt somehow drawn to Vladimir and was not surprised to find out that he was a practicing shaman. After my recent ayahuasca experiences I hadn’t been planning on taking any more plant medicine, but they say the plants call you when you’re ready, and I had a strange feeling that I was supposed to meet Vladimir at this time. It turned out he was hosting a san pedro retreat on the only 2 days I had free before meeting friends, cementing my belief that the universe wanted me there.

San Pedro

San pedro is an Amazonian cactus, one of the three main ‘power plants’ along with ayahuasca and peyote. Albeit less potent than ayahuasca, san pedro is also a psychedelic, well known for its healing properties and its ability to rekindle people’s love and enthusiasm for life.

Not having any ailments to be healed, nor feeling short of enthusiasm or love for life, I perhaps didn’t need a san pedro retreat like some of the other participants, but I thought it would be an interesting experience, and it was.

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The ceremony, conducted entirely in Spanish for 12 people, started at 10pm and finished at 11am the next morning, without interruption. We drank, chewed and ate the san pedro, also known as ‘huachuma,’ throughout the night while sat around a bonfire getting increasingly ‘chumado’ while singing and chanting with the assistance of tribal drums, guitars, panpipes, rattles and various other instruments. It felt a lot less weird than it sounds. No photos were allowed during the ceremony but this was the aftermath.

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We took turns to pass around the Talking Stick (that’s my inaccurate translation from whatever the Spanish was) whereby each person got to hold a stick and speak to the group about anything on their mind. My statements in Spanish were short and jovial, as the huachuma only made me feel a little silly and spaced out, but for many of the people involved this was an extremely emotional coming of age. Most of them cried some combination of happy and sad tears, and left the following day as new people, rather like I had felt after my ayahuasca experience.

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Perhaps the language barrier softened the impact of the shaman’s words, but for me it was an unusual and entertaining night rather than a life-changer. Having said that, watching the sun rise from complete darkness behind the mountains was a beautiful sight that I will never forget, as was this goat doing yoga on the verandah.

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Next Stop: Carnaval de Barranquilla

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Day 113 – Medellin Part I – Mi Familia Su Familia

I have a lot to say about Medellin. Spending a few weeks in Colombia’s phoenix, formerly regarded as the world’s most dangerous city, I have, like many recent visitors, developed a strong sense of affection for Medellin and its people.

The city occupies a long, thin valley formed by two Andean mountain ridges. The valley’s steep sides ensure that everyone in Medellin has some kind of a view – up, down, or across. The city is not architecturally beautiful: imposing municipal buildings sit alongside soulless residential towers, with poorer residents occupying the higher slopes. However, while Medellin has no truly memorable landmarks, when viewed from a high vantage point on a sunny day the cityscape as a whole is iconic.

colombia-medellin-panoramic-wallpaperInternational visitors to Medellin are immediately greeted with this view as its major airport sits at a higher altitude to the south of the city. The drive down into Medellin is breathtaking, both as a result of the panoramic vista and the taxi drivers’ ridiculously aggressive downhill overtaking manoeuvres.

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Paisa Hospitality

The positive atmosphere in Medellin and the openness and hospitality of the ‘Paisas’ (Colombians of the Antioquia region) towards foreign visitors are immediately palpable.

Our first night started in an authentic salsa club – I say ‘authentic’ based on the fact that we were the only foreigners – but it seemed legit. Arriving late we were offered the only remaining table upstairs, away from the action. A couple of old guys saw this and demanded that we join their table in prime location next to the dancefloor. After plying us with aguardiente (“fiery water”) they introduced an equally steady flow of dance partners who were extremely patient and accommodating of our 6 left feet.

It was a great taste of what was to come. In a city which has only recently gone from global murder capital to the jewel in Colombia’s crown its people clearly love having fun and are proud of what they have collectively achieved, showing it off like proud parents.

Our New Colombian Familia

We met our Colombian-parents-in-waiting the following day, travelling to Itagui in the south of the city, where the hospitality levels went through the roof. Our affiliation with them was very loose – Walter and Patrick knew a Colombian guy back in New York who suggested we meet his parents in Medellin. Sure. Next thing we knew they had found us accommodation, sent a driver to collect us from the airport and invited us to what we thought was a light lunch on New Year’s Eve.

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From the moment we arrived in Itagui we were treated like long lost family members; within half an hour I had been offered the spare room for the duration of my stay in Medellin. After a delicious (and very typical) lunch of chicken soup and tree-tomato juice we were led outside by our new tour guides, walking down the hill to view Pablo Escobar’s grave (more on that in a separate post) before going on a magical mystery tour, riding Medellin’s immaculate subway and taking a round trip in a cable car over some of its hillside neighbourhoods.

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As dusk approached we suppressed a few yawns and started to regret a big night out on the 30th. Worried that we were peaking too soon for New Year’s Eve we suggested to our new Colombian dad, Gildardo, that we go for a couple of sharpeners while Eugenia (our new Colombian mum) went back home to pray.

We should have said our prayers as we proceeded to get hammered on aguardiente. Over the course of a three-legged bar crawl (there were three bars – we didn’t tie our legs together) we polished off an unknown quantity of the good stuff – every time we thought we were going home Colombian Papa ordered another ‘media’ (half bottle) despite being absolutely shitfaced. The more we drank, the more likely we were to be found dancing with any Colombian women that came near us (mostly in the 50+ category).

