Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Where on Earth?

Following on from the last blog about the 5 best places I’ve been to so far, its now time to think about where Nat and I going next. The list is substantially longer than this and its taken an awful lot of time to cut down to these – 5 places I want to visit on holiday and 5 places I would love to live
5 places to live (in no particular order) 
  • Perth, Australia – Top of the list and the first port of call on our Worldwide Adventure. Nat is planning to be a marine conservationist and Western Australia has a lot of coast which will need conserving. Perth is also big on Chemical Engineering so that’s my career box ticked too. Plus England’s recent record at Perth in the Ashes is so shoddy (P12 W1 D3 L8) that they are almost bound to win there soon!
  • Vancouver, Canada – A colder and less Australian version of Perth. Sea, check. Engineering, check. Amazing scenery, check. Plenty to do in and around, check. I’ve always wanted to take the train coast-to-coast from Vancouver eastwards to might as well live here for a bit before attempting that. Additionally, I have it on good authority that you can get a bucket of BBQ wings in Canada for essentially peanuts, so I’m there.
  • London, England – Wow that felt very American writing that :-s Despite being technically a Northerner there is something about "dahn sarf" and London that always draws me back. It is basically open 24 hours a day and has lots of things that I like doing in it. It has the minor drawback of being in the UK (which I have become distinctly less fond of over the past few years) but if you close your eyes it sounds like a foreign city so it is a small price to pay.
  • New Zealand – Ok, I appreciate that NZ is a very large place but I couldn’t get too much more specific than that as I basically the whole place looks inviting. I might attempt to recreate Frodo and Sam’s voyage to Mount Doom when I’m there but hopefully it’ll be less arduous and I’ll encounter slightly fewer Orcs.
  • Er................................ Right I admit it, I can only think of 4 main candidates off the top of my head. There are actually many others on a kind of "sub-list" but currently these stick out clearest. By the time I've spent 5 years in each I'll have had time to think of a few more I reckon :-)

5 places to visit (in no particular order)
  • Tom Owens Island, Belize – Yes you read that correct. While it isn’t strictly mine, I don’t care because there is actually an island with the same name as me which I can try to annex when I go ( Nat and I are planning a substantial trip through Central America at some point but this particular place is obviously very high up the list of places to go. The Belize Barrier Reef is also supposed to be even more beautiful than the Great Barrier Reef and so (as a keen SCUBA diver) that’s another reason to go.
  • Rio di Janeiro – Most particularly around the New Year celebrations. I like parties, I like drinking cocktails on beaches and I like big vibrant cities. I don’t like being shot at but hopefully I can avoid the areas of Rio where that is likely to happen!!
  • Iceland – Northern Lights, active volcanoes, unspoilt wildernesses, heated thermal lagoons, lots of snow and ice. Iceland really does sound like heaven on earth. Admittedly there have been some issues with Icelandic banks and volcanic ash clouds recently but I think I can overlook that on this occasion. Also need to watch out for those cunning white bears that disguise themselves as big bits of ice :-)  
  • Barcelona – I’ve never made it to mainland Spain but Barcelona is Nat’s favourite city, so it’s very high on the list of places to visit. I love Spanish food and wine but mainly I want to test if the only Spanish phrase I know, “el buro es malo”, actually means “the donkey is sick” or if it’s something more sinister. I suppose I technically know how to order two beers in Spanish too but my “donkey” phrase is clearly more important here. 
  • The Trans-Siberian Railway – While technically not a place, this is something I would love to do. Admittedly it’s cold and takes a while but there is something romantic and other-worldly about a journey that takes this length of time. It harkens back to the “good old days” of exploration when it might take you months to get somewhere and all you had to entertain you and keep you sane was your imagination and your travelling companions. Boat voyages to places like the Caribbean must have been similar to this back in the day; months travelling with only the waves and nature to keep you company. Not a DS or an iPad in sight, bliss (if you overlook the potential for scurvy and pirates of course!)
  • Petra, Jordan – Okay so neither of my "Top 5" lists actually contain 5 items. Well that's just tough! The Ancient Empires of Rome, Greece, Egypt, China and Central/South America have fascinated me from an early age. I would love to see Machu Pichu, Chichen Itza, the Mayan ruins on the Yucatan, the Great Pyramid at Giza, the Great Wall of China and the Parthenon (and I’ve already been lucky enough to see the Coliseum and Forum in Rome) but if I was allowed to visit one ancient site only it would be Petra in Jordan. The architecture is stunning and the engineering skill and innovation there is phenomenal considering it was built over 3000 years ago. For me, Petra just sneaks in ahead of the other ancient sites – but it’s a very very close call.
So there you have it, 4 places I want to live and 6 places I want to visit. To be completely honest, both lists could be significantly larger due to the fact that the world is simply fun of amazing places to see. Isolated wildernesses, places of sheer natural beauty (both above ground and under the sea), man-made wonders old and new, vibrant hubs and places named after famous people (he he he) are all out there waiting to be visited.

