#15 Tea and cake

It was Friday evening and my friend Kate was over for a catch-up and, more crucially, helping me with a jigsaw puzzle I needed to finish very soon. It was a Star Wars one and I had borrowed it from my cousin’s 7yr old son when I visited them last, and had promised to do it in time for their return visit in mid-February. After our jigsaw fun we got talking about my weekend walks and I pulled out the walk book that Book Club Gill had lent me as I still hadn’t decided where I was going to go the following day. My thought was that I would go for another 4hr walk so that I could be sure that last weekend wasn’t a fluke and I could actually sustain 4hrs without stopping. We found a 4hr route that started and ended just down the road from Kate’s house that was a little bit hilly, so the plan was for me to do my walk and then stop by hers for tea and cake. Perfect!

Once again I was following a sketchy map that had various way-points marked out, and directions on how to get from A to B to C etc. I managed to make it out of the churchyard, navigate my way through the graveyard and find my way to A, mostly thanks to a hand-drawn diagram from Kate. Predictably I missed the turn-off to get to B and went too far, so to get back on the route between C and D I had to walk down a steep-ish, twisty-turny hill, along a bit and then halfway back up the hill. Getting through the woods were no problem, apart from a slight altercation with a dog who wanted to jump all over me, but I went wrong in the orchard somehow and had to fight my way through a gap in a hedge and follow the road for a bit to get to E – halfway.

At this point I was half happy that I had managed to fit in an extra hill and add a few k’s to the route, but half frustrated with my inability to follow seemingly simple directions. It’s a good job I’m going to be in a group in Nepal otherwise by lunchtime on the first day I’d find myself in the wilderness somewhere and never be seen again! To be fair, I wasn’t using GPS to find the way-points so maybe I should give myself a bit of credit for even knowing that I’m lost and managing to find myself again …

Here is a short quote from a bit I did in fact navigate correctly: “It [the footpath] then enters the first of a succession of orchards. Cross over the track in the middle of an orchard and turn left on to the track at the top. A steep climb follows before the path eventually reaches the Greensand Way at the top of another orchard.”. It might sound kind-of easy but when you’re in the middle of an orchard and you don’t know if it’s THE orchard where the track is, or if you come across a track knowing whether it is THE track you need to turn left onto, it can get quite confusing! I think I navigated this bit because I was looking for a steep climb, if it had all been flat I would probably still be walking round in circles. Haha.

The rest of the walk passed without incident (apart from a minor detour between F and G) and I ended up back at the start point, changed my shoes and wandered up to Kate’s for some light refreshments (thanks Kate!). I wasn’t completely satisfied with my day’s activity, the distance of the walk should have been 11.25km but with all my meanderings I had managed to increase it to 17.82km – however the whole thing only took me 3hrs 27 mins instead of 4hrs, including the visit to Kate’s, so come February I needed to be looking for more taxing terrain in order to build up my stamina and endurance. On reflection I did see a positive; at least it didn’t take me 4hrs 27 mins – that would have been a bit worrying!


#14 Bits and bobs

Levison is back on the TV, this time Walking the Americas; I had an idea that his next venture was going to be in this part of the world. When I ‘met’ him after the lecture I really wanted to ask him if he was going to walk the length of the Andes or something but I didn’t have the courage, I think I just said “It’s a pleasure to meet you” or something boring like that! Anyway, it’s good that he is trailblazing the way for me in Central America, I will look forward to watching the episodes featuring Nicaragua and Ecuador. If anything, to give me an idea of where to stay in Managua and Quito.

While I have made the big decisions about where to go, and booked the flights and various tours, I have a million and one other things to do that I keep thinking I must make a ‘to do’ list about – and then keep putting off. Boring stuff like insurance, vaccinations, various hotels for one or two nights where I’ve got a gap, airport transfers, buy kit for the trek … my list is going to be quite long.

