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Archive for July, 2012

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I was in London today for work stuff and was wonderfully distracted by the buzz that I could literally feel lining the Thames. I was pretty apprehensive about venturing into London during the Olympic period. There have been all manor of pessimistic tales of how the city is going to be crazy over the next couple of weeks and the media are doing a fine job of adding fuel to the fire, why can’t we be positive and proud for a change?!

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Anyway I was visiting Trinity House, the beautiful maritime museum overlooking the Tower of London, usually stacked full with gorgeous old paintings, rugs and maritime artefacts and statues. But for the Olympics the Austrians are coming and Trinity House is being transformed into a mini Austria! They’re hanging a massive canvas of the Tyrol mountains, building a whole new facade from decking with a bar and Austrian mountain lodge. The ancient rugs have been replaced with green and white furniture and pin ball machines. It was completely insane! We even got to meet the ‘visionary’ behind the whole thing, who was aninated and dancing round the site directing builders and caterers as his dream unfurled. And that was just Austria. France are setting up camp over the river, Switzerland futher down the South Bank, Russia at the British Academy and i can’t remeber where Holland are but apparently they always go big. The Dutch like to party! I think it’s amazing that all the countries represented descend on historic buildings across London and transform them into little pieces if their land and culture in our capital.

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It was so exciting just being there, it feels relaxed at the moment but definitely with a buzz. The skyline from the watersedge is incredible and seeing the Olympic rings suspended from Tower Bridge nearly brought a tear to my eye and made my heart swell with Great British pride.

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Tonight I watched the evening news tonight and Fiona Bruce was standing right on the spot where I was earlier today, this time the sun had come out and was bathing the Tower Bridge and its five proud rings in a beautiful orange light. The torch was about to arrive, the buzz about to get a little stronger…
I’m heading back to London tomorrow night and next weekend (when the games commence) not for Olympic reasons but this time I’m not apprehensive, I’m excited to get back, to feel the buzz again, to enjoy the magic and bask in the glory of this once in a lifetime opportunity to be part of a significant moment in my country and capital’s history.

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The first time I set foot on US soil was at Newark airport, July 3rd 2001. The airport was a culture shock in itself, with loud American accents all around, a brusque firing of questions at immigration and then sitting in the departure lounge waiting for our connecting flight to Seattle. I remember looking out of the window and in the far, far distance seeing the mighty silhouette of the Twin Towers. My heart jumped with excitement, I was in America, and would spend the next 6 months travelling this diverse and amazing country to finally find my way back to this incredible city.

Just under six months later, I arrived back on a Greyhound bus into the New York bus station. It was a cold, grey day and after 5 ½ months of backpacking I’d been to pretty much every major city on both coasts and a smattering in the middle and I was over big cities.

I’d seen the beautiful countryside of northern California, had my WOW factor arriving in San Fransico and seeing skyscrapers for the first time, loved the laid back of San Diego, experienced the neon madness that is Las Vegas, the sultry, sexy vibes of Miami… as well as countless others, LA, New Orleans, Chicago, Boston, Washington DC, Mephis, Buffalo… New York really didn’t seem to have much left to take my breath away. Oh, and did I say it was cold?

Anyway, it was 2001 and it was December, and a lot had happened since I’d been sitting in that departure lounge 5 months ago, it was now a pretty solemn time to be turning up on the doorstep and demanding to be dazzled by the “Greatest City on Earth”.