Till next time,

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Where HAVE you been?

In the wake of the revelation that there are now 7 billion people in the world (at a conservative estimate), National Geographic did a nice couple of photo articles 

10 of the least crowded places in the world

Happiness Hotspots
This got me thinking about my travels (both past and future) and so I’ve decided to compile a couple of “best of lists” – one I’ll share with you on this blog, the other will come later in the week.

5 of the best places I’ve ever been to (in no particular order)

Budapest – One of (if not my) favourite city in the world so far. It’s a fantastic place with a great mix of the old and the new; the fast and the slow. On one side of the Danube you have Buda with its abundant walks and fantastic views, as well as the winding cobbled streets of the older castle district. Cross the river into the Pest side and you have the flatter and more modern city with nice restaurants and bars (though still retaining their identity and history) as well as the sensational thermal baths and beautiful City Park. I’ve been in the height of summer (when the temperature was over 40 degrees) and in the week before Christmas (when it was comfortably sub-zero) and there is always something new to discover. Yeah it’s a bit more “rundown” in some areas compared to some of the Western capitals but its not unwelcoming or dirty at all. Give it a whirl, I hope you won’t be disappointed.

Barbados – I guess this should technically be classed as a work trip as I was here when I was 17 enjoying a 3 week cricket tour with school. Well, enjoying the rum, the beaches and the fact that you simply aren’t able to stress even if you try – the cricket was less enjoyable and in fact exceptionally painful on more than one occasion. For a 17 year old on his first trip outside the UK without parents it was an eye-opening breath-taking experience from start to finish. I had my first hangover on this holiday, played my first game of beach cricket and encountered a style of life that I had rarely seen up until this point. By all accounts a lot has changed since 1997 and Bridgetown for example isn’t quite the same place it was when we wandered through it a 5am trying to find one more bar that was open – but at the time this was one of the most amazing places I had ever seen.

Brunei – OK, there is a bit of a theme here with places that begin with a B!! I spent two years living in Brunei as a 5 – 7 year old due to my dad working on power plant that was being built just outside the capital. Although my memories of it are slightly hazy and I am relying somewhat on stories I have been told, I do have plenty of fantastic memories of this tiny (yet unbelievably wealthy) nation many miles away. Walking through the fish markets every Saturday seeing Red Snapper the size of me; trekking and canoing through the jungles of Borneo; eating Chicken Satay bought from a guy at the end of the road who seemed to have them on the go permanently; visiting the Sultan of Brunei’s palace and polo club on a school trip (soooo much gold). As a young child growing up I don’t think I fully appreciated how amazing and lucky I was to have these experience which are so different from life in the UK- but looking back now I understand exactly how fortunate I was and how much I’d love to go back and see it again.

Sirmione – Finally somewhere that doesn’t begin with a B. I love Italy; the food, the wine, the people (once you get used to certain aspects), the fantastically rich history and the amazing architecture which still dominates the majority of the cities. It has a number of instantly recognisable landmarks which are known the world over; think the Leaning Tower, Coliseum, the lagoon city of Venice, St. Peters Basilica and so on. However, the one place which transfixed me (and probably Nat too) more than any was the tiny little town of Sirmione ( which at the end of a little peninsula jutting out into Lake Garda. You enter Sirmione either by boat or on foot across a tiny little bridge next to the 13th Century Sirmione Castle and instantly the world feels different. Cars are only allowed in at certain times and in certain numbers so foot traffic dominates. The place is touristy but not overly so (and certainly not as tacky as Pisa or places like Florence are becoming) and the overwhelming feeling is one of relaxation and serenity. The lake gently laps against the shore which is shallow enough for you to simply wander in paddle around the cool, fresh waters while the town itself is famous for its thermal springs and Roman ruins. Our enjoyment was enhanced by the view from our hotel room and the fact that we had been camping for nearly 2 weeks solid and so a soft bed was most welcome but it was so much more than that. You will often hear people criticise certain areas of Lake Garda (and with very good reason in some cases – see Gardaland) but this is one bit of it that should be high on the list of places to visit for anyone in this area of the world. 

