Eat, Pray, Pad Thai (part two)

(Read the first half of my essay here)

Once I gave in to the flow of our daily rituals, the nausea that had been plaguing me dissipated. I even found myself offering tips to the constant revolving door of young backpackers staying in the one room not used by yoga students. I got used to the eggs, the menagerie of creatures I was surrounded by on a daily basis, particularly in my shower (frog, gecko, spider, cockroach – in that order); seeing the Buddhist monks early in the morning exchanging blessings for food in the streets. I got used to the rhythm of our days, all of us barreling into the back of a pickup truck to get to and from class everyday. I couldn’t believe how uncertain I had been at the start, and how quickly I’d assimilated. A few of the girls on the course generously donated a rotating selection of fruit to our morning coffee breaks, the mangosteens were great but the durian (stinky fruit) was not for me.

 Top: Monks offering blessings in exchange for breakfast (and Goofy’s canine behind); bottom: the back of the pickup truck

We went to a local restaurant offering Thai and ‘Western’ food one evening, pictures of a club sandwich next to a green curry in the menu. We were always the loudest in the restaurant, a gaggle of five dirty, sweaty yogis ordering nearly everything on the menu. I ordered my by now signature Chang beer, and a panang curry. The waiter wrote it down on a pad of paper, asked if I wanted it spicy or mild. ‘Spicy’ I said, then jokingly added ‘very’. She slowly looked up from her pad, taking in the colour of my skin and hair. ‘Thai food is very spicy, are you sure?’ I was like ‘yeah go for it’. What came out was definitely spicy – Thai chillies have a habit of lulling you into a false sense of security at first, then the slow burn. It was great.

 

A Friday evening brought the strangely titled ‘Night Walking Market’, a street market of curios, souvenirs, cheap-and-nasty cocktails, and noodle stalls. I’d now gotten used to the noise and smells of the place, but even this was busy for me. We ate delicious pad thai standing in the street, and once we’d taken in all the stalls found a man making fresh hand-made coconut ice cream. Retreating to a corner of the square, we watched a man beatbox amazingly well and later two boys do a Fawn Leb (traditional dance) and ate our coconut ice creams. Everyone had topped theirs with peanuts, I had sprinkles.

 

Top to bottom: pad thai, market, coconut ice cream, dancing

One evening we came back from dinner, I turned on the air conditioner in my room and suddenly everything went quiet and black. Outside; the crickets, frogs and whatever else sounded louder than ever. I stepped out to the main patio, and met the guy on my course. It seemed the power was out, only in our building. The housekeeper called Ronald* and our teacher. When they arrived, he proclaimed the fuse to have blown, that there was nowhere he could buy one at this time, and no way there would be an electrician working to fix it. I looked at my co-student: a night without aircon and phone charging was a bit too much after the long day. We sat on the patio in candlelight, and watched Ronald ‘jerry-rig’ a new fuse from a Chang beer can. How appropriate. He made a little handle for the fuse out of sellotape to prevent electrocution, and climbed up into the rafters of the roof with only an iPhone torch to attach the new fuse to the mains electricity. Amazingly, it worked, and he said he’d buy a new fuse the next day. On our last day we all laughed when what we’d suspected was true: he hadn’t bought a new fuse and we were still running on the Chang can replacement. This guy was the ultimate cowboy, a swiss-American ex-rockstar, avid Bitcoin ambassador and conspiracy theorist, dressed only in tatty chino cut-offs.

After lunch, we would have ‘Satsang’ (wisdom-sharing, or theory) sessions, sitting cross-legged on our yoga mats listening to our teacher talk about yogic and Eastern philosophy. Some of this tied in with Western medicine quite nicely: Qi-Gong states that every organ has an active hour (could be somewhat compared to cell circadian rhythms). Other stories were more esoteric, ranging from Buddhist monks meditating their way to being able to breathe underwater, to prisoners growing knocked-out teeth back. Sometimes this would be on seafront rocks, or visiting Ronald’s adobe (sandbag and earth) home’s construction site. Sitting on the mats on the floor during portions of the class not spent doing active yoga was nearly the most difficult thing, especially being told that Buddhist monks and real yogis can sit cross-legged for hours, concentrating on meditation to overcome discomfort. I felt like I’d failed, it was just so uncomfortable.

 Joined by a different stray dog, ‘nan tang’, for satsang.

Somewhere just before halfway through the training, we were let go early from class. How does one celebrate early freedom? We headed to a nearby beach club and drank sugary cocktails whilst swimming beneath the stars and frangipani trees in full bloom, the perfume sitting heavy on the breeze. We were celebrating: lounging on giant pool floaties, playing like kids.

