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 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 87 – Volcanoes, Four Ways (Parts III and IV)

In our debrief after the tortuous experience of ascending Las Maderas we realised that the primary source of our disappointment was the lack of any discernible reward at the summit. Had there been something to do or see up there it could have been very different, but climbing a volcano just for the sake of it wasn’t really my idea of fun.

While I had no interest in re-climbing Las Maderas, or climbing any other volcanoes for that matter, that is exactly what we did in the following days, but with much better outcomes. Our subsequent ascents were all undertaken with a specific purpose in mind and, as a result, were much more enjoyable.

First up was a walk to a waterfall about an hour and a quarter of the way up. With our legs still burning from the previous day’s exertions it was a struggle, but the huge blue butterflies flapping alongside us were a source of encouragement as we cut through a majestic gorge.

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The waterfall was just reward for the effort of climbing up, and we were grateful to be bathing in the cold, refreshing cascade, rather than the muddy swamp of the previous day.

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Part III – Partying on a Volcano

Our volcano-based activities took a festive turn the next time we decided to trek up. We went to a ‘pizza party’ at the very cool and organic eco-hostel Zopilote where we were told about another party happening at a secret location on the volcano the following night, in celebration of the coming supermoon.

We packed our bags for the 5.30pm group hike up the volcano but got to the meeting point late and missed the departure by a few minutes. With the next group not ascending until three hours later we returned to our hostel to engage in our favourite pastime – word games. A few rounds of Boggle and Bananagrams were washed down with half a bottle of rum, at which point Andy and I decided we would much rather stay put than climb up that ******* volcano in the dark.

Jolie, to her credit, argued that we could play Boggle anywhere in the world, but we were not anywhere in the world – we were in Nicaragua, about to miss a supermoon party on a volcano. Still not convinced, we compromised by deciding our fate on the toss of a coin. Chance spoke in Jolie’s favour and we made our way up with the 8.30pm group, pumping out tunes on our portable speaker and, for once, enjoying the walk.

As we approached the party we could hear the beats growing louder, and when we finally arrived at the large wooden structure, lit up by the enormous supermoon, we knew immediately that we had made the right decision.

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With another 100 or so people that had made the trek up we partied all night around the blazing bonfire and had an amazing time.

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As the sun rose it illuminated an incredible backdrop, down the valley and across to Ometepe’s other volcano; it was another one of those magical moments of clarity where everything in the universe seemed perfectly aligned.

Part IV – Volcano-boarding

Departing Ometepe a day later than planned, to get over our volcano-party hangovers, we made our way to León in the north of Nicaragua for my birthday festivities. With our faith in volcano-based activities restored we signed up to volcano-boarding on a small, freshly-formed (‘fresh’ in that it first appeared in 1850), active and aptly named volcano Cerro Negro (‘black hill’).

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On a gusty 45 minute hike up we struggled to stay upright with our boards strapped to our backs, but the walk was again worth it with 360 degree views of Nicaragua’s diverse landscape stretching out for miles in every direction.

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The volcano-boarding itself was enjoyable but not quite the adrenaline rush we had expected, at least in part due to our cautious approach and generous application of the brakes (our heels) on the way down. Fearful of the stories we had heard about broken arms and other such injuries, we later found out that a guy in another group that day had been hospitalised, requiring a lot of work to remove volcanic grit from his face.

Happy to be physically intact as our volcano adventures finally came to an end, we staged a spontaneous karaoke session in the minibus back and sang our hearts out to the delight of our guide and bewilderment of the many local Nicaraguans who heard us along the way. Boggle, Bananagrams, a delicious Polish-Sri Lankan fusion dinner and a salsa club followed to round off an excellent birthday celebration.

After an inauspicious start I will look back fondly to the time we spent on Nicaraguan volcanoes. It is often said that there is no success without sacrifice, and on at least 3 of our 4 trips up their treacherous slopes the reward was absolutely worth the effort. Maybe as time passes I will change my views on our first ascent of Las Maderas, but for now I’m just delighted to be heading to the beach.


Next Stop: San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua (via Somoto)

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Day 85 – Volcanoes, Four Ways (Parts I and II)

After an aborted trip to the southeastern tip of Nicaragua (due to a bridge which appeared on the map but not on the river we had hoped to cross), the next stop on our Grand Tour was Ometepe, an island in Lake Nicaragua formed by two majestic volcanoes.