Now that I have told the team (they took it well), and my work friends and colleagues, I can now ask for advice and recommendations. One of my flights goes via Mexico City, I land there at 1.30pm but my connecting flight isn’t until 9.30am the next day so I was wondering what to do. An old school friend Josie, who lives in Peru, has a friend who lives in Mexico who she kindly spoke to for me and I now have a recommendation for a hotel near the airport. Need to get that booked up!

The place I was stuck on was Japan, trying to find accommodation for my seven day bullet train trip from Tokyo to the Monastery on Kyushu. My brother had decided that while he does want to go back to Japan he wanted to plan out his own trip, and I think the fact that I’m going to be there on ‘Golden Week’ is putting him off. Golden Week is a collection of four national holidays within seven days (it’s going to be crazy!), so as a result it’s next to impossible to find accommodation that is available, reasonably priced and not a capsule. An old school friend, Wei Li (who lives in Malaysia), has given me some accommodation suggestions, and I was touched when one of my team members, Claudia, who has been to Japan sent me an A4 side of recommendations of things to do and places to visit, so fingers crossed I will work it out.

I am a bit overwhelmed by how supportive everyone has been. When speaking about plans for doing my weekend walks a few people have offered to walk with me, in particular, my friend Rob was very proactive and found a leaflet about a local walk that he thought we might do together. How sweet! I’m not sure what walk I’m going to do this weekend, but one thing I must do is sort out some new boots as I’ve come to the sad conclusion that my current ones are – in a word – knackered.

The previous weekend I had spent the Saturday in Covent Garden going to all the outdoor shops to look for boots. Each shop gave me slightly different advice so I now have a shortlist of boots I’ve tried but am unsure as to which pair will be the most suitable. At the beginning of February I have to go to Sheffield to meet with the trek organisers (Jagged Edge), so I’ve decided to take my list with me and ask their advice – and then hope that a month and a half will be enough time to break in a new pair of boots! Fingers crossed …


#13 The Big Hill

I poked my head through the curtains and gazed out over the field from my bedroom window. It was around 7.30am on Sunday morning and today I was going with Helen and Richard to the Big Hill. I wasn’t being picked up until around 9.30am but my heating had woke me up at about 4am and I couldn’t go back to sleep. At night the minimum temperature on my thermostat is set to 10 degrees and my boiler only starts itself if my house goes below that temperature. Looking at the swirling fog twisting its way through the trees covered in frost I wasn’t surprised that my house must have got below 10 degrees in the early hours. Oh well, all good training for those sub-zero mornings in the Himalayas!

By the time we got to the car park at the top of the hill it was around 10am. There’s actually a picnic area by the car park, I guess the idea is to sit and admire the view while you eat your packed lunch, but today visibility wasn’t great and if you sat down for too long you might freeze to death! Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration … We had a good walk, going up and down the myriad of tracks criss-crossing the area, and I certainly got some hill-walking practice in.

It was really nice to chat to Helen (Richard bring up the rear with Pebbles the Rottweiler) and discuss our hopes and fears about our respective Everest treks, what kit we needed and discussing various advice we had be given. So far I have been perfectly happy going out walking alone, however that morning it felt great to share the experience with others and enjoy what turned out to be a gorgeously sunny (but cold) morning. Pebbles had got tired about halfway in and Richard had taken her home, so when we tired of the hill we walked back to their house where I had a quick pit stop of a cup of tea and a banana – and more chats about socks, base layers and the like!

I was offered a lift home but at this point we had been walking for just over 2hrs and I was determined to do about 4hrs in total, so I decided to walk. When I was a teenager my best friend Sarah and I were in the Army cadets, she was in a different detachment to me and I was quite close to her old cadet hut as I started my walk home. Sarah’s cadet nights were on a different night to mine, so occasionally a couple of the boys and I used to walk over to her detachment for a visit. It was about a 4 mile walk (each way) but we used to think nothing of walking 8 miles in an evening, seems strange to think of doing that now. We used to set off in time to make it for the NAFFI break, muck around for a bit and then walk back home, or stay until they had finished and go for a drink at the pub (and then walk home, and then go to school in the morning!).

