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The End of the World is Nigh

Sun, sea and snow-capped mountains. A magical trio that you quite literally have to go to the end of the earth to find adjacent to one another.

As we disembarked our plane in Ushuaia, into the modest ski-chalet style airport, I was surprised and delighted to find that it was gently snowing. Everyone was wrapped up warm as they waited for one of just three bus lines that wind their way back and forth around the city.

Along the seafront, immense piles of shipping containers and impressive cruise ships exemplify this active port city. Aside from the astonishing views of Chilean mountains across the Beagle Channel, it’s the road signs here that provide some of the best photo opportunities. I’ve never seen such numbers pertaining drivable distance; we were a mere 3094km from where we began earlier that day!

For when photo taking in the blistering cold gets tiresome, a plethora of cosy bars offer shelter. With glorious heating, eclectic antique decorations and a bottle of red wine by your side, it’s easy to forget you’re basically facing the Antarctic winter. (One bar which warrants the long and unaesthetic walk to the industrial outskirts of the sprawling city is “Kuar”; the panoramic seafront windows certainly didn’t disappoint.)

Back outdoors and, naturally, avoiding pricey tours or excursions, we explored our spectacular surroundings on foot. Beyond our little house which sat at the edge of the ever-growing city, at the end of the end of the world, was the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego.

We walked most of the way there from town, wanting to soak up as much of the stark surroundings as possible. Looming mountains, sparse, sinister trees and scrubland horses were all overshadowed by the sheer joy that comes from shattering the ice in frozen potholes and puddles.
We made it as far as the final station for El Tren del Fin del Mundo and decided to hop aboard a transfer bus, to save our poor legs. What we didn’t realise was that this was the most painfully slow train on the planet; it took nostalgic stream train journeys to a whole new level and waiting for its arrival shifted from “scenic” to “laborious” quite swiftly.

Eventually, we made it as far as Bahia Lapataia. The very end of Ruta 3 and a bay framing the vista beyond. Despite the abundant photo miradors intended for noisy visitors to enjoy, I have never heard silence quite like I did here. Everything was totally at peace (and thus the perfect spot for a picnic!).
Trekking back towards civilisation, the variety of lakes, trees and neck-craning views abounded. Whilst there was little by way of wildlife, we repeatedly spotted pairs of geese: one white, one mottled brown. It turns out these are the logo of the park, thus I became suspicious that they had been planted as subliminal advertising of some sort!

From the far west of the city (and in fact the whole country) to the looming heights above, our next trek took us unendingly uphill: Cerró Martial. The vaguely outlined paths surreally transported you from a woodland that wouldn’t look out of place in an autumnal English scene, seamlessly to winter in Narnia! The snow was surprising, glistening and deep. It signalled the ski piste up ahead. Out of breath and unaided by battling the powerful wind, we climbed as high as we could. Unfortunately not all the way to the glacier atop the mountain, but high enough to admire the panoramic variety of shades that constituted the water and the mountains, whilst darkness crept in and the city began to sparkle. At the foot of the ski piste sits a charming tea house offering spectacular cakes and a taste of retro England (more than 13,400km from home), only with infinitely better views.

On our final day, we were a little more gentle with ourselves and took a bus to Playa Larga- Ushuaia’s only beach. Covered in pebbles and bloody cold, it took me right back to my childhood on England’s south coast. But this beach was long and shallow, for just feet behind it stood wild woodland. This really is the land of juxtaposed scenery! All of the trees, clearly wind-beaten, were gnarled and almost horizontal. Much like me by this stage.

We took ourselves home and prepared a gourmet leg of Fuegan Lamb. Turns out the local nature was delicious both inside and out.

As the souvenir shops suggested, Ushuaia’s offerings also include penguins, a former prison and seasonal skiing. But for us, it was the landscape unlike anything we’d ever seen that championed this charming city at the end of the world.

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Free Fun in Buenos Aires

Despite spending the longest time in this city on my last trip, almost even committing to calling it home, I experienced another side to BA this time around. The Bargain Hunters Buenos Aires.

Having seen all the tourist hotspots before, and driven by promos and the constant search for free entertainment, we sampled some of the city’s under-publicised cultural delights.

The musical offerings alone were plentiful and diverse. At Centro Cultural Kirchner (CCK), housed within the imposing former post office building, we sat in a civilised salon listening to a classical trio at midday. Same day, same building, but up in the space-age rooftop cupola, an indie band combined harmless pop with jazzy, even reggae, beats and a bizarre, unexplained dumb-show performance alongside. In a distant neighbourhood, at Usina del Arte, a somewhat sinister German acca pella choir starkly juxtaposed the head-banging rock band playing on the roof outside. And for those less inclined to formal schedules and settings, the market-flooded streets of San Telmo played host to busking brass bands and a parade of stomping drummers. There’s never a quiet moment in this city!

For those looking for more classically Argentine music, obviously tango rules. CCK offers a weekly afternoon milonga where locals young and old (and the occasional gringa stepping on people’s toes… guilty) dance together to a live orchestra. Unfortunately we missed the instructive session and were forced to brave the dance floor as novices. After kicking just a few strangers, I was beginning to feel like a proper dancer; until the professionals dazzled us with a performance. Even an amateur, al fresco tango show in a San Telmo Square proved that my dance skills had a long way to go yet!

Such musically diverse cultural centres as CCK and Centro Cultural de Recoleta also offer a vast array of exhibitions. Some distinctly more notable than others. The ‘Naturaleza’ exhibition at CCK offered a strange spread, including an underwhelming room full of potatoes; but an excellent and interactive room full of balloons saved the whole reputation. Similarly interactive, a magnetic photography exhibition that allowed us to create our own mural (naturally I selected only cute dog pictures) was the singular notable room in the disappointing Recoleta Centre.