 Beach club fun

On the second last day, the rest of the group decided to join myself and my coffee co-conspirator on our lunchtime coffee run. We went to an Italian restaurant for ice-cream, only to find it shut as is typical on a Monday in Samui. Walking back, disheartened, a waiter jumped out at us from the trees and gestured for us to come in. One of my classmates asked whether they had ice creams, the waiter gently assuring us they had ‘many flavours’. This sounded suspiciously like it might not be true. We were brought behind the bar, and the waiter’s face turned to a proud grin as she gestured towards a freezer full of mini ice cream tubs of every flavour imaginable: rum & raisin to durian, mangosteen to cookies n’ cream. I wondered what she must have thought about this bunch of 5 sweaty and dirty foreigners, walking in to a nice restaurant and demanding ice cream in multiple flavours and coffee.

 

The exam day, our second-to-last, came around quickly. We had to select a logical and cohesive flow of poses from the 90-minute routine we’d done every day, condense it to fit into a 60-minute session, and lead the full class. It was nerve-wracking, and I got reprimanded halfway through for not leaving the students to hold a pose long enough (three variations of half moon, my least favourite), but I managed to get into the groove after that and passed. Afterwards I was exhausted – teaching is hard! We all decided to do every one of each others’ exam class – four in total that day. By the last happy baby pose I thought my hips would never recover.

 Wat Plai Laem Buddhist Temple visit

Our last day concluded with two 60-minute sessions taught by two classmates, followed by a ‘posture clinic’ at a ‘waterfall’ on the other side of the island. This turned out to be less fun than we had anticipated: we took turns photographing each other holding each of the thirty poses we had practiced throughout the course, whilst balancing on the boulders within the river. In our subgroup, hiking upriver jumping from rock to rock, a young boy offered to lead us to the ‘proper’ waterfall, presumably for a small fee. He wouldn’t take no for an answer for a long time, and then sat bemused, watching us run through the poses on various boulders. The rocks trapped the sun’s heat, it quickly became very sweaty work. We finished with sandwiches like Vietnamese banh mi on the rocks, grateful for the posture clinic to be over.

 Top: the waterfall; bottom: my ’embryo’ pose

After the conclusion of our course – celerated by burning our wishes and yantras from day one – I left our little home and stayed in a nearby hotel. I’d planned this for months, as it was the eve of my birthday I wanted to treat myself (as if I hadn’t already, but oh well). I booked a beach suite, which I barely got to see but the morning views were worth it alone. I was so sad leaving, everyone was so kind and friendly. I have to go back soon – if not for the yoga then definitely for the noodle soup and Changs.

Final night’s accommodation

It will take a while to digest everything that I learned in Thailand. For a short while I completely went with ‘the flow’ (I flow with the rhythm of life – second chakra mantra). Our little band of students got surprisingly close during the intensive teaching, we laughed near-constantly and managed to lift each other when things got a bit tough. Being home, I feel the same as before, and yet completely different. Yes, there were beaches and trips to Buddhist temples, but the yoga and teaching were a different level of difficulty. My body ached, and yet I kept going.

Samui airport transport

I always thought I was good at getting outside of my ‘comfort zone’ but realised that I never truly had as an adult. I still always had control, had always planned a trip so that I would be comfortable. I was able to see the privilege in being able to go on a yoga retreat, and the privilege of being able to be comfortable. Going forward I promised myself that I’ll make sure to be more uncomfortable in all the right ways, and be better at getting out of situations where I’m uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons.

 

Thanks for reading!

Eat, Pray, Pad Thai (part one)

I recently spent some time in Thailand, my first visit ever, to train to become a yoga instructor.  It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I kind of reached the point over the years that it seemed like I would never get to do it, so one day in May I cracked and booked flights as a few weeks off work. Waiting in terminal 5 in Heathrow, again my first time (South African Airways operates out of T3, and that is the main reason I hit Heathrow in the first place). I wrote the majority of this on the day of my return flight, my birthday, drinking mini bottles of prosecco in multiples.

 

The flight to Bangkok was uneventful enough, despite some pretty intense turbulence that lasted the width of India and the Andaman sea. It seemed that we’d never get past India, I knew it was big but not hours worth at 30,000ft. I arrived in BKK confused and tired. All I wanted was coffee, but I didn’t have it in me to try order one (ridiculous, I know, but hey I was tired). On the 50-minute domestic flight to Koh Samui we were rapidly served a full meal of spicy shrimp and rice at 11am. No options, no meat or vegetarian choice, no lacto-ovo-paleo-whatever else option. I tried the food, the chillies were enormous and it was pretty delicious. I just couldn’t go on though – all I wanted was the coffee, dark and bitter. I sipped this and watched the islands pass by as we flew over the Gulf of Thailand.

 

Flying over Koh Phangan

Hot, humid midday air hit me as I got off the plane and stepped on the golf buggy/childrens fun train hybrid to bring us to the terminal. Samui airport is small and surrounded by tropical flowers. It’s also mostly outdoors – there are few walls (something I would soon get used to during my trip) so it really was one with nature. I was here at last, to learn to teach yoga, and perhaps even ‘find myself’, who knows.

 

I collected my baggage from the ‘international’ carousel – one of only two. My teacher was waiting outside as promised with my name on a mini whiteboard to bring