In those days, if you knew the landlord and kept your nose clean i.e. no fighting over the pool table, it was very easy to hang out at the pub and have a couple of drinks. It was better than us going down to the chalk pits, huddle under a tree and drink miniatures … ah yes, we did that too (but not very often, as the pub was a much warmer and drier option (and for the life of me I can’t remember why the heck we drunk miniatures!)). When I think back now, doing that kind of thing gave me my sense of adventure but at the same time I was sensible and was always home at the time I promised my parents. I think that it is these kind of experiences and knowledge about myself that gives me the confidence to think that I can wander round Nepal, Tokyo, Quito, Buenos Aires and all the places I am going on my own and know I’ll be ok.

Anyway, all these reminiscences kept me going until I got home – 4hrs walking and almost 19km, I’m halfway there.


#12 An unexpected flurry of snow

I am in my local Women’s Institute book club and at our last meeting I had mentioned my trip and Gill, one of the ladies, kindly lent me a book of walks in the local area. I had done some limited research of my own but with everything else going on I’d not yet formed any kind of plan to actually get my endurance up to eight hours a day. I eagerly looked through the book and came across one that looked ideal for my next venture – 12.75km over marshy terrain by the coast, estimated duration 3.5hrs.

As with the first map, this map was just as rudimentary and while my sense of direction is not bad I regularly get lost going to places I don’t know (my ‘pool’ friends will attest to this fact!) although I usually get there in the end. The walk wasn’t in a country park or anything, in the book it is billed as appealing to “those who love wide, empty spaces with the landscape dominated by the sky” and “the atmosphere in this remote corner of Kent still carries the romance of the days of smugglers” so it was unlikely that I would see many people (apart from Pirates maybe), but if I started fairly early I figured there would be enough daylight to find my way back to civilisation if I got lost … The start point was a 30min drive away and I’d kind of worked out where I should find the car park so was all set, but then disaster struck. On the Thursday it snowed. Where I live, when you get a few cm of snow the roads become impassable – that afternoon we had about two inches. It took me 3hrs to drive the three miles home from the train station, car sliding everywhere, so on Friday I stayed put and hoped for a thaw.

Saturday was looking like it had the best weather forecast, although when I woke up there was still snow on the ground so I knew that on the marshes conditions might be a tad dodgy. Weighing up my safety against my determination, this time safety won and I decided to go to the coastal country park a few miles away instead. There is a tiny Visitors centre and there I found a leaflet with some trails marked out, taking you along the coast, up a hill and past a nature reserve.

That morning I had finally remembered to download ‘Map My Walk’ onto my phone so was excited to try it out. It came in handy as it shows you where you are in real time and it’s quite amusing to look at the journey I did with all the backtracks and going round in circles where I – you guessed it – got lost. I really enjoyed it, and purposely walked round the field instead of across one end to make the journey longer, and went up small tracks to see where they led (usually to a dead end). I’m starting to like this walking lark I think! It was again a beautiful day, some rain, some sun, about 4 degrees, and I got some amazing photos. This is what this whole thing is about, feeling awed by the landscape, feeling free, feeling alive, this is why I want to travel and visit the Himalayas and all the other fantastic places there are to see in the world. Three hours later and about 13.5km walked I headed home and felt like I was making progress.


#11 Training

It’s all very well to think about things and make plans, however my trip has a very large element of physical activity and I needed to be prepared. Everyone I’ve ever spoke to who has trekked to Everest Base Camp says it’s tough … really tough. The reason I thought I could do it was because on the expedition blurb it says: “This trek is suitable for those who are new to trekking, and for more experienced walkers wanting to visit the Himalaya. To get the most out of the trek you need to be healthy and have a good level of overall fitness. You should be able to walk with a light rucksack for seven to eight hours in a day in the UK, or on similar gently rolling terrain.”. That doesn’t sound too bad – right? It is also a slower ascent than other treks and we get to stop off for a few days for the Research people to present their findings to the Sherpa community. I was healthy, had started classes at the gym in the summer and was walking where I could, but I wasn’t getting the time to go on long walks to work on my stamina so I needed to address that.