By the time we returned to Itagui our yawns had subsided; concerns about peaking too soon had been drowned in aguardiente and we were fully committed to seeing in the New Year with our new fam. We were led around like royal visitors and introduced to more family, friends and neighbours, always with a shot of tapa azul (“blue top”) to ease things along.

We weren’t quite sure how we’d got there but we went with the flow that night and loved it. Colombians regard New Year as a time to be spent with family and we couldn’t have experienced a more typically Paisan family New Year, including the obligatory handheld firework launch, which went surprisingly well for me.

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I have never been made to feel so welcome by people I have just met, and went back to visit my Colombian parents again a few days later, this time taking my real English dad. It’s not often you get to spend one-on-one father-son time and this was the start of a brilliant two and a half weeks together.

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As well as “mi casa su casa” it felt like “mi familia su familia” – they welcomed Jonesy senior as another member of the family before randomly taking us on a 40 minute drive to a roadside chorizo potato ball specialist.

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While our incredible welcome from this family was just one example it seems to be representative of Medellin and Paisas in general. The generosity and goodwill I have experienced in Medellin is unrivaled anywhere else.

From indescribable hostility 25 years ago to overwhelming hospitality today, the city has undergone a personality transplant. While the Paisa people are known throughout Colombia for their hospitality I can’t help thinking that Medellin’s current character is at least in part a backlash against its troubled past.

When we tentatively asked Eugenia about her memories of the bombs and murders during Pablo’s reign her face dropped and eyes glazed over as she said “Lo vivÍ” (“I lived it”). After the darkness of the Escobar days Medellin now has light, and its people are delighted to share it with the world.


Next Stop: Medellin Part II – Pablo Escobar

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Day 109 – Two Nights and No Days in Bogota

After saying goodbye to Andy and Jolie in Nicaragua I spent a whole 10 days travelling alone in Costa Rica, having to talk to strangers and make friends without anyone to hold my hand. Proud of this independence I quickly returned to my comfort zone in Bogota, meeting up with two good friends from New York: Walter and Patrick.

I love how quickly friendships can grow when you meet the right kind of people. It was only just over two years ago that I met Wally, Paddy and the rest of their family (they are 2 of 6 brothers, with no sisters) and immediately knew they were keepers. A year later I was invited to a brilliant 2016 Thanksgiving weekend at their family home in New Jersey, and another year on the three of us are ringing in the New Year in Colombia.

This photo of them on a boat has nothing to do with our time in Bogota, but they look cute and, as you will see below, it was slim pickings on my phone and camera.

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A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing?

Before I met up with the boys I had a few hours to get to know Bogota and, after 6 weeks in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, it felt a lot closer to home. Smooth roads, high rise buildings and a much more familiar temperature. I described its 15 degrees Celsius as “absolutely freezing” upon arrival and meant it – clearly it doesn’t take long to get used to ‘traveller temperatures’ in the mid to high 20s .

Despite its low latitude Bogota never gets much warmer (yes, that’s a weather chart below – knowledge is power) due to its ridiculous altitude. At 2,640m it is comfortably higher than any European ski resort, and a few times I became aware of my breathing as I involuntarily gulped for additional oxygen.

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Arriving in the early evening I had a quick walk around the old Candelaria district as night fell. Despite advice to exercise extreme caution after dark, and despite being offered cocaine approximately every 2 minutes, I did not feel under any pressure walking around town at night. Locals were happy and friendly, and there was a consistent police presence across the city with cars, motorbikes and the occasional segway positioned tactically on busy squares and corners.

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One thing I did keep seeing, moreso than in Central America, was locals staring at me with their mouths wide open. I’d claim it’s cos I’m so damn goodlookin, but in reality blonde haired travellers remain a novelty in a country where post-Pablo-era tourism is still relatively nascent. I’ve quickly learnt that the best way to deal with a 500 yard stare is a smile and a ‘hola’ which, 9 times out of 10, elicits a smile and a hola in return.

Aguardiente and Afterparties

While it had nothing to do with this follicular revelation, I made friends with a couple of young and extremely blonde Danish guys at the hostel, one of which looked like a miniature Thor. Jacob and Esben joined our nights out in Bogota, transforming an already quite foreign-looking group into a Scandinavian family holiday without mum. Sadly (for me) this seems to be the only photo of the four of us together.

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In Bogota’s ‘Zona T’ we followed the sound of music up some stairs before launching ourselves into a very lively club, causing double takes across the room as the Von Trapp family entered. Stood at the bar we noticed a few gringo hunters surreptitiously relocating a table before introducing themselves, along with their salsa and bachata skills.

Suddenly the music stopped as a fully decked out mariachi band serenaded a local birthday girl for what seemed like 20 songs. We exchanged confused but satisfied glances as the scene unfolded – despite having no idea what was going on we were loving it.