The MAMBA (Modern Art Museum), as might be expected, favours exhibitions over performances altogether. Less interactive; more angry and political. Also an unexplained giant spiderweb dominated the top floor. Worth a look, but with just three rooms, it’s not exactly a grand day out.

(NB. You would do well to avoid the National History Museum; as the walls are decked in written information, but there is an underwhelming lack of artefacts.)

To complete the cultural extravaganza, I confess, we did part with some pesos. We took a guided tour of Teatro Colon. This spectacularly ornate architectural feat, dating from 1889, was unlike other theatres I’ve frequented (and, believe me, I’ve seen a lot of theatres). With seemingly infinite balconys surrounding the auditorium, there doesn’t seem to be a bad seat in the house (except perhaps the basement formerly reserved for widows to hide their dignity!). Complete with a tour guide who sang samples of opera amongst his trivia, I didn’t even need to see a show to enjoy this cultural excursion.

Outside of the arts, other peculiar pastimes included an impulsive visit to a boat museum moored at Puerto Madero (think Titanic meets Pirates of the Caribbean) and a free ride on the historic tram of Caballito. Beyond that, a walk around the city’s eco reserve takes you to the coast of the Rio de la Plata and into a world vastly different from the modern skyscrapers that surround it. (However, as the word ‘eco’ suggests, this park is all natural, so swamps and algae are favoured over glamorous, or even functioning, water features.)

When we did spend money it was mostly on food and drink. But this needn’t break the bank either. Eating like a local at Banchera pizzeria, we stood at a bar and devoured pizza slices that took the phrase “deep pan” to a whole new level. Similarly vertical eating, choripans ought to be eaten upright and on the street- from a van or market stall. But this street food is far from grotty: most vendors offer a surprisingly sophisticated salad buffet to top your greasy hot dog (and a stand at the entrance of the San Telmo indoor market are single-handedly leading the chori-revolution, offering a gourmet take on the classic). Throw in plenty of happy hour cervezas and you’ve got gastronomy on a budget!

Traversing the city on foot, one truly comes to realise just how different it can be. From bohemian San Telmo, where market stalls balance atop the cobbles, to the chic European avenues of Recoleta, where even the street benches are faux plush! Elsewhere, the streets of La Boca (famous for the colourful Caminito) can be defined by a pervasive match day atmosphere: crowds gather around cars playing music, to enjoy al fresco drinking and share in the striking blue and yellow team colours of Boca Juniors. From tourist sights and cultural delights, to living like a local, my beloved Buenos Aires didn’t disappoint second time around and it still exudes a palpable and varied buzz.

Street-life: the rhythms of Rio

Having just recently booked flights for my long-awaited return to South America (they say third time’s a charm!) I began taking a trip down memory lane:

Famed for Christ the Redeemer, the Olympics, Copacabana beach and bikini waxes therein, Rio de Janeiro is the city that effortlessly shifts from golden sands to verdant hills, from scorching sun to biblical rain, and from entirely deserted streets to drunken crowds.

But to focus on the natural wonders is to overlook the true essence of Rio. As I learnt, Carioca life is vibrant, musical and exists most purely on the streets.

The labyrinthine cobbles of bohemian Santa Teresa, which I called home, contrast the insanity that consumes the adjacent Lapa district. As crowds gathered beneath the imposing colonial aqueduct, we flocked to drink cheap caipirinhas and dance to impossibly eclectic music. The mysterious array of hanging, dusty bottles in the quaint ‘Casa do Cachaça’ street-side shack seems rather to belong on ‘Diagon Alley’; each fiery flavour warmed us up to hit the streets. On Friday nights, the crowds multiply tenfold. Any car brave enough to tackle these roads becomes trapped amongst the street-partying revellers.

I found a more relaxed buzz watching the waves, downtown at Praça Mauá. Dominated by the spaceship-style building that houses the ‘Museum of Tomorrow’, this spot remedies the eerie silence of the out-of-hours business district. Infused by the continent-wide penchant for sitting outdoors of an evening (which I adopted with aplomb), the plaza boasts unrivalled people watching! Skateboarders threw shapes, live bands accrued impressive audiences and post-modern security guards did laps on segways! Praça Mauá also offers the most spectacular sunset, followed by gazing at the twinkling headlights crossing the impossibly long bridge to Niterói.

Beyond partying and people watching, street markets can be found in most neighbourhoods come Sunday afternoon. Santa Teresa’s market offers a heavy vintage focus; down the hill, neighbouring Gloria’s stalls range from carefully displayed fresh fruits, to pungent fish and flea-market floor piles. For me, street market synaesthesia defines that “holiday feeling.” And if the sights and smells are too overwhelming, an abundance of deep-fried pastels and coxinhas offer some comforting beige!

Of a Sunday, my favourite spot is undeniably Praça Sao Salvador. Artistic stalls, food and booze edge of the square, yet the main focus lies on the central gazebo, crammed with musicians. Oldies, with the full orchestral spectrum of instruments, treat the surrounding crowds to a performance. Once they tire, a samba band takes up the reigns. Locals, young and old, welcomed us gringos to join the carefree fun in the sunshine.

Finally, perhaps most famously, Monday nights play host to the Pedra do Sal street samba extravaganza! Little more than a dead-end street in the middle of nowhere, thanks to its amphitheatre shape, abundance of street art and copious bunting, this party spot floods with people. Crowds come from far and wide to revel in the live samba and, as ever, to sample the creative drinks provided by street vendors.

Day or night, for shopping or dancing, the winding roads are much more than a means of traversing this diverse city. The streets are the thronging veins of Rio de Janeiro.

Dublin for a Day: the James Joyce edition

As enthusiastic readers of James Joyce (or at least aspiring to be so), we began with a shot of Jameson’s Irish Whisky before our obscenely early flight to Dublin. With just one day to soak up the culture, we had to start as we meant to go on!