My new year’s resolution was to try to do one long walk every weekend, on varied terrain, and build up week by week so that by March I would be able to walk for seven to eight hours. Simples. I was quite excited to do my first walk and set off to a country park close by where I’d scoped out a 10k trail. It was a beautiful day and off I started, map on my ipad round the lake and then up into the woods. On New Year’s Eve I had got chatting to some friends of my sister, Helen and Richard, and it turned out that they were also planning to trek to Base Camp. I was walking down a track, trying to fathom my map, and who should I see but Helen and Richard out walking their dog! We started talking about possible training walks to do and they suggested a very big hill in the vicinity where you can do a circular walk. I had wanted to go there anyway so we arranged to do it together later in January. Life is full of happy coincidences, and I was very glad to bump into them because walking up a big hill is always better when you’re with someone.

It was the inauguration of my new jacket I had received for Christmas – a bright yellow affair boasting that “No ducks were harmed in the making of this product.”. My sister Catherine said I looked like a Minion in it when I had the hood up – cheers sis! Everyone who knows me knows that I am partial to the cold (not great when I’m going somewhere where it can get down to -15 degrees) however the terrain of the park was a bit up and down in places, and soon I was getting a bit warm. In the end I had to take my jacket off and ended up, much to the bemusement of the strolling dog-walkers wrapped up in their coats, scarves, hats and gloves, doing the rest of the walk in a t-shirt – in January!

It was as I came to the end of a track where it crossed a path that I saw a man with a dog opposite, who said to me: “Feel free to break into a canter now”. What a strange remark, but then I realised that I had been walking down a bridle path. Note to self: refrain from walking down bridle paths for fear of getting trampled by marauding horses and receiving odd remarks from strangers. I decided to use him to help me work out where to go next, as I was still having trouble with the map. He duly pointed me down the right path and it was at that point I realised I was doing the trail backwards. I don’t think there is an actual start and end point, because it is a circular loop that loops in on itself, so when I got back to where I started I turned round and walked back the way I came, this time following the markers and navigation was a lot easier! I ended up doing more than 10k, as I did the long loop twice, and was out for over 2hrs. Not bad for my first outing.


#10 Rubicon

I did end up making my deadline of scheduling my itinerary by 30 November, however during November my family suffered an unexpected bereavement. The funeral wasn’t going to be until mid-December and I was dealing with a lot of the paperwork, so as I had only spent a minimal amount on a couple of deposits I asked my boss if I could postpone my confirmation until the New Year when I could find time to finish the costing and make a final decision.

It’s January 2017 and I’m back to work. I had extended my TEFL course (for the second time) and was slowly getting through the remainder of the modules, it would be a race to see if I could complete it by March!

Before Christmas I had a good idea about most of the flights I needed apart from the ones in South America, so conscious that I needed to at least hold these otherwise my plans would fall apart. I paid STA a visit, talked through the flights for the whole trip and paid my Buenos Aires to Rio tour. That was it, no turning back now! The plan is as follows: trekking in Nepal for just under a month, visiting cousins (hopefully) in Singapore for a few days, travelling on the bullet train stopping off in various places before going to the Zen retreat and spending just over two weeks in Japan, over to Nicaragua for about 13 days, then to the Galapagos in Ecuador for some volunteering for two weeks plus a few days, and finally down to Buenos Aires for just under a month to do the final tour in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.

Taking into account spending money I am at the top end of my-budget, but in for a penny in for a pound as the saying goes. Out of the few people I have told about the trip, and not even mentioning money, so far a couple of them out of the blue have offered to lend me money if I need it. I am amazed by people’s generosity and am humbled to know that I have so much support amongst my family and friends.