I spent around 2 weeks making my temporary home at a backpackers lodge in Chelsea. My time there crossed through both Christmas and New Year and slowly the city began to enchant me, as I explored the surrounding areas and slowly made my way up to Times Square, finding local diners that became regular haunts, visited all the “tourist” spots, and tentatively found myself in the lower parts of Manhattan, not really knowing or understanding where I was, but feeling the vibe and nationalities of the districts unravel as I passed by

Empire StateIt is a bit of a blur, looking back. I have memories – having Christmas dinner in the Galaxy diner (I don’t think it’s there any more), standing in the LOVE statue for a picture, shopping at vintage stores, going to Arlene’s Grocery and hearing an American accent calling someone a “w*nker”. Of course 9-11 was still fresh in the hearts and minds of the city and its people and I went to visit Ground Zero, standing on the deck overlooking the rubble and twisted wires, with all the flags and notices attached to the railings. Such sadness there, it was hard to imagine the towers as they were, the tiny silhouette still etched in my memory, I just got to experience the ghost of what was.

I spent NYE on Times Square, watching the ball drop. I remember thinking the ball was so small, and as the confetti rained down on us seeing all the policeman lined up, crying, as they saw their colleagues names (who died in 9-11) scroll across an electronic ticker.

It would be 10 years before I went back to the Apple.

Taxi to the cityLast year I had two trips, now for work, the first on my own. This was amazing. There’s something about flying to New York that is just “so cool”. Landing, grabbing your case and jumping in that cab straight to Manhattan. As you drive towards the island, seeing that skyline for the first time and gazing in awe just before you dive into the tunnel and then popping out on Manhattan, with high rise buildings all around.

That first trip last year I was by myself and really enjoyed the freedom that I felt in the city. Something interesting at every turn, almost impossible to get lost, and so much to see and do at every time of day or night. It’s such an amazing place to be alone, I feel so free there, able to just let it take me where it needs me to go.

I next returned in September, this time in a gang of work mates, some who were having their first time experiences, and some who had been before. So I got to witness it from another perspective, this time not being so excited about those “firsts” but more just relaxing into it and getting a chance to observe things at a slower pace.

9 months later, I was back, and this time it was like falling in love all over again. We landed into JFK on July 4th, perhaps the best time to get to NYC (although locals may not agree), almost 11 years to the day since I first landed in New York. Rolling out of the airport to our well-trodden taxi queue, the intense heavy heat of July pressed down on our clothes. It felt like Spain. Beautiful sunshine and intoxicating heat.

This time, after we popped out of the tunnel onto Manhattan island, the first thing I noticed was that all the trees were in bloom. I have never been in NY in the summer and it’s so beautiful when it’s green. After checking into our hotel we immediately headed out to stomp the streets, the whole city was on holiday, lounging in the parks, relaxing in street cafes, promenading the avenue, slowing down just a little bit to enjoy the time off and the warm air.

It was magical. I started falling…

Trailer Park barWe walked for miles, window shopping, taking photos, asking policemen about where to watch the fireworks, laughing at their inability to understand our accents, getting iced coffee, which moved to sangria, people watching, loving the city.

We wound up watching the fireworks that night, pressed up against hundreds of New Yorkers, along the Hudson river. We were told not to go, told it would be too crowded and hot and we’d have to wait a long time. It was, all of those things, but it was brilliant, just to be part of it.

So we spent the next couple of days working hard during the day, then, after work, spilling out to spend as many hours again walking the grid, exploring amazing restaurants, crazy bars, dancing to eighties bands, meeting new people, eyeing up racks of beautiful clothes. We discovered Greenwich village and just for a few hours slipped into life there, pretending to be locals enjoying the scene, although our big tourist-giddy grins and English accents would have given us away.

Fluffer NutterSaturday was the day that thermometers soared to over 100 degrees, the morning was filled with peanut butter sandwich experiments and shopping, bags filling our arms, then we caught a train out to Brighton Beach. A huge sandy stretch with a long wooden boardwalk. We took a big sheet and lay down amongst the masses of rainbow umbrellas, listening to the shouts of Russian into mobile phones and people watching from behind our sunglasses – leopard print bikinis and arms full of tattoos. We ran into the water – a relief from the searing heat, the water taking our breath away, floating in a soup of people.

Refreshing but kind of surreal.