Active as recently as 2012, Concepción (on the left) is the aggressive elder sibling, peaking at 1610m, while Las Maderas, its deceptively cute little sister, reaches a mere 1394m, still a good 50m higher than anything in the UK. Topped by cloudy toupées they are imposing yet serene from a distance, and increasingly ominous the closer you get.

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We made our way to the island by crossing Lake Nicaragua on a small ferry, grateful for an uneventful journey as they handed out life jackets in anticipation of a rough crossing.

We navigated straight for the southern tip of Ometepe in our trusty steed, the affectionately named ‘Suzi,’ a tiny Suzuki Alto with the power of a mid-sized lawnmower. Suzi is the kind of car you’d buy for your partially-sighted grandmother, for damage limitation purposes, and was ill-suited for Ometepe’s steep gradients, potholes, ‘puddles’ of unknown depth and scattered rocks of the jagged, puncture-causing variety.

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Having already lost one wheel to Nicaragua’s roads we were extra cautious, sputtering along just above walking pace, but made it safely to Finca La Magia, our home for the next two nights.

Part I – The Bottom of a Volcano 

I’ve got a lot of good things to say about the bottom of (inactive) volcanoes. At an altitude of 50m, Finca La Magia is a secluded, verdant rural retreat, positioned on the lower slopes of Las Maderas which looms in the background. Taking the large thatched pagoda-cottage-hut for around $10 a night each we were glad to be off the beaten track as we tucked into a healthy, home-grown dinner.

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It was at this dinner that we met Anna, a diminutive Spanish traveller from the rural outskirts of Barcelona, who suggested that we join her on a trek up the volcano the following day. She had hired a guide, which would be cheaper if shared among four people – simples. We warmed to Anna and enthusiastically signed up.

From our brief conversation with Anna I got the impression that we were going on a 4 hour hike (2 hours each way) for a swim in a beautiful freshwater laguna on the volcano. While some of those words (such as ‘volcano’ and ‘hike’) were accurate, the sentence as a whole bears very little resemblance to what ensued.

It would be easy to blame our misinformation on the language barrier, but really it was our complete lack of research or questioning that got us into the subsequent mess.

 Did we stop to ask Anna why the walk was due to start at 5am? Nope.

– People leave early to give themselves time to complete the 10 hour round trip before dusk

Did we check any reviews? Noooo.

– It recently became illegal to climb the volcanoes without a guide due to ‘too many deaths’ 

Did we ask about suitable footwear? Another no.

– I wore my Gump-branded Nike Flyknits, barely suitable for a brisk walk into town let alone a 1400m volcano ascent

Did we pack sufficient sustenance for a hike of this nature? Of course not.

– We each took a single cheese sandwich and a litre of water 

Part II – Climbing a Volcano

Negotiating the 5am start back to a leisurely 7.30, we departed at around 8am, still not realising that we had a whole day of trekking ahead.

We met our guide, who spoke no English and potentially no Spanish as he spared the pleasantries and started walking. Puffing on a cigarette he had the distinct air of not giving a shit, which soon proved to be an accurate description of his approach to guiding. Not knowing his actual name we christened him the Little **** as he blazed up the volcano with no discernible interest in our location or well-being.

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The hike started at a blistering pace as we left another group far in our wake. The Little **** and Anna (who turned out to be a mountain goat, not a human) almost ran up the path, closely followed by Jolie (a half-human, half-goat creature, think Mrs Tumnus), with Andy and me trying to look composed as we struggled to keep up.

The Little **** paused occasionally but would get going as soon as we caught him, meaning there were very few rest breaks in our ascent. Having set off late we knew we were behind schedule, but this pace was ridiculous and surely unsustainable. Apparently not. This view from half an hour in was approximately where my enjoyment of the day ended.

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As the sweat poured off us and our breathing grew louder, Andy and I exchanged bewildered glances as, one hour into our hike, we were knackered, the climb was getting steeper and the pace was not relenting.

We decided to ask how much further there was to go.