So I’ve been writing this blog but only one person has read (part of) it because I didn’t want to put it out there until I’ve told certain people outside of my immediate family and close friends; the main ones being my little team at work and my group of work girl friends who I socialise with. By now I had been thinking about this trip for about a year but not said anything, however I’m the type of person who needs to share when I’ve got something on my mind and keeping things to myself has actually been a bit stressful! The reason why I didn’t want to say anything was because at the beginning it was a bit pie in the sky and it wasn’t until now that it was actually real – I didn’t want my team to feel that there was a possibility of my deserting them and then to turn around and say it wasn’t going to happen. I had my annual appraisal booked for mid-January and my boss and I were going to chat about cover arrangements, so I decided that I would tell them after that meeting.


#9 Time to get organised

By now it was late October 2016. Not much progress had been made on my TEFL course and despite me now having a semblance of a plan, and had reserved my place on the trek and the volunteering placement, I hadn’t costed the whole thing out. Could I even afford it?! Soon my boss would be wanting to know whether I was staying or going and I didn’t want to tell him I was still prevaricating, so I set myself a deadline of 30 November to create an itinerary and secure the flights.

While it was perfectly possible for me to continue arranging everything by myself, travel agents exist for a reason and I knew that they would be able to sort my flights much more quickly and efficiently than I could. So I went to see my friends at STA Travel, who have been really helpful over the last few years. It was with some trepidation I visited the local branch and sat down to explain my ideas and work out some of the logistics.

One thing I had not finalised was the last part of the trip. I had been fascinated by the idea of visiting Iguassu Falls for a while. It is the largest waterfall system in the world, spanning the border between Argentina and Brazil, so why not go and see it and explore Argentina and Brazil in the process!

Part of me wanted to do this independently as over the last five years (since I’ve been single) most of my bigger trips have been on G Adventure group tours. I’ve loved every one of them, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it on my own. I did go backpacking in the ‘90s but if I’m honest I found it a struggle at times. Prior that trip I had never really been abroad for any length of time, eaten anything other than ‘British’ food, or gone anywhere further than the Spanish coast, however the backpacking was an ambitious undertaking, visiting Hong Kong, Bali, Lombok, Java, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and India.

It was a complete culture shock and looking back I think I was too young and inexperienced to deal with visiting places where everything was totally unfamiliar, and we were literally the only Westerners in town. In the end I found even the smallest of tasks challenging. I was mentally and physically drained when I got back and for a few years I really couldn’t face traveling anywhere because the thought of it made me feel anxious. In some ways this experience, hard as it was at the time, now makes me feel that I can handle anything that is thrown at me. And while sometimes the idea of this trip scares me, I know that as the plane taxis onto the runway and we take off I will be fine.

So, how do you do South America solo? It turns out that it is probably not the best of places to do this, one factor of course is safety, another is the sheer size of the countries and the main thing is that travel e.g. flights are really expensive. The most economical way is on a tour, and if I’m honest the tours can take you places and offer you activities that you probably wouldn’t be able to do on your own. STA suggested a trip run by Intrepid that starts in Buenos Aires, crosses the border into Uruguay, spends two days in Iguassu, and then onto Brazil to finish in Rio. Of course it is not a bog standard trip, we get to spend 3 days working on a Uruguayan farm where hot water and electricity are only available for a couple of hours a day and chores start at 7.30 am … ah well, you only live once!


#8 Relaxation needed!

If I was going to go the South East Asia route to get to Central America, where else could I go in that part of the world and do something interesting and meaningful? Before I started at my current workplace, about eight years ago, I went to Japan with a friend and my brother Paul. My brother is mad on old-style arcade games (in fact I am housing a full sized Japanese arcade machine in my dining room because there’s no space at his house!) and into Studio Ghibli films, and we both enjoyed travelling on the bullet train between Kyoto and Tokyo.

I wondered if I could convince him to meet me in Tokyo, and have an adventure jumping on and off the bullet trains travelling from Tokyo to the bottom of the island of Honshu. Discussions commenced and we worked out a schedule to make the best use of time on a seven day rail pass, and thought we could fit in Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima before parting ways – him back to Tokyo and me down to the retreat. Paul needed time to think, and I was happy that there was the beginnings of a plan.