The night flew by in a blur of beer, rum and the local favourite – aguardiente. This drink, distilled in Colombia, for Colombia, has a subtle aniseed flavour, like sambuca but much more drinkable at only 29% ABV. The typical approach is to buy a half bottle (una media), which comes with a number of shot glasses to be shared among friends and strangers. Bottles are always served on their side on the bar – I have no idea why they do that but it’s a nice touch.

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Tour guides and websites will tell you that Bogota nightlife ends at 3am but, while the majority of clubs do shut down at that time, there were plenty of late night spots to choose from (some more dubious than others) as we meandered our way to another club. Later, as the sun was starting to rise, we milled around on the pavement outside and were surprised to hear talk of various house parties, and even more surprised that we were invited.

It didn’t take long to realise that the people of Bogota were very happy to have us there. Locals would approach us and introduce themselves as if it was completely natural (which it is). Everyone wanted to chat, hear what we thought about their country and integrate us into their groups. In complete contrast to the territorial approach you see from men in most countries, the guys were just as amiable as the girls.

We made our way to a house party somewhere on the edge of town which got very weird but was a lot of fun, ending sometime around 9am. This photo pretty much covers it.

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Jacob and Esben were completely spaced out as we ushered them into a taxi and made our way back towards the hostel in broad daylight, singing our hearts out to classic rock and Britpop songs to the driver who hated us.

He wasn’t the only one who felt that way, as we then had a brief run in with a drug addict who chased us up the street with a knife (much more hilarious and less scary than it sounds). When the coast was clear and we’d stopped giggling we decided it was best to let sleeping dogs lie.

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As Bogota made its way to work we finally decided enough was enough, had breakfast and went to bed, satisfied with a solid first night in Colombia.

I would write about our second night, but we did almost exactly the same again with the addition of Patrick and the omission of a knife-wielding drug addict. While we did manage to get to the Botero museum (which was amazing) just before nightfall, our time in Bogota was largely nocturnal.

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Bogota doesn’t get much hype as a travel destination relative to the other big Colombian cities, but does have a good reputation for nightlife. However, despite our warm reception from the locals, Bogota’s cold weather is its Achilles heel, so after two great nights and no days in Colombia’s capital we made our way to Medellin – the city of eternal spring.


Next stop: Medellin, Antioquia, Colombia

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Day 105 – A Christmas Gift from Santa (Teresa)

I’ve always wondered why people take so much pleasure in hitting certain numerical milestones – what is it about the number 100, or any round number, that gets us excited? My 100th day passed by completely unnoticed, but now does seem as good a time as any to take stock of progress. So, how am I doing?

Well for starters, my travels in Central America have been very smooth. No yellow fever, no food poisoning, no aggro from locals or travellers, no muggings at gunpoint, no dodgy moments at all really (apart from that $5 bus ticket I paid for 3 times, which was funny). I don’t believe in tempting fate, but feel free to touch wood on my behalf (how is your mum?). I’ve spent a bit more cash than intended, but that was always going to happen.

True fans of the Gump Method (hi Mum, hi Dad, hi Rebecca) will remember the promise I made to myself back on Day 12; I wanted to ‘get good at’ Spanish, Surfing and Salsa – the three S’s. I concede that these are not the most noble of objectives – I’m not building any wells or teaching English to orphans – but for now I’m doing exactly what I want to do, and it’s great. 

Unfortunately, after my last post, 97 days into not working and travelling in mostly Spanish speaking, surfable countries I was, in all honesty, having a 4th S – a Shocker. Marks out of ten would have been: Spanish 2/10, surfing 3/10, salsa 0/10. Must try harder. 

Santa Teresa 

Keen to make meaningful progress in at least one area I made my way to Santa Teresa, a surf Mecca on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast with consistent, year round waves and a distinctly higher than average ratio of beautiful people riding around on quad bikes.

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Athletic physiques, sun-kissed bodies, long hair (especially on the men) and a LOT of tattoos were the first things I noticed on arrival. Occupying, at best, one of those four categories I knew I would have my work cut out to fit in, but I arrived with a steely determination and some factor 50 with one objective in mind: surfing.

After an epic journey south from Nicaragua involving 8 public buses and a ferry in one 24 hour period, I arrived in a hot and dusty Santa Teresa in the week of Christmas. As a festive treat I decided to splash out, spending $30 per night on a private room at Tranquilo Backpackers; rock and roll.

iguana.jpgSadly when I rocked up I was met by an extremely tranquilo unoccupied building: I had booked 6 nights in a hostel that had closed 3 months earlier. Shiiiiiit. Thankfully Booking.com resolved the situation quickly, so all was well as I settled in at a new hostel with a friendly local iguana, before enjoying my first beachfront yoga session, assisted by a local pooch who had a few moves of his own (and a wandering right paw).

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Pura Vida

Everywhere in Costa Rica locals use the term ‘Pura Vida.’ The direct translation is ‘pure life’ but they seem to apply it to anything from ‘hello’ to ‘goodbye’ to ‘cheers’ to ‘isn’t this great!’ At first I found it annoying, but after a week in Santa Teresa I finally got the idea.

At first glance Santa Teresa is little more than a friendly and chilled out surf town, but to fully understand its Pura Vida lifestyle you need to experience another 3 S’s – sunrise, sunset and surfing.