Fiji – Part of our round the world adventure which concluded our Brunei adventure was a 10 day trip to Fiji (and specifically Beachcomber Island, a tiny tropical island) parked in the Pacific Ocean somewhere. Although the slightly terrifying boat ride we endured to get there is  probably the source of my ability to get seasick in the bath (in the dark, boat rocking from side to side, minor incident with having to swim the last 50m or so as the boast was too deep to come to shore) Fiji still holds many great memories. True, there isn’t actually that much to do except lie on the beach or swim in the sea – but there are other islands you can visit and the communal entertainment/feeding area is alive every night with the sights and sounds of pacific island life. Also true is that I was 6 and a half and spent the ENTIRE time playing mini-golf with an Australian boy of similar age – neither of those facts take away from the fact that, to me, this was a magical place and somewhere I will never forget. FYI, the boat ride back was calm, smooth and swim-free but the damage was already done.

As you can probably guess, I love to travel and have been lucky enough to be able to indulge this love both as a child and also as an adult. The question when you love to travel is always “where next?” but sometimes its great to sit back and consider where you have been and how much joy you got out of it.

Till next time

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

You can't choose your family

It was my sister’s birthday yesterday and it got me thinking about our time growing up together. She is now married with two children (3 ½ years and 5 weeks) and so quite clearly has left childhood behind – I on the other hand attempt to embrace it and every thing to do with it on a regular basis. I have therefore decided to do something a bit different and dedicate this particular entry to 2 or 3 stories of my childhood with a little sister.
We were both born in Germany in the early 1980s, which has proved a source of difficulty throughout most of my adult life so far. The gentle ribbing about me being German or a Nazi or a Sausage Muncher is pretty easy to laugh off (mainly as it comes from people I actually like!) but trying to get any official document (like a passport or driving licence) or enter certain countries (Hello USA) has proved hilariously difficult so far. Apparently British people AREN’T born in Germany and it doesn’t help that my birth certificate has the reference number 000001 on it – presumably I was first in a new book used by the British Consulate in Frankfurt but that has lead to more than a few raised eyebrows over the years.
The first time I ever met my sister I had a lump the size of an ostrich egg and a plaster across my forehead due to an unfortunate collision between head and coffee table. My Nana had been looking after me at the time and was ironing when the aforementioned collision took place. She therefore arrived at the hospital to present my Mum with an essentially broken child and a pillowcase with a perfect iron-shaped hole burned into it. My folks always claim they only planned to have 2 kids but this comical situation may have been a factor in them stopping after my sister!!
Germany was left behind when I was about 3 and my sister 1 and it was briefly back to Britain for a few years before departing to Brunei – where we would stay for two years before finally settling back in the UK permanently from 1987. My sister doesn’t have many memories of Brunei unfortunately but I thankfully do.
One of my favourites (and actually one of my earliest memories of all) was the first day we arrived at our new house in Brunei. Mum and Dad sent us to have a look at which one of the bedrooms we would like to have. I, being the older (and also slightly faster), managed to get to the door of the bigger room first and flung it open, ready to declare it as mine. Until a cockroach which was comfortably the size of my hand scuttled diagonally from corner to corner across the room and I very chivalrously declared that my little sister could have this room as it was only fair – she had always had the smallest room before. I “think” I have since confessed the actual reasoning to her, but I might not have.
Not long after we returned to England there was a family holiday to the Black Forest in Germany which is not a million miles away from where we both born (both in the same hospital and apparently in the same bed of the maternity ward – albeit 27 months apart). One day Mum and Dad decided to go back to where we had lived and explore the town to see what had changed in the 7-8 years or so since we had left. After driving around and visiting a few places we ended up in the car park of the hospital where we were born for Mum and Dad to point it out to us – not much to see really, they all look alike these hospitals. Still it was an interesting moment for us, being born abroad always meant it was unlikely we’d ever see the place we were actually brought into the world unless we made a concerted effort to go find it – the moment however was kind of ruined when my sister asked why we were spending so long there and my dad replied “We are just waiting for your real parents to turn up and collect you”. I don’t know how long my sister cried and bawled for, but it was long enough to permanently drill the noise into my head.
I have to confess that my life growing up with a baby sister was very pleasurable indeed – I’m very lucky to have one who not only tolerates me but also idolises me. Well, she did have her hair cut in a boy style very like mine and used to follow me around a bit…….. although looking back at it now (a) Mum probably chose her haircut and (b) She was probably following me around for my own safety!
As we’ve got older she has taken all the family responsibility, both having one of her own to provide our folks with grandkids and also managing the dangerous political games that all extended families seem to play almost as well as the old empires used to.
They do say you can’t choose your family but (and here comes the really soppy bit) I actually couldn’t have chosen a better sister to grow up with. So Happy Birthday Lil and thanks for looking after me all these years, keep up the good work though as its not even close to being finished yet! :-D
Till next time,