Brighton BeachWe lunched at Tatianas, a Russian restaurant with red while and blue bunting, tasting amazing Russian food – green cold borscht, one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted – so refreshing, followed by some kind of bowl of dumplings, could decide whether they were sweet or savoury. Slugged down with giant bottles of Russian beer.

Next, we walked the boardwalk towards the towering Ferris wheel and the madness that is Coney Island.

Coney IslandWhat a place! A fairground with an edge, the energy here is raw and wild. The heat was ridiculous. Feeling salty and sticky, we passed over our 6 bucks for tokens and rode the Wild River ride, hoping to get a dunking. After that we hooked up with new friends and went for a beer at a “Freak Bar”, attached to a Freak Show, I thought it would be a fun cultural experience to take a peek, and the tickets were only $5 a pop.

After sitting in the little dark theatre and watching a midget with no arms, a huge lady dancing with a snake, a guy with lobster hands, a sword swallower and a tiny lady swallow a balloon I started to feel a little uncomfortable with the whole thing, and glancing sideways at the gals, the feeling was replicated, we snuck out to escape back to the city.

Over the most delicious pizza in Little Italy that last day in New York felt apt, it was such a crazy and wonderful day and reflected all the amazing experiences that I’d experienced over my short 4 day trip, it was now time to move on, but I can honestly say I had fallen deeper in love with this city, all it’s quirkiness with delights and challenges on every corner. I’m lucky to have the chance to scratch a little deeper and let it intoxicate me further.

The trouble with taking a bite of a juicy apple is that it leaves you wanting more…

What a ride, what a city. I heart New York.

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I am in the middle of an incredible American adventure. And I’m on a work trip, and I feel blessed.

We touched down at Raleigh Durham airport in our tiny little American Eagle plane early this morning and took a short cab ride to the highly raved about Umstead Hotel and Spa resort, our home for the next 24 hours. And it is nothing short of bewitching.

Set in a woodland, surrounded by trees with a beautiful lake and birds soaring overhead in the clear blue skies, the hotel provides a cool tranquillity as outside the heatwave continues its wrath. Escaping into the airy hallways of the hotel, enjoying our huge room with ridiculous bathroom and curtains gently rippling in the (air conditioned) breeze. This whole hotel smells like a spa, a beautiful musky lavender fills your nostrills and places you gently into a slow meditative state.

I had to muster all will power to spend a good couple hours working on my powerpoint, justifying my presence at such a place, but then it was time to head to the pool, it is Sunday, after all!

The pool is beautiful, and the staff are so attentive, bringing ice buckets with water and spritzer bottles to cool ourselves in the searing heat. A tray of delicious mint, peach and banana smoothie shots came round, perhaps the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted.

I’ve spent a gentle afternoon, dipping in the pool and reading, finally getting some down time after a somewhat crazy week, and I’m not feeling more recharged and refreshed. This hotel is amazing, and I may never get to come here in my normal capacity, but as a gal passing through on a work trip, I’m enjoying every delicious second and feeling the stress of life just peel away…

The more time I spent in the US in this beautiful heat the more I feel like I belong here. The energy feels good, the people are friendly and welcoming. The scenery is arresting, the weather is divine…

Now sitting in Room 529, at my desk, in my bathrobe, I’m contemplating getting dressed and very much looking forward to the lobster macaroni cheese that lays in wait for dinner.. THIS is the life!

Smoothie

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This Saturday I was enjoying a curry with some new friends and we’d been discussing, amongst other things, the amazing places we’d been in the world and the incredible experiences we’d all had. One of my table mates announced that he had never been “travelling” and we questioned him on what he meant by this, seeing as he’s been to a lot of places – he believes that travelling is taking months off his life to explore the world. We then all launched into a debate as to what exactly travelling is – do you have to take significant time out from your “normal” life to travel, or is it something different?

What is travel? And how do you know when you’re doing it?