I have been doing yoga on and off for many years now and I remember a yoga teacher I had a while back who used to organise yoga retreats in Japan. He didn’t have any trips on the horizon sadly, so after a bit of searching I found the Shoganji Zen Retreat on the island of Kyushu, near Oita city. The retreat is billed as a Japanese Cultural Homestay, based in a 600 year old Zen Buddhist temple. There are various activities available, such as Japanese cooking lessons, Japanese calligraphy, Zen study, hot spring bathing visits, yoga and you are encouraged to get involved in the community. The temple is surrounded by a bamboo forest and 5mins from the beach, and sounded like the perfect place to calm down and take some time out after the challenging trek in Nepal and the hectic trip on the bullet train.


#7 Reunions

It’s always nice to meet up with someone familiar when travelling. While I like to go to places on my own, or join organised tours and meet new people, I always enjoy meeting up with family or friends abroad where I can. Sometimes I meet people by chance – I was in Bangkok for one night and it just happened that an Australian friend of mine, James (who I had met on a trip to Morocco), was also there for one night and we managed to meet up for a few drinks before we parted ways, me going to Cambodia and him to Oz!

Sometimes I meet people by design, and in Kathmandu I hope to meet up with an ex-work colleague Federico, whose influence, in part, gave me the belief that I could do this trip in the first place. I can’t remember the exact details of his story of how he ended up in Nepal, but in a nutshell he got talking to someone who was working on a project to help the Nepalese people rebuild after the earthquake. It appeared that they needed someone with his skills on their team so he handed in his notice, packed his bags and has now been working in Nepal for over a year now! We have stayed in touch, and I hope to catch up with him in person to hear all about the project and how he is enjoying life doing something different.

Now that I had settled on Nepal for the first month and was planning my activities in Nicaragua and Ecuador, I still had just over a month to fill . I have two cousins living in Singapore, Mark and Maria, and it had been ages since I had seen them. Back in 2012 I had arranged to stay with Mark for two nights in Ho Chi Minh City as he was working there at the time. However on my arrival he had to rush off to a meeting up the coast, so I ended up staying in his apartment for a couple of nights – minus him! Mark did arrive back the afternoon of my departure and we had a lovely meal and a few too many double vodkas (I was under the impression they were singles!) before I had to dash to the airport, arriving just as they were shutting check-in …

My next task would be to contact my cousins and see if they would be home at the end of April, and think about where I would go from there.



#6 Where to next (part 2)?

So back to the volunteering … All my thinking about Central America made me remember that apart from Nicaragua, Ecuador was also on my bucket list. When I went to Peru the second part of the trip was staying in a remote lodge in the Amazon rainforest, a 2hr boat trip from civilization (in Puerto Maldonado). Compared to the expanse of space in the mountains the rain forest is very much ‘up close and personal’.

A night safari was on offer so armed with head torches we followed our guide along a winding track and as we walked along he told us to stop, one by one, and turn off our torch. As the track twisted and turned, when the people in front had walked off you couldn’t see anyone in front or behind so for the 10mins we stood in the dark we were essentially totally alone. As the tree canopy is quite dense, no light penetrates and after a while you become really disoriented because it is pitch black and there are no reference points to tell you which way is up or down. After turning off the torch and your eyes adjust, the fireflies appear out of nowhere and flash around and about in the trees. It was a magical and beautiful experience and I was quite sorry to see the person behind me tramping up the path when our allotted time was up.

I actually wanted to do the Amazon bit in Ecuador but couldn’t find a trip that combined both countries, so I began to focus my search in this area. While scrolling through various websites I came across a Creative Arts Project in Ecuador – in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal, one of the Galapagos Islands. The project is to help young people in the area practise their talents and become more aware of the opportunities in the field of creative arts by helping out with activities involving art, dance, music and acting. Perfect. My main hobby is music and I regularly perform in and organise concerts, and was a music and drama teacher for a short stint in my early 20’s, so I felt this project was made for me. Volunteering sorted!