It was apparently another 3 hours to the top, and the terrain was about to get a lot more challenging. This was a very disappointing answer for at least 2 members of the group, who had expected to be at least half way to the crystal clear blue laguna by now, soon to be tucking into a cheese sarnie and turning around for the gravity-assisted journey home.

This precipitated our first discussion regarding ‘expectations management.’ Had we expected a 4 hour sprint up a volcano we might have been pleased with our progress thus far. To be told at this stage that we were effectively about a quarter of the way up felt like a punch in the stomach.

As we finally entered the cloud cover at the upper reaches of Las Maderas the temperature dropped, visibility reduced and our hike became a climb. With the Little **** far in the distance and the path barely perceptible we did our best to keep moving in the right direction as we climbed between fallen trees and crossed exposed ledges.

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Things got properly sketchy as we approached a 5m vertical cliff which could only be ascended by rope. With the increasingly treacherous conditions we were all a bit nervous (Little **** and mountain goat aside), as the reward for slipping on a muddy ledge or letting go of that rope was quite likely to be death, with steep precipices greeting us on every side.

By this stage my Nike Flyknits were covered in mud and utterly useless, meaning I had to adopt a Gollum-inspired climbing technique, trying to keep as many points of contact with the floor as possible.

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We finally made it to the summit, with exquisite views of about 10 metres in every direction. As a special reward for our efforts the Little **** told us it was another hour’s hike if we wanted to see the laguna. Ummm what?

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The mountain goat frolicked with glee at the prospect of another two hours of fun, Mrs Tumnus pulled a sympathetic but unconvincing frown, while Andy and I did our best to facially describe how we felt about the day so far.

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We’d eaten most of our sandwiches by this stage and drunk most of our water. In another example of the disparity between expectations and reality we asked the Little **** whether the water in the laguna was drinkable. He chuckled and shook his head.

Descending one final rock face we expected a breathtaking, clear laguna, the pinnacle of the journey and the reason we were all there, but were instead met by a shallow, muddy bog. Gallows humour prevailed as we waded into the deep mud, gave ourselves volcanic face masks and emerged like sexycute monsters of the deep.

P1000115We met another group at the lake who looked relatively unfit but strangely composed. They were not covered in mud and none of them were about to break into tears. Talking to them, we discovered there was an ‘easier way’ and a ‘harder way’ up the volcano: we had taken the latter.

After a day in which the goalposts had been repeatedly moved further away, Andy and I saw this for what it was – our one shot at redemption. Negotiations started immediately.

Looking to me for support, Andy suggested to the Little **** that he and I follow the other group’s guide down the easier route, leaving the goat-humans to go down the hard way. The Little **** warned us that we would have to pay the second guide an additional fee, at which point my fight or flight reflex kicked in and suddenly I spoke decent Spanish, successfully explaining “Venderiá mi abuela para tomar la ruta fácil” that I would sell my grandmother to avoid taking the hard route back down (sorry Nanna, I knew it wouldn’t come to that).

We decided not to split the group; Mrs Tumnus required a little arm twisting and the Spanish mountain goat was visibly disappointed but the Little **** acquiesced and we took the easier route back down.

The easier route soon turned out to be a misnomer, at least for me as I slipped and stumbled down, grabbing onto whatever sturdy looking vines, branches and roots I could find to reduce the load on my trainers, which were now soaked through and functioning like muddy ice skates.

I took a couple of sharp branches to the face, fell over too many times to count and at one point straddled a tree with one leg either side, barely preserving the Jones family jewels.

We finally made it down to the lower, flatter slopes of the volcano, and saw some beautiful nature along the way, such as this smiley faced butterfly, and some enormous trees.

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At the bottom of the mountain, Mrs Tumnus changed back to Jolie and proclaimed, non-sarcastically “that was fun, wasn’t it?” When Andy and I looked at her in horror replying “no” she relented with “yeah but do you feel a sense of achievement?” At that point, no not really – we were just delighted that it was over.

Looking back on this it is pretty cool to think that we climbed a volcano, higher than anything in the UK, despite being completely unprepared and ill-equipped for the task. Every time we see Las Maderas in the distance I feel a reluctant but tangible sense of achievement. But did I enjoy it? Absolutely not!


Next stop: Volcanoes, Four Ways (Parts III and IV)

What is The Gump Method

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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.

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

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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

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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

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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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