A ridiculously short flight later and we hopped straight on a DART train out of the city. Through many stations that we couldn’t pronounce (several with Joycean claims to fame to excite us) we began our day as Ulysses begins: at the Martello tower in Sandycove, where Joyce, and his characters, lived. Now converted into a miniature museum, this impressive collection boasts of first editions, private letters, Matisse illustrations and even a plaster cast of Joyce’s dead face. Up some unsettlingly steep and narrow stairs, the rooftop gun deck quite literally blows you away, with high winds and lovely views to boot.

Back at ground level, we did some seaside rock clambering, as a wimpy substitute for plunging into the Irish sea at ‘Forty Foot Bathing Place’. Even an octogenarian, with a fag on, put us to shame.

A quick, small town breakfast, and it was back to the big smoke. This is where the ‘Alternative Tour’ of Dublin truly began. Following in the footsteps of Joyce’s plot lines (and a wonderfully enthusiastic academic) we nipped into the ornate and Latinate All Hallow’s church- through the back door of course.

If reading dense literature in situ isn’t entirely your thing, but you still fancy some James Joyce culture, there is nowhere more fitting than Sweny’s Chemist. Still decked out like the old-fashioned Candy Man’s shop in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and staffed by a man bearing an uncanny resemblance to Doc Brown, in a long white coat, this former chemist (where soap was dramatically purchased in Ulysses) is now dedicated to keeping literature alive. The proprietor is undoubtedly the highlight; the most eccentric man in Dublin, maybe the world. He’ll regale you with anecdotes of his life, show off about the number of times he’s read Ulysses and how many languages he speaks (37 and 6, respectively) and, if you’re truly lucky, he’ll serenade you in Gaelic. Who knew such a tiny shop could be so full of utterly bizarre delights?!

Through the dramatic and imposing grounds of Trinity College Dublin, down the Irish equivalent of Bond Street, and we reached ‘Davy Byrne’ bar and restaurant. Whilst I can only apologise for my incessant comparisons, this historical haunt struck me as a cosier version of ‘Cafe Tortoni’ in Buenos Aires (see previous blogs for my Argentine adoration.) Here we sipped our first Guinness, split a gorgonzola sandwich and ruminated on just how literary we were being.

Next stop: The National Library of Ireland. Almost entirely decked out in various shades of green, the domed reading room just oozes intelligence. Couple that with the poshest toilets I’ve ever encountered in a public building and we were onto a winner.

This was where we experience the first instance of our lecturer’s silver tongue. Determined to visit the exact locations described in the book, we somehow blagged our way into the librarian’s private office. Nice vaulted ceilings, but otherwise, an office.

Having caught the ‘we can get away with anything’ bug, the next stop was obvious: the National Maternity Hospital! Bearing around 10,000 babies a year, this is a popular, but far from touristic site. However, our need to see the brand board room, where Joyce’s characters enjoy a late night drinking session, was paramount. I was almost consumed by embarrassment as the hospital staff considered the bizarre request, but I confess, I never would have pictured such a grand dining hall whilst reading. A long way from hospital sterility, this room felt literary.

From here we walked all the way up into North Dublin, beginning to feel the aches that I can only assume Leopold Bloom was plagued with. The wonderfully photographic O’Connell Street splices the city, across the river, as only a monumental boulevard can. Unfortunately, Dublin is currently plagued with unsightly (and inconvenient) roadworks, so we once more took refuge in an atmospheric Irish pub.

Another Guinness later and we realised both the James Joyce Cultural Centre and the Writers Museum had closed whilst we were chatting. Thus we moseyed a little, past numerous cookie-cutter Georgian houses, the Jesuit schoolhouse of Joyce’s early life and up to Eccles Street, where a hospital (admittedly with a Ulysses plaque) stands in place of Bloom’s house. After a long day, we made it back to the beginning of the book; in empathy with our character, we came “home”.

To truly feel the journey of the book, we circumnavigated Dublin entirely on foot. Attempting to recreate a modern epic in just a day is perhaps an impossible task, but, with day-return flights from Leeds for less than twenty quid, it seemed rude note to! And, now that I know I can go on holiday in less time than it takes to get the train home, I’ll no doubt be back to sample the delicacies of the Temple Bar.

Fun at the Fringe; a long weekend in Edinburgh

Admire the views from atop ‘Arthur’s Seat’; play with medieval weaponry at the castle; scale the treacherous heights of the Scot memorial; these are all the things I intended to achieve on my first trip to Edinburgh.

Instead, I spent five days hidden from the sunlight (please allow my poetic license, after all, this is Scotland!) in dank, underground venues, begging people to entertain me. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival!

The streets are crowded by up-and-comers desperate to pass on their flyers (and as much information as they can convey in seconds), along with pop-up venues, street performers and fairy lights. There’s a fine line to be drawn between someone who has taken full advantage of the ‘drink until 5am’ Fringe-specific licensing laws, or an avant-garde performance artist. Anything goes and everything is constantly buzzing.

Edinburgh itself strikes budding photographers with its somewhat labyrinthine, multi-levelled streets; each lined with unanimously ‘ye olde’ buildings and bearing quaintly amusing names from yesteryear. But beyond these thick grey walls lie hundreds upon hundreds of Fringe theatre venues; from a pub, crammed full of garden chairs, to a pungent nightclub corridor, if you can fit more than ten people, you can put on a show.

Owing to my (not always voluntary) frugal lifestyle, I relished the abundance and variety of free fringe performances on offer. As expected, they request donations at the end, but they lack all pressures of forced enjoyment. Sometimes this, unfortunately, leads to an unenthusiastic audience and a comedian perturbed by their lack of response; but, other times, gems can be uncovered in the most unlikely of places.

Surviving, by and large, on word of mouth (unless you nab a copy of the ‘PBH Free Fringe’ programme) here’s a rundown of my free theatrical spoils:

‘The Simpsons taught me everything I know’: ideal for shamelessly fan-girl-ing the iconic show. Yianni Agisilaou teams flawless impressions, with crowd-pleasing quotes and unexpected trivia. Perhaps comedy is less daunting when you know the exact sense of humour your audience is seeking; and we lapped it up!

‘Jollyboat’: pun-tastic comedy musicians. Somewhat inexplicably dressed as pirates, this duo take pleasure in all things nerdy, through song! I can see the Pokemon and GOT numbers flying off the shelves; whilst The Bible, retold through rap, will be scaling straight to the top of the charts!

‘Mothers’: a Cambridge sketch comedy trio, these guys strike a balance between developing their own ‘Inbetweeners’-esque characters and some totally surreal sketch moments. Also relishing in several musical moments, the highlight was a poignant rap: ‘Living at Home’. This hit home which much of the twenty-something audience; observational comedy meets ridiculous, flamboyant flair.

‘Trevor Lock’: bizarrely enough, this hour-long stand up set contained not a single joke, or even attempt at conventional comedy. Purely based on deadpan delivery, brazening out some of the most mundane material, to the surprise and delight of the waiting crowd. Turns out, observational comedy can please the whole audience, when the only observations are set within that very room.

‘Viking Longboat’: shout out random words, throw your ideas into a hat and watch this improv troupe enact your brainchild, in desperate pursuit of a logical storyline. Silly, unexpected and certainly diverse!

‘Brickhead’: this mime comedian’s flyer showed such great promise, but in reality, his show was marred by the pumping salsa sounds from the club downstairs; that and the fact he relied on a single, unfunny movement sequence. We left before giving him the chance to get any better, so, by all means, try it for yourself- if you dare!

‘Positions’: I caught the first performance of this witty two-man play, so they were understandably a little jittery. The tale of a young couple, separated by oceans and language barriers, but together through Skype and choreographed movement sequences. Unfortunately, they too were intruded upon by the sound of an adjacent gig; but try not to let that put you off!

‘Free Footlights’: a mixed bag of student stand ups and sketch snippets. Around eight acts, for the price of one (well, free actually!), with a comedy compere, who often stole the show in between. As expected, some acts were distinctly better than others, across the two days that I frequented the showcase. Personal highlights included a sensationalised and eloquently written tale of “Broken Britain” from Adrian Gray, and some notably silly observations from Rob Oldham.

‘Made to Measure’: my first taste of performative Spoken Word. I braced myself for a preaching poet, with a brick wall back drop, but was gloriously surprised by this comedic duo. They followed a flowing narrative, with observational witticisms and effortless poetry, bringing multiple levels of meaning and emotion to a basic ‘journey to work’ tale. I was sold.

As one might expect from the second largest global gathering, after the Olympics (n.b. Just according to my friend, and unverified), the festival probably wouldn’t enjoy such long term success without a small fee charged by most of the shows. Picking and choosing from the thousands of shows on offer can be mind-numbingly tough, but, the odd sell out certainly makes some decisions for you!

Drawn mostly by recommendations, knowing the cast members, or simply following the crowd, these lucky shows comprise my latest bank statement:

‘Margaret Thatcher: Queen of Gameshows’: a weird combination of political satire and glitzy drag cabaret. A big budget slice was clearly spent on glitter and, although there was a little too much audience participation for my liking, they nailed everyone’s favourite gameshow tropes. Not exactly ‘laugh out loud’, but, certainly cleverness compounded with impeccable impressions.

‘The Leeds Tealights: Tension’: another student sketch group, combining everything from Spanish sitcoms to the ubiquitous Brexit joke (this one particularly outdid many other Fringe attempts I reckon), via stupid outfits and prop comedy. A mental mixture of ‘what should I expect next?’

‘Boys’ by Aireborne Theatre: remember ‘Skins’? Well this is ‘Skins’, but with people who can actually act! Running at just under an hour in total, the piece necessitates exhaustingly high energy and highly-strung emotions from the six-strong cast. They all perform effortlessly and convincingly (which is no mean feat, considering the amount of “alcohol” and “narcotics” the script demands!)

‘Goodbear’: the best way to describe these two former Leeds Tealights is ‘silly’. Their incredibly accomplished sketch show runs fluidly, through their acute control of physical comedy and a seamless soundtrack. The characters presented are as varied as they are wacky, each one adding another layer to the lads’ performative repertoires. It’s a sell-out for a reason!

And finally, if you want to escape the smelly student riff raff, the Edinburgh International Festival runs concurrently to the Fringe. Staged in the “real” theatres, I had a delightful sojourn back into truly accomplished theatre, thanks to having a man on the inside (“yes I will take those free tickets off of your hands.”)

‘Shake’: This retelling of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’, almost entirely in French, regained the abundant sense of fun and comedy so often lost in studying the Bard. Sir Toby and the Fool compered the whole event, with musical interludes and even ventriloquism. The whole piece was strung together with multi-roling and on-stage costume changes, not only highlighting the underlying tropes of this cross-dressing tale, but also harking back to the fun and frivolous origins, as well as providing a sense of surprise at the end, which has been lost from the plot across four hundred years of repetition! That is not to undermine the honesty of emotion shown in scenes between the lovers; but this production certainly didn’t need to dwell on the soppy stuff! (As is probably apparent, this show was a highlight for me and my ongoing Renaissance literary love affair.)

Edinburgh has all the offerings of a huge city, in a compact, ‘carry on bag’ fashion. Thus, if you’re lucky enough to have a plethora of theatrical, ‘Fringe-enthusiast’ friends, be they performers or lowly audience members, you’re bound to bump into them time and again,  amongst the hoards of tourists. Thus, this trip was dedicated solely to long-overdue catch-ups and the unending search for new talent. The sightseeing can wait until next year!

London Life: Holidaying at Home

Not far from the suburban bliss of drinking red wine by my garden fireplace, an abundance of surprises line the London streets. It seems a crying shame that I so often skim over many of these wonders, until provoked to explore by a visiting friend demanding a tour guide. It took but a single afternoon to refresh my vision and rekindle my love affair with London Town. Turns out one’s travel bug can sometimes (very occasionally) be satisfied close to home.

It is universally recorded that the minute we Brits sample even a slither of sunshine, the shorts are on and everyone hits the streets. This first became apparent as our path was repeatedly interrupted by an inexplicably huge number of cyclists. Apparently there was some sort of city-wide celebration, all in the name of person-powered vehicles. However many wheels you had, whether you were reclining, upright, or backflipping on a BMX, PrudentialRideLondon was a bizarre people-watching moment (and one that almost convinced me to join in!)

First popping our heads in at St Paul’s Cathedral, we accidentally found ourselves ruining some glorious wedding photos and made a run for it; a picturesque run in fact, across the Millennium bridge, that leads directly into the Tate Modern.

Unbeknownst to me, the gallery had undergone an overhaul. It was a major struggle to find my way to my favourite, dimly-lit, womb-like comfort of the Mark Rothko room. However, this exploration lead not only past numerous iconic artworks, but also to the newly instated tenth floor viewing platform. A stone’s throw from St Paul’s, the Shard and all manner of other weird and wonderfully shaped skyscrapers, the Tate offers a new viewpoint of a view that never gets old.

Continuing along the sunny Southbank, we veered off into Gabriel’s Wharf for some lunch and respite. This cove of shops and restaurants is a trendy, arty haven from the bustling city streets. Whilst still bustling (after all, we were still in the capital on a weekend!) the wharf offers a distinctly different vibe to the streets of London proper. Most notably, it offered me a beer, in a square, under an awning: my very definition of a holiday.

The only thing that could have enhanced that holiday feeling was the very thing that happened next! Mere metres from our quaint lunch spot lay an inexplicable and overexcitable street festival, dedicated to all things Colombian. We sipped Aguila, absorbed the now comforting smells of arepas, empanadas and everything deep-fried and even browsed a market of souvenirs we both already owned from our time as honorary Latinos. The small ‘Colombiamente’ stage housed a lively cumbia band and even the Barranquilla Carnaval Queen herself! Despite being hosted in a distinctly smaller setting than she may be accustomed to, la Reina tried her very best to whip the crowd into a frenzy; luckily for her, a bunch of beyond-tipsy Latinos didn’t take a whole lot of convincing!

On the verge of impulsively booking flights back to our favourite continent, we thought we ought to escape. Little did we expect that, once again, a few steps further along the Southbank lay yet more summer fun! The National Theatre, renowned internationally for being the erudite home of British theatre, was the last place I would have anticipated to find an outdoor stage hosting a camp, drag queen extravaganza!

‘The River Stage’ at the National is staging a different takeover each weekend of summer, and we were lucky enough to stumble into the set from ‘The Glory’, a Haggerston-based cabaret club. Not normally being one who particularly enjoys drag acts, this array of drag queens (and kings!) joined together to surprise and delight me, with a celebration of all things camp and karaoke. The audience were just as flamboyantly attired and giddy as those on stage, making it clear that not everyone had arrived here by accident!

Once the tiaras had been awarded, the show came to a close and we resumed normal touristing. This lasted all of one minute (“Look, there’s the London Eye”) before we were once again engulfed by a foreign and unexpected land: ‘The Wonderground’, to be precise. Apparently, each year the Southbank Centre hosts a circus spectacle, housed in a popup fairyland, not dissimilar to the Wild West; who knew?! The foodie smells, craft beers and twinkly set design transport you far from the Southbank; that is until you notice the looming glow of the London Eye overhead.

Back across the river, dancing to buskers and the chimes of Big Ben, brings you within walking distance of the glorious Porterhouse pub, in Covent Garden. (This was the first actually intentional station of my tour!) Hosting a hundred-odd international beers and a live gig three nights a week, this pub perfectly balances the vibes of ‘glamourous’ and ‘dingy’ and is one of my top spots in town. A little reminder that I was still on home turf.

The following morning saw us brave the crowded streets of Camden (apparently closing the Northern Line did nothing to deter the tourists!) for some fish and chips at a market stall and a lounge on the beach. Whilst this sounds distinctly more like a day trip to Brighton, what we saved on train fares, we spent at the bar on the rooftop terrace at the Roundhouse. Home to the annually beloved ‘Camden Beach’, one can drift off in the sand, to a land of laughter, Ibiza-beats and free Coca Cola; all under the watchful eye of the looming adjacent office blocks, so topless sunbathing is unadvisable!

This weekend reminded a self-confessed travel-junkie of the fun to be had on her doorstep (or, at least, within the reach of her Oyster card!) If you choose to sample some (or all) of the locally brewed and/or Colombian beers on offer, then an outing such as this ceases to be a cheap day out. However, each of the outlandish activities themselves were entirely free and gloriously unexpected. Had I come across any one of these events whilst travelling I would have been sure to gush about them in a blog post; thus I thought it only fair to give my home town a shout out of its own.

Brussels: through the blur of a billion Belgian beers

Our mini-break to Brussels felt somewhat cursed: booked to go during the famous Christmas Markets last November, we were thwarted by the city being under counter-terrorism lock down. Between then and now, our group dwindled in numbers (some simply getting the dates wrong and arriving a day late), our exchange rate plummeted and I had all but forgotten how to speak French. But, we pushed on undeterred and everything began to go our way from the minute we boarded the train.

Embracing the imminent bankruptcy of our currency, we threw caution to the wind and, between eleven of us, we sprawled across three private apartments and three king size rooms in the adjacent Radisson hotel. Whilst the Radisson ‘Red’ chain claimed to be aimed at youths, my backpacker lifestyle couldn’t have felt more distant as we cryogenically preserved ourselves with aircon, reenacted the Herbal Essences advert in our glamorous waterfall shower and inspected our actions from each night before, by casting photos onto our impossibly large Apple TV.

Having unintentionally arrived on Belgian National Day, my first glimpse of the city was provoked by seeing distant fireworks from our hotel window. New in town, we were totally unsure where to go, but ran as fast as we could towards the big flashing lights in the sky. The perfect welcome party. Naturally, this five minute sprint cost us around forty minutes of bemused wandering to find our way home. N.B. learn your address before any spontaneous excursions.

Luckily, the next time we braved the outdoors was en mass, and accompanied by locals who we picked up en route. Upon the recommendation of just about everyone I know who’s ever been to Brussels, we were headed for the infamous Delirium bar. Situated down a bustling, bar-filled alleyway, we were treated to live music, several unsolicited marriage proposals and a menu of over two thousand beers. It was a little intimidating at first, but I attempted filtering by price, and then by preferred flavourings, and simply got distracted as the unusually high alcohol content sneaked up on me.

Our first full day revolved, once again, around where we could stop for a drink. Luckily, we encompassed much wandering and sight-seeing (sort of) into this alcoholic exploration. As we lived a stones throw from Luxembourg Square, and in accordance with my rule that one simply isn’t on holiday until you’ve had a cold beer, in a square, under an awning, we sank our first enormous buckets of fruity beer here. We teamed this with looking over our shoulder at the European Parliament and strictly banned all talk of ‘Brexit’.

The streets of Brussels were unanimously quiet and picturesque. A stroll past the Palace of Justice, and some other impressive Corinthian columns, brought us to a glorious, sweeping view at the Mont des Arts and the mirage of a deckchair-laden, pop-up bar. The perfect spot to combine sight-seeing, street-drinking and people-watching; the favoured pose here being a romantic shot of lovers looking longingly at the view, comprised of a cityscape, some pristine gardens and a giant green horse’s arse.

Our final stop brought us ever closer to the famous Grand Place, but we caved in before we reached it and settled for stopping in a busy square, with yet another glamorous church and anywhere that was offering food more substantial than a box of macarons (delicious, but not ergonomically designed for lining stomachs.)

A glorious day of achieving very little and yet managing to see most of what Brussels had to offer. We congratulated ourselves with dancing both on the bar and in the rain at Cafe Depot, followed by a late night session in our intimately-sized sauna (basically a shed, in a changing room… but felt oh so swanky!)

Despite being away for such a short time, we made ourselves very much at home and luxuriated in a morning fry up at the largest of our apartments. Rejuvenated, we finally made it to Grand Place to marvel at the gothic monstrosities and the ornately golden adorned Starbucks; tick, tourism complete. Or it was, once we also found our way to the ridiculous (and underwhelming for most) statue of Mannequin Pis. It was exactly what it said on the tin: a tiny mannequin boy, having a wee in a fountain. Personally I was a little perturbed by the enormous crowds of tour groups fighting to get the perfect picture of this small boy, when the female version lay entirely unnoticed and uncelebrated, in a cage, at the end of the alleyway at Delirium. Where’s the equality in that?!

Luckily, to distract from my brief feminist outrage, I gorged on Belgian waffles and luxuriated in pick and mixing decadent truffles. Apparently, where there are tourists, there is chocolate; I certainly had no complaints about that.

Lying directly opposite the somewhat obscene fountain is another ideal spot for a beer. Whilst not quite offering 2000 varietals, Poechenellekelder has a drinks menu as eclectic as it’s decor. With walls covered in anything and everything, one barely knows where to look and ends up too distracted to contemplate which beer would be best! (I know this from experience, as I impulsively ordered a beer with ‘Trolls’ in the name, simply because it caught my eye.)

Since I was speaking French, we also indulged in a cheese platter and an overwhelmingly sized bucket of mussels, washed down with white wine. Luckily, Belgian and French cuisine and culture seem to overlap, so I didn’t feel like too much of a Brit Abroad, doing it all wrong. (Although if you play enough loud games around the dinner table and laugh until it hurts at unintentionally lewd comments, one can gain that reputation regardless!)

As if our eleven-strong group wasn’t enough, we had been invited to fraternise with some honorary locals and jumped at the chance to not have to think for ourselves vis a vis directions. From our own back garden, to their equally glamorous apartment and onwards to a series of un-named bars (don’t worry, I wasn’t necessarily going to sing odes to them anyway.) It seems the bar culture in Brussels revolves mostly around drinking in the street outside the establishment; presumably something to do with the warm air, the cobbled streets and the chatty passers-by.

Where one isn’t allowed to loiter outside, however, is the thumping techno club Fuse. No European excursion would have felt complete without revelling in the continent’s favourite musical genre. But, by 7am, we were once more ready for the sauna.

Naturally, the following day, we made it no further than Luxembourg Square again, before collapsing in the glorious sunshine in the next park we came across. (Luckily there were no Pokemon fanatics swarmed there to judge us this time!) I’m not sure if I speak for the group as a whole, but Brussels had broken me. The perfect city to do nothing but wander, eat, drink and laugh; and we did them all, in swathes. A mere two hour train hop to London, the outdoor culture, surrounded by infinite glamorous buildings, epitomises the “holiday” vibe. Even our friend who doesn’t drink beer had fun; promise!

Glorious Glastonbury: an ode.

There are few events that could have dragged me away from the adventures and hedonism of South American traveller life, but the infinitely higher levels of hedonism on offer at Glastonbury festival is the one that brought me back across the Atlantic.

Leagues above any other music festival, the collective strength of feeling amongst a crowd of three hundred thousand like-minded revellers is the perfect place to position oneself in a week of Brexit and division. United we stood, jumped and danced; the ultimate expression of solidarity.

Unfortunately, for the first time in my six-year-strong Glastonbury stint, I experienced some uncommon negative vibes: namely, someone emptied our wallets, whilst we were asleep in our tent. But, for every asshole who flouts the trusting Glastonbury family rules, there were fifty people offering me financial aid, from near and afar, and a hundred more people face down in the mud- so I concluded that perhaps I wasn’t so unlucky after all! Once you float around the sprawling site, following wherever the mud flows, I found myself crossing paths with friendly faces left, right and centre; strangers, friends and even a reunion with some relatives, all worked to reaffirm my faith in humanity almost instantly. (The shock of being robbed was also allayed by a morning of mindless laughter and a pint of milk pouring from my friend’s nose; less of a hippy loving message, but still ranks on the cheer up scale!)

Whilst the weather held out for the most part, the week of preceding rain made this the muddiest festival I have ever experienced. Having said that, I probably used the fewest wet wipes to date, as everyone embraced the filth, gave up the fight for cleanliness and became a hybrid of man and land. Negative aspects of the mud included severe delays and often entire closures of some areas: the late-night, South East Corner fields were more overcrowded and over-sludged than I have witnessed in years previous, often rendering them a no-go. Thus sadly I never got to experience Hot Chip’s tribute to Prince; a loss perhaps worse than the £80 from my tent!

The mud also provided the trials and tribulations of never being able to sit down, but, beyond that, it provided unlimited hilarity. One night we found our friends ‘at the comedy tent’: an area of mud so deep that it attracted a hundred-strong crowd of spectators, as people sunk and face planted to their demise. One might expect this level of entertainment to wane fast, but with an unending stream of flamboyantly dressed party-goers, the show went on and on. Survivors joined us as audience members and mud-pundits. The method we learnt: tight wellies, don’t stop moving and, if in doubt, dab.

Of course, in amongst the unrivalled people watching and one too many free meals from the Hare Krishnas, there was some music too!

‘James’ kicked off the weekend, with a lead singer who made me slightly worried for his mental wellbeing! They were shortly followed by some Mancunian indie tunes from ‘Blossoms’, who unfortunately lacked much stage presence or the ubiquitous humility of Glastonbury performers.

Some of the best singalong sessions came courtesy of ‘The Smyths’ and ‘Squeeze’, playing non-stop crowd pleasers. Meanwhile, ’MØ’ took crowd-pleasing a step further and spent almost half of her set down in the hustle bustle, busting some seriously fierce dance moves; she exudes the very essence of “cool”.

Unlike many previous festivals, where I had a determined schedule, I dedicated a lot of time to seeing bands who I had never heard before, other than by recommendation. This brought some great, and diverse, new music to my attention: ‘Unknown Mortal Orchestra’ had a few microphone issues, but ultimately put on an enjoyable, largely instrumental, show. ‘Hinds’ proved that girlbands don’t have to follow the mould and can jump and scream with the best of them. ‘Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats’ had gloriously upbeat Sunday afternoon vibes, combining a ‘Mumford and Sons’ folky-rock with swinging brass and a token tambourine man (the subdued Bez, if you will). And finally, ‘Kwabs’ provided some very chilled out, but still boppy sounds- almost like if ‘Jungle’ took a lot of sedatives.

Sadly, ‘New Order’, amidst a superb light show, started their set a little flat and a little off; they picked up, with some classic songs getting the crowd pumped, but weren’t at the top of their game. Similarly, whilst I only caught the end, ’Beck’ did some strange things with his time of stage, and the crowd weren’t exactly lapping it up.

‘Half Moon Run’ put enormous amounts of energy into their show, considering how sleepy their music can sound; but with a string of melodic surprises and slight alterations to an album I know like the back of my hand, they were a highlight on Friday afternoon. Similarly, I have seen ‘Muse’ four times, across the last ten year period, and their headline set was like nothing I have ever seen from them before: never slowing down for some of their older, low tempo numbers, and not wasting time chatting to the crowd, the entire set was heavy and hugely exciting from start to finish. Yet, attempting to match their level of intensity, I completely lost my voice; I guess I ought to leave it to the professionals!

Every time I see ‘Foals’, ‘Wolf Alice’ and ‘Catfish and the Bottlemen’, they don’t disappoint. They were all in their element, perfectly tuned to their surroundings, considering British indie rock bands are pretty much what festivalling is built upon. Other repeat viewings for me included ‘New York Brass Band’ and ‘Tame Impala’- both bouncy and upbeat, the latter graced the Pyramid stage, with some psychedelic backing visuals, whilst the former can be found performing almost perpetually across the five day festival; how they have such boundless energy, I can’t fathom!

‘The Last Shadow Puppets’ were an as-yet unseen band for me until now, but by combining two of my favourite groups into one, they were bound to please! It’s a joy to watch bandmates really appear to enjoy one another’s company; yet they are far from being caught up in themselves, as both are incredible showmen.

Finally, the most quintessentially Glasto vibes were delivered by ‘Coldplay’s closing set. The crowd was unanimously happy and the famous flashing wristbands showed just how far we sprawled in every direction- we were a part of something enormous. Despite a somewhat bizarre interlude from Barry Gibb, Chris Martin whipped the crowd into a frenzy with the set list alternating between the classic, subdued Coldplay of yore and the newer, far more poppy numbers. Almost every song had a trick up its sleeve, with glitter and confetti cannons, giant balloons, infinite lights and fireworks.

‘Muse’ similarly used all of these tricks, but in a less colourful, more aggressively rock-orientated fashion. I for one was delighted with this allocation of this year’s budget, because, as my wisely drunk friend said: “no pyro, no party!”

Other highlights included: being served ale, in a wooden shack pub, by the guy from the infamous ‘Gap Yah’ video; an encounter with a man dressed as a bumblebee, on stilts, by the oldest tree on site; and greeting sunrise, vigorously at the silent disco and more relaxedly, whilst reclining at the Stone Circle. The delights on offer span all genres!

In accordance with tradition amongst my friends, we spent the first night upon Glastonbury’s own Hollywood hill, watching the twinkles below and the fireworks above. We were joined by a man who classed this glorious festival amongst the Seven Wonders of the World. Whilst I questioned some of his other “wonders” (the Channel Tunnel, really?!) I can’t help but agree that there is something very special about Worthy Farm and the atmosphere it promotes. Until next year, my lover x

My Top Travel Tips (for what to pack)

Whilst I obviously don’t need to stress the importance of basics like a waterproof, windproof jacket, some comfortable shoes and plenty of clean knickers, I’ve also discovered a few less immediately obvious things that have (or could have) made my trip all the better.

This list is by no means all-encompassing. Sadly, try as I might, I couldn’t find a way to pack several key things I missed from home: my dressing gown, my dog and a substantial supply of salt and vinegar crisps. But, the following came a substantial way to satisfying my other needs. Whilst I don’t claim to be any sort of travel guru, here are some personal pearls of wisdom, should you care to peruse them:

Penknife- common amongst all Bear Grylls types, a penknife isn’t solely for the intrepid. Scissors are always useful, but beyond that, often hostel kitchens don’t provide tools such as a corkscrew or tin opener; hence, the ubiquitous Swiss multi-tool. Also useful for making avocado sandwiches on the go!

Water purifying torch (SteriPen)- ignoring its unfortunately phallic appearance, this gift from my Mum was a magical surprise. Stir the UV light into undrinkable tap water for about a minute and voila! Saves money, plastic and avoids the slightly off taste of water purifying tablets. (Of course, remember to check if the tap water is already drinkable first, because then you can save on batteries and hassle!)

Sleeping bag (for buses)- whether you’re planning to camp or not, a small, lightweight sleeping bag can be a godsend. Often night buses blast the air conditioning to Arctic levels and, whilst others struggled to get comfortable, I was smugly cocooned in my sleeping bag. Slug chic.

Rucksack that opens sideways- all the practicality of a backpack, teamed with the ease of living out of a suitcase. Whilst top-opening bags tend to be the norm, they leave people only wearing the top layer of their packing and neglecting all that lies beneath; with a side-opening bag however, almost everything is visible and easy to find, without sprawling across a dorm room floor.

(Alternatively, I’ve met many people who rave about their ‘packing cubes’- bags within bags that enable ease of finding, with minimal sprawl.)

Portable charger- not only for use on the go! Often hostel dorms don’t have enough plug sockets for the number of people they’ve crammed in there, thus having a separate portable charger enables you to charge your phone without hogging the power supply. Beyond that, you’ll probably feel more comfortable leaving a battery pack to recharge unattended than having your phone further than arms length at any time!

USB or spare SD card- something I didn’t have, but wish I did. Not only did my phone not have enough memory on it, but there’s always the fear of it being lost/broken/stolen and all your months of memories going with it. Whilst using the Cloud or Dropbox was commonplace, that relies on the assumption of decent wifi- which is rarely available. Thus a physical backup device would have been really useful for stashing my photos. Also, when doing excursions like diving, rafting etc, often the tour company will get snap happy and then want to give you the photos at the end of the day; I however had no means of taking this kind offering, thus left with an email address and a promise!

Small sachet of your favourite spices- whilst I wouldn’t recommend whipping it out and risking offence to any restauranteur, a small spice kit takes up little to no room in a bag but can make the difference between ‘yet another bowl of pasta’ and ‘ooh, what are we cooking tonight?!’

Small roll of sellotape- I stumbled upon this by accident, but necessity is after all the mother of invention! I bought a pocket-sized roll of tape when the pages started to fall out of my journal and then discovered it had so many more uses. Not least, for resealing the aforementioned spices! And for scrapbooking- if you are so inclined.

Vaseline- without meaning to be a total brand snob, basic lip balm simply won’t cut it. At high altitude, your lips inevitably become uncontrollably chapped; Vaseline will become your new best friend at times like these.

Needle and thread- yet another thing that I didn’t have but found myself in need of. If, like me, you attempt to be a prudent packer, then it can be devastating when you rip your only sensible pair of trousers. A needle and thread takes up a lot less room than the extra layers you may need to prevent draughts from your newly holey clothes.

Silicone ear plugs: having always hated the expanding sensation of foam earplugs (I can only imagine it’s akin to drowning) I didn’t pack any defence against snorers. They are everywhere: in dorms, on nightbuses; you can’t escape sleep-deprivation! That was until a lovely woman in Colombia gifted me a pair of (unused) silicone earplugs. They mould to your ear, are remarkably comfortable and block out almost all annoyances.
Teaming these with an eye mask to block out light, I may have looked ridiculous, but boy was I well-rested!

Padlock: I personally like to believe that everyone in a hostel is in the same boat, thus they won’t rob me if I don’t rob them. Adhering to this philosophy, I didn’t even own a padlock for the most part of my trip. But, if you do have valuables you want to ensure are safe, most hostels offer lockers, provided you bring your own lock. Thus a small padlock can provide some peace of mind, if you’re not yet quite ready to sign up to my hippy, hope-for-the-best ideology!

Optional: The Rough Guide- for me, it’s the Bible; yet I know other travellers prefer to follow Google, or simply word of mouth. Admittedly it’s an added weight to carry, but undoubtedly aids with planning on the go, local knowledge and, if nothing else, gives you something to read on buses! (Largely identical to its more established brother, Lonely Planet, I personally found Rough Guide to be a little more youthful. Lonely Planet tends to attempt to cover every single place, however briefly; whereas Rough Guide will streamline, so it can give more info on certain highlights.)

Pack several pens, for filling out piles of triplicate immigration forms; pack enough insect repellent to last a lifetime (deet doesn’t tend to exist anywhere I’ve searched!); and try to pack some handwash solution, for when the laundry pile gets unmanageably desperate!

Clothes, toiletries and which medicines to stash are of course your prerogative (but do bear in mind that toiletries are often cheaper at home than when you arrive, despite everything else trending the other way.)

Other than that, check you passport, tickets, money, and you’re good to go! Buen Viaje!

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