As the clock approaches 6am the beach is quiet but surfers are guaranteed to be making the most of the glassy, warm waters as the sun rises and the yogis complete their early morning practice. It is a beautiful, cleansing and peaceful time to be alive (disclaimer: photo below is not actually sunrise but pretty much captures it).

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The true essence of Santa Teresa can only be experienced at sunset. Every evening, without fail, what feels like the whole town makes its way to the beach as the sun goes down. Families and friends, locals and travellers all socialise around huge bonfires as incredible sunsets illuminate the silhouettes of surfers catching the final waves of the day. Its simplicity and purity can only be understood first hand.

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Surf (and Darts) Club

While I must give a shout out to the amazing (sexycute) crew at La Posada Hostel, with whom I shared much of my leisure and surf time, the story I want to tell here starts and ends with an Italian surfing legend called David.

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David followed his passion for surfing to Santa Teresa 18 years ago when it was barely more than a dirt track with 3 or 4 cars passing through daily. He bought up some land (which has since gone up in value by around 20x), fell in love with a lovely Canadian woman (hi Jessica) and proposed to her in their first week together (lad).

They now have 2 great kids, loads of friends, a surf shop, some lovely rental accommodation (Check out Rio Carmen Rooms), surfing on the doorstep and more Pura Vida than you could imagine.

I approached David’s surf shop, “The Shit Hole” (the name came to him in a dream) looking for a rental board and a lesson. What I did not expect from this visit was great friends, significant improvements in both my Spanish and my surfing, membership of Darts Club every day after sunset, and even an invite to Christmas dinner.

But first, the surfing. If I was going to break the Rules (surf instructors must have neck length hair, deep suntans and washboard abs), I might as well break them in style. I’m guessing David’s abs were last seen sometime in the 20th century (sorry David if that’s inaccurate), and as he donned a hat with a chin strap to keep his face out of the sun, he did not look like your typical surf dude with attitude.

Appearances can of course be deceiving, as David was undoubtedly the coolest (and most effective) surf instructor I’d ever had. When he wasn’t tiptoeing up and down his longboard he was giving me great tips and advice, helping me to catch some decent sized waves properly for the first time.

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I had been waiting for something to click and, in Santa Teresa, surfing day-in-day-out for hours on end it finally happened. Rather than sitting there thinking about all the technical points I had to remember – wave direction, board position, when to paddle, when to pop up – at some point I stopped thinking and just did it, which is when it started to work.

To be clear, I am still a crap surfer on an 8 foot 6 inch board, but after a few days in Santa Teresa I was finally getting there, catching big, green waves and riding them laterally (rather than in a straight line towards the beach). It was an incredible feeling.

(Another disclaimer: the photo below is not of me; I was somewhere nearby, probably underwater).

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Santa’s Gift

Surfing on Christmas Day in Santa Teresa was yet another lifetime highlight which I will never forget. After a couple of days spent out of the water due to a big swell, the waves were still pretty huge and I probably shouldn’t have been out there, but I was determined to make the most of my remaining time before an early morning Boxing Day departure.

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While I enjoyed every minute of it, I had a really tough day. After catching a couple of early waves I spent most of the morning and afternoon in the ‘washing machine.’ As the sun descended on my final evening session I gave my camera to a friend in the vain hope (both senses of the word vain) of capturing some shots of me actually surfing before I left (spoiler alert: she didn’t get any).

I don’t know if it was the pressure of it being my last day, or an awareness that the camera was rolling, but I got the crap kicked out of me more in that half hour period than in the whole previous week.

While my time in the water might have looked unpleasant to an observer, there is a weird sense of enjoyment in getting thrown around like a lottery ball by the natural forces of sea and moon. Still, after about 15 or 20 minutes of constant battering the adrenaline wears off and you just want a hug.

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Desperate to catch one last Christmas wave I finally found a long enough break in the sets to make my way to the calmer water outside, straddled my board, looked to the horizon and prayed to the Surf Gods:

“Dear Surf Gods, I know I haven’t always been your greatest disciple, but you have really taught me a lesson in the last half hour and I would be so, so grateful if you could let me ride one last wave in to the beach. I don’t care about photos or videos, I don’t want anyone to see – this is just between you and me.”

Less than two minutes later a big set came in. I saw that the second wave was a ‘left’ (easier for me) and paddled like crazy as I felt the board lifting up behind me. I took off and immediately turned the board left, saw a load of whitewater (I had misread the wave, which was actually breaking to the right), did a big heel-side turn, rode it along the shoulder and, as per my request, surfed it casually all the way back to the beach. It was the perfect Christmas present – thanks Santa (Teresa).

As I eked out the last bit of energy from the wave I saw David and the gang waving from the beach. Proud of what was definitely my best ever wave I did a little salute, before realising that they weren’t celebrating my success but were frantically trying to signal the rocks immediately ahead of me.

I jumped off just in time, averting a couple of hundred dollars of board damage, at which point I simultaneously thanked the Surf Gods and apologised to them for showing off. Pride comes before a fall, but I still couldn’t wipe the smile from my face.

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I followed up my best ever wave with our daily game of ‘darts cricket’ back at the Shit Hole while listening to Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and other old favourites. With the only shared language of this international Darts Club (hi Luca and Ezekiel) being Spanish I also finally made some progress in that area (thanks also to Mayla and Juana, mí profesoras de la ‘playsha’).

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The 25th ended with a huge, international Christmas dinner at David and Jessica’s house with around 30 guests, all of whom brought a dish from their own country (I made shepherds pie). The fact that they annually invite so many people into their family home on Christmas Day speaks volumes about these people and, for me, is Pura Vida on toast. Friends, family, beach, sunshine, surfing, food, drink and fun.

It was a brilliant finale to a wonderful day and week. Big thanks to David, Jessica, their family and friends, Darts Club, the La Posada Hostel crew and all the other wonderful people I met in Santa Teresa. I will be back.

Pura Vida.

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Day 97 – Canyoning, Surfing and Turtles – the good, the bad and the ugly

After eating volcano for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the first few weeks in Central America I was relieved as we headed to lower altitudes. First on the agenda was a trip to Somoto, in the far north of Nicaragua, just a few kilometres from the border with Honduras.

I haven’t yet mentioned the poverty in Nicaragua, but the further we travelled from the main cities, the more evident it became. In the north the ratio of horse-drawn carts to cars was noticeably higher, and the quality of housing deteriorated significantly. We were shocked to see our second dead horse of the trip, in a crumpled heap at the side of the road, seemingly left for the vultures to clear up.

Our family-run accommodation in Somoto was rustic – they had a large selection of poultry on site which was killed and plucked on demand depending on our dinner orders. It was the closest I’ve been to my food and, being rather squeamish for a grown man, I found it a bit of a mental struggle as I tucked into a grilled chicken I had made eye contact with a few hours earlier.

On a lighter note, the chickens spared for egg-laying duties roamed free with the geese and turkeys, climbing up a tree whenever they felt like a nap.

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The Good – Somoto’s Canyoning Cooperative

The main attraction of Somoto is a deep canyon, ‘discovered’ in 2004 by European scientists but known to the indigenous people for millennia as La Estrechura (“the narrow”), and originally formed somewhere between 5 and 13 million years ago.

As a way of sharing the economic benefit of their natural phenomenon, the local communities in Somoto formed a cooperative, distributing the guiding duties evenly between people from the various local villages. In an area with so much poverty this can only be a good thing.

We climbed, swam and jumped our way down the river which runs through the canyon. Despite it being dry season with lower than average water levels the adrenaline flowed as we jumped into the water from a 12m ledge. I didn’t get any photos of that but here are some towers made from rocks. You’re welcome.

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The Bad – My Surfing Abilty

After Somoto we made our way to the Pacific coast of Nicaragua to San Juan del Sur (SJDS), a surfing town well known for its party scene and especially Sunday Funday – an all day ‘pool crawl’ where participants travel between three different pool parties getting increasingly twatted. In a country that is generally cheap for travellers I was impressed by the entrepreneurial instincts of whoever came up with this concept, which essentially involves charging people $40 for a t-shirt. After going too hard on the Saturday night we never made it to Sunday Funday, but this is apparently what it looks like.

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By the time we caught up with the revellers later that night on the beach, the well-behaved Fundayers in the photo above had transformed into swathes of staggering zombies, high on a cocktail of rum, vodka and various other substances unknown, except for the Aussie couple who happily informed us they were on acid as they whirled in and out like a pair of Tasmanian devils.

After making limited progress in the South of France and Spain I was excited to try some surfing in the warm Pacific waters of Central America. With a range of surf spots and consistent-but-not-too-scary waves, SJDS is a good place for beginner surfers, so I grabbed the longest non-foamy board I could find and got amongst it.

While I was able to catch a decent number of ‘green waves,’ the best of my (inauspicious) surfing career thus far, I was still a way off from really getting the hang of it, riding them in a straight line towards the beach, unable to really turn the board at speed. We didn’t get any photos of me surfing, but my efforts were broadly as successful as Andy’s attempts at a yoga headstand.

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It was clearly time for a lesson. I followed our Rule Number One of Surf Club, which was to find a deeply tanned instructor with hair to chin level or below. Tony was my 22 year old mentor; he gave me some useful tips on technique and, crucially, how to read waves, but seemingly to no avail as my abilities deteriorated – the conditions were sub-par, but so was my surfing.

As the waves got bigger and the wind blew harder I ate an increasing number of ‘salt sandwiches,’ spending a few precious seconds on the board before Mother Nature sent me cartwheeling underwater. Like a trainee pilot amassing flying hours I hoped that my perseverance would eventually pay dividends, but after another 4 days in the water it just wasn’t happening. On the plus side, we did some excellent synchronised jumping.

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More Good – Turtle Hatching

A few miles down the road from SJDS is Playa Hermosa, an epic, windswept and largely deserted beach that stretches as far as the eye can see towards Costa Rica. On the first night I spent in the Playa Hermosa Ecolodge I was one of only two hotel guests, sharing an incredible view of a clearly illuminated Milky Way with only the geckos, turtles, and a German bloke called David.

The Ecolodge is active in its protection of the turtles that lay their eggs on the local beaches, taking some eggs for safe keeping and hatching before releasing the baby turtles back into the sea.

P1000245 (1)We watched one of these releases, as the lucky little turtles were treated to a beautiful sunset on their first ever swim in the Pacific Ocean.

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The Ugly – Turtle Soup 

In Popoyo, another surf spot to the north of SJDS, I witnessed what would have been one of the most beautiful natural sights I had ever seen, had it not been ruined by a local egg thief. Reclining in a beachfront hammock I noticed a stir and followed a few people down towards the shore, where a large female turtle was struggling up the beach with a full belly. As the fascinating scene unfolded we kept our distance as she dragged herself slowly along the sandbank.

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A local guy was with us, watching intently as she reached her chosen destination and started digging a deep hole. I naively assumed he was there to ensure that none of us disturbed the turtle with our photography efforts, but it soon became apparent that he had a more sinister motive: his breakfast.

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Accepting the sad reality of what was about to happen I made my way back to the hostel; I didn’t want to witness the rest of the proceedings. A German couple were less acquiescent, challenging the man as he picked up the turtle and moved it down the beach.

Their valiant effort was most likely in vain as they reburied 8 of the 60 or so eggs that she laid in a different hole. The man disappeared with the remainder in his t-shirt-basket, leaving a distressed turtle flapping away, trying to refill a non-existent hole.

Perhaps I imagined the sad expression on her face, but the turtle looked genuinely dejected as she eventually made her way back down into the sea, concluding a sad chapter for both turtles and humans.

Maybe this man had a starving family to feed; maybe he was unaware of the turtle’s protected status. We consoled ourselves with the fact that there are many successful conservation efforts going on throughout Nicaragua, and hoped that this was an exception rather than the norm.


Next Stop: Christmas in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica

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Day 83 – Amateur Hour in Nicaragua

Words of the Day

Caldera: A large cauldron-like depression that forms following the evacuation of a magma chamber

Camping: (Informal) The act of attaching a bed sheet(s) to the side(s) of a bunk bed in a hostel dorm room to provide privacy for a couple partaking in sexual activities on the bottom bunk


During 5 days of intrepid solo exploring in Costa Rica I had a number of close encounters with beautiful wild animals, but far fewer interactions with the domesticated species at the top of the food chain: homo sapiens.

Staying in hostels I met plenty of travellers, struck up conversations and passed the time but didn’t meet anyone particularly engaging (I’m sure they all felt the same about me). Ultimately I decided to cut my losses, abandoning all friend-making efforts to focus on relaxing and reading.

I enjoyed the ‘me time’ and read a couple of great books but knew that this situation couldn’t last; instead of late nights at the bar, socialising with other travellers, I was choosing early nights in the bottom bunk (not camping, like a couple of Dutch backpackers that alerted me to the term) with only my Kindle for company – this did not feel like my natural habitat.

Wondering where I might go to find like-minded people, Whatsapp provided the answer as a familiar individual dropped a pin a mere 293km and a lot more than 5 hours and 17 minutes away, over the border in Nicaragua.

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Rather than going travelling to “find myself,” within 5 days of departing I’d found Andy, my best mate from school, who was in Nicaragua for 3 weeks with his girlfriend Jolie.

Delighted to have two of my favourite people as potential travel buddies, we arranged to meet up in the Laguna de Apoyo the following day. After accusing me of not being a proper traveller in Madrid, Andy was now an accessory to the crime.

I’ll take a second to talk about these two legends as I can’t think of many couples who would allow a mate to gatecrash their romantic getaway. Two weeks into our family holiday (I am the son and they are my parents) they got a little more of me than they bargained for, but it’s been amazing and we’ve had a lot of fun; far too much fun for one blog post so I will start at the beginning and see how far I get.

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Amateurlogue

Actually I will start before the beginning, due to noteworthy events which pre-dated the rendezvous with my new travel companions. Rather than calling it a prologue, this is the ‘amateurlogue’ for reasons that will become apparent.

I’m sure there are many more challenging border crossings in the world but there was a lot of walking, queuing and 4 separate cash payments (exit, entry, tax and admin fees) between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Every time someone handed me a piece of paper I handed over some more cash and eventually I got through.

On the Nicaraguan side things felt raw and undeveloped against the relatively polished Costa Rica. Nicaragua is materially cheaper than its neighbour but I immediately wiped out any early cost savings by paying for the same bus ticket three times.

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As I approached the famous ‘chicken buses’ (which are re-purposed American yellow school buses, often populated with chickens as well as people) a benevolent stranger helped me with my bag, sold me what turned out to be a fake $5 ticket and then said, in Spanish, “you have the ticket but what about me and my family?” I gave him a well-deserved extra dollar – if you’re going to rob someone, do it in style.

The second ticket salesman seemed legit as he took my original stub, pointed out it was fake (to be fair it referenced a completely different route on a different day), renounced his predecessor as a “bandido” and took another $5 off me for my new ticket. Strike two.

A third man approached me half an hour into the journey wearing a very official looking yellow t-shirt with words on it. I took a pre-emptive strike saying “please don’t ask me for $5” but that is exactly what he did. The ticket I showed him was apparently the wrong one or had ceased to be valid, and my entreaties were to no avail.

I couldn’t help but find it entertaining, which was a view shared by the local passengers who made no effort to conceal their mirth. We bonded over my misfortune and they kindly shared their selection of local snacks to soften the blow.

Laguna de Apoyo

Finally, after a 10 hour journey, I made it to my destination and immediately fell in love with Laguna de Apoyo, an idyllic freshwater lake formed in the caldera of an extinct volcano.

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Andy and Jolie (henceforth ‘Anjolie’) were waiting there patiently at the Beach Club with their new friend Drew and we got straight to work, polishing off a few local beers and a bottle of whisky as the sun went down. In search of some nightlife we stumbled across Quiz Night at a lively local hostel El Paradiso, argued over our team name (“Colombia my face”) and proceeded to drink a lot of rum.

Despite being the oldest people there by a comfortable margin we were by far the most fun (or the most annoying, depending on your perspective). One of the travelling volunteers who was hosting quiz night took particular exception to our mischievous ways and repeatedly admonished us. Being shushed by a 21 year old in a vest and board shorts only encouraged us and the poor guy’s agitation increased in line with our inebriation.

Surprisingly we did not trouble the scorers in the quiz but did make a lot of friends and got the party started. A dip in the lake ensued, which was a tepid 28 degrees even in the middle of the night. As I stared upwards from a pontoon at a mesmerizing, perfectly clear night sky I saw a few shooting stars and felt, for the first time in a while, “this is what it’s all about.”


Next Stop: Omatepe, Nicaragua  

What is The Gump Method

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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.

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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 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.

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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.

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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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Day 50 – San Sebastián

Whether Chaucer or someone else coined it, the proverb Time and tide wait for no man has been around for hundreds of years. Raising my bat to celebrate a shunemployed half century I now understand it better than ever.

Managing a travel day, like managing a workday, is all about prioritisation. The difference is that at work there is usually a clear winner for what you should be doing.  There is no “should” when travelling; there is only “do and do not” (thanks Yoda) and options are limitless.

While I’m enjoying my freedom it’s easy to get sidetracked; time is only on your side if you force it to be. After 4 days of pancake-flat water at a renowned surf spot I’ve realised there’s not much I can do about the tide.


Time 

Shunning the structure of the working week I anticipated an abundance of ‘me time;’ I would be gaining 40 plus hours each week, surely resulting in time aplenty for my stated travel objectives and other favoured but neglected pastimes such as reading, sitting and Netflix.

That assumption proved naive:

  1. A pleasant but unforeseen effect of publicising my shunemployment was a succession of coffees, lunches and nights out. It was brilliant catching up with so many friends, some of which I hadn’t seen in years, but it’s no surprise that retirees wonder how they ever had time to work.
  2. Time evaporates when travelling. Days not filled with activities are spent researching destinations, arranging transport and accommodation. Personal time can be hard to come by, especially when sharing a bedroom with 11 people.
  3. To top if off I’ve been writing this blog which takes forever. I just hope someone out there appreciates the lack of spelling misteaks.

As a result my first 50 days have whizzed by, I’m still only 71% of the way through Sapiens and haven’t watched a single minute of Stranger Things 2.


Tide

With the Biarritz surf scene approaching its annual low tide I made the short trip across the border to San Sebastián, or Donostia to the Basque Country locals. Famed for its culinary scene, San Seb boasts more Michelin stars per capita than any other European city, an almost unmatched selection of pintxo (tapas) bars and a surf season that extends a couple of weeks beyond its French neighbour.

I rocked up at the Etxea Surf Hostel next to San Seb’s premier surf spot, Zurriola Beach, increasingly conscious of the need to spend my time on things I actually want to do, like surfing. In the lounge area an American guy was freestyling on the guitar. He was a strong musician but a dubious lyricist:

I smoked a bunch of joints, in the morning and the night,

I smoked so many joints, most I’d had in my life. 

Listening to Johnny Hash did not feature anywhere on my to do list so, in line with my new views on time management, I left him to it.

The hostel turned out to be incredibly social with a great atmosphere. While this photo taken on night one by a local bike saddle suggests I was escorting my nieces and nephews to the nearest skate park, the age range in the hostel turned out to be quite broad.

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Despite a few travellers in their 30’s I was clearly the oldest guest until the perfectly named and excellent human being Jerry Valentine spared me that honour.

Jerry is a very young 55 year old retiree from New Jersey who spends his time either chasing waves or saving lives at Avalon beach on America’s Jersey Shore. Give him a high five from me if you see him next summer.

Avalon swimmers will feel extra safe with Crawford, who lifeguards at the same beach, on duty. Stacked like shelves, the de facto fourth Hemsworth brother combines with Jerry, 35 years his senior, to form an unlikely but perfectly balanced travel partnership.

Last but not least is Sebastien – Chile’s answer to Steve Stifler and my first official new BFF – a surfer, skateboarder and future Warren Buffett. Being hilarious in a second language is a skill I do not possess but value highly and the Stifmeister has it in abundance.

I’ll let you guess who is who in the photos below.

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Rather than maximising personal time I took the opportunity to hang out with this crew, which swelled and ebbed as others rolled in and out of town. We were not collecting Michelin stars but enjoyed the rest of what San Sebastián has to offer.

We walked everywhere, taking in the beautiful scenery both in the city and its surrounding hills. We drank Spanish wine, local cider and monster G&Ts. We think we enjoyed but don’t really remember a couple of 5am finishes at the entertaining but creepy dabadaba.

Dabadaba

One thing we did not do a lot of was surfing. One surfable day out of five was a poor return but I was encouraged to catch a couple of clean waves; a glimmer of hope.

Not surfing freed up plenty of time to live like locals, eating delicious and reasonably priced pintxos. To contextualise the brilliance of this city may I introduce Bar Sport.

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If you were to put Bar Sport on Old Street roundabout in London it would contain a selection of strippers and people wanting to knock you out. In San Seb it’s a fine culinary establishment serving exquisite pintxos while Real Madrid entertain on TV.

(Vegans please look away now)

Goat cheese with jamon and chutney, crabmeat vol-au-vent, pig trotter and mushroom fritter, sirloin steak with piquito peppers, foie gras on toast, king prawns on a stick, squid stuffed with crab and two glasses of Rioja for €25.

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It was absolutely banging; I can only imagine the culinary wonders available in this city for those willing to spend serious euros.

Despite the lack of surf in San Seb there was plenty to do (and eat) over 5 days and I would highly recommend a visit. Whether you have time and cash to burn or just want to escape for the weekend on a tight budget, a trip to San Sebastián is both time and money well spent.


Next stop: Bilbao

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Day 45 – Ridin Solo

Word of the day

Joie-de-vivre: exuberant enjoyment of life (French)


Along with the film Notting Hill and red cherry Muller fruit corners I classify Ridin Solo by Jason Derulo as one of my guilty pleasures in life. Few would argue it’s a classic but what Jason lacks in songwriting ability he more than makes up for with autotuning and joie-de-vivre. I am particularly fond of listening to Ridin Solo in the all too familiar “Jonesy’s back” post break-up phase, but did not expect to be humming it on my first night in Biarritz.

(Jason has kindly offered to provide the backing music as you read the rest of this post)

My first six weeks of freedom hadn’t been too testing; jumping from place to place in Germany and France I was either travelling with friends or visiting them in their home venues for guaranteed fun and ready made social circles.

A one man trip to the south of France was hardly a major challenge but it was a step up; for the first time I was actually backpacking and didn’t know anyone in my destination. I would either have to make some friends or find some of Jason’s joie-de-vivre in my own company – I’d left Pieter the white tiger in London.

I rocked up at the Biarritz Surf Hostel with a spring in my step expecting to be fist-bumped by some radical bro; the French version of Brad from Neighbours. Instead I was greeted by a note on the door detailing the entry code and my sleeping arrangements:

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I would be staying in the delightfully named ‘Brown Room.’ Perhaps they’d heard about my surfing ability and were predicting the future colour of my underpants.

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There was an eerie silence as I walked up the stairs and realised the building was deserted. On reflection perhaps Halloween and surfing weren’t quite the happy bedfellows I’d imagined when booking my flights.

Recalling my recent epoophanies I felt reassured; ayahuasca clearly wanted me to catch up on some admin so I replied to a few emails and bought travel insurance.

I decided to leave in search of sustenance and bumped into a friendly group of Brits eating dinner in the kitchen downstairs. As Michael Jackson’s You Are Not Alone replaced Jason Derulo in my head I felt uncharacteristically self-conscious chatting to them.

Are you travelling alone? Yep

Are you a good surfer? Nope

What do you do for work? Nothing

What did you do before nothing? Umm finance, investment stuff

Oh so you were an investment banker? Nooooo

Despite this unpromising introduction they kindly offered me a slice of pizza. I politely declined; I was on a solo joie-de-vivre mission and marched into town, taking my Kindle just in case.

Thursday night in Biarritz was lively but after tip-toeing in and out of a couple of bars it felt a little too French; my conversational skills weren’t up to the challenge so I decided to keep my powder dry. Dinner for one please Monsieur.

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I made a single glass of wine last an eternity before walking back to the hostel, slightly disappointed in myself but looking forward to an episode of Narcos and a good night’s sleep.

When I returned the British foursome’s pizzas had been replaced with a deck of cards; they were playing drinking games and ploughing into their remaining alcohol supplies. They again invited me to join and this time I gratefully accepted, downing a welcome shot of rum. God Save The Queen.

My solo excursion had been underwhelming but thanks to these benevolent strangers I rediscovered my joie-de-vivre and had a really fun evening.

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The fun continued as they heroically went out to a local club until 4am while I went to bed, happy with my first day as a lone ranger.

The next day I was invited to join their morning surfing excursion. I was even more grateful for the companionship as I was repeatedly battered by large waves, barely getting onto a knee let alone two feet. I have a long way to go before achieving my ‘Get Good At Surfing’ goal. My attempts at volleyball were marginally more successful.

Rosie, James, Flo and Jos were a lovely group; entertaining, cheerful (we did our serious faces in the shot below to look professional), interesting and all doing jobs that make the world a better place. They dropped me back at base before heading off to the airport. I waved them off, grateful to have been taken under their collective wing.

Surfing Serious.jpg


Next stop: San Sebastian (Spain)

What is The Gump Method

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