Cycling at Han Jin in South KoreaIs it the journey? Is it the destination? Is it the people you meet along the way? Is it the dramas and experiences you encounter? Is it the ticking off of cities on your flight plan? Is it the pause in your usual routine?

I think it’s all of these things and more.

Primarily, for me, it’s the journey. It’s the movement of the earth beneath your feet, whether in a taxi, bus, train, plane, bike, boat, tuk-tuk, camel, campervan… It’s the landscape streaking in front of my eyes, it’s the wind in my hair, it’s the cities rolling away as a train pulls out of the station, it’s the changing of the cities to the slums, to the fields to the hills and that first glimpse of sparkling sea.

A lot of my memories from travelling come from the journeys. Often because they’re terrifying.

A 2 hour taxi ride across Mumbai, racing to get to our overnight train, breaking down in the middle of an insane intersection. Getting our backpacks and having to flag down another cab, this time with a taxi driver who was as high as a kite, broken wing mirrors and bumper to bumper at 60mph…

Night trains in Thailand and India, rolling out of sprawling metropolises, going to sleep with the unfamiliar heavy breathing and wheezing of sleeping strangers ringing in your ears, waking up with lush jungle scenery and a steel tea pot providing welcome refreshment…

Boat trips of indeterminable length, rushing us off to tropical islands, the absolute freedom of watching the clear blue ocean foam beneath the boat and no land in sight for 360 degrees…

Overcrowded boats that pitch and yaw and terrify you, bouncing and rolling across the sea…

Crazy, wonderful tuk-tuks across Asia, hurtling and dodging traffic, disco tuk-tuks, the fumes, the chaos..

Buses winding around mountains in central America, not slowing down to overtake on a bend, bright peeling bumper stickers “God drives this bus”

Machu PichuThe destinations. It all starts with those destinations, it’s those that motivate you to get there in the first place. From the glossy travel brochure or the high definition image on your webpage, or from the words in your Rough Guide, wonders of the world to see, footsteps to follow. Everytime I open a new Wanderlust magazine or Lonely Planet publication I have to add new destinations to my list. Top places? Ankor Wat, Machu Pichhu, Pyramids, Petra, Grand Canyon, Table Mountain, Halong Bay, Taj Mahal, Tikal yes yes yes, but it’s the others, the ones you weren’t looking for in the first place that are really special. Bryce Canyon, Pollonaruwa, Xieng Khuan…

Jerash - by Diz LuffyThe people you meet. Always fleeting, but there is something really special and amazing about people you meet on the road. You’re put in incredible places, out of your comfort zones and you cling to each other, swapping quick tales of travels and experiences trying to find some common ground. Overnight, over a beer, you develop intense friendships with these souls. You laugh, swap secrets, perhaps even cry. You then link some of the most amazing memories that you will have in your life with, essentially, complete strangers, who will always have a small place in your personal history, even if you never ever encounter them again. It’s part of the magic, the bonding, those moments, those memories.

So to travel, do you need to take 3 months off? I don’t think so. I think it’s more of a mindset, and the combination of the journey, the destination, and the people you meet along the way. And that you can do in 10 days, or even 3 days. It’s taking a step out of your routine and just getting on a different train. This works for me, as these days it gets harder to take 3 months off, and I need to steal my travel time in long weekends and annual leave.

And then there’s the soundtrack. Where ever I go when I travel, a little ditty always crops up in my head, going round and round. My own personal soundtrack. It’s my travelling song, it feels my heart and head with a longing to move on and see new places and meet new people. Every now and then, when I’m in my “normal life” it pops back in and kicks up the wanderslust all over again. I blame that dog, the one that used to appear on my TV screen all those years ago and plant little seeds of adventure in my mind…

There’s a voice that keeps on calling me

Down the road is where I’ll always be

Every stop I make, I’ll make a new friend

Can’t stay for long, just turn around and I’m gone again.

Maybe tomorrow, I’ll want to settle down,

Until tomorrow, I’ll just keep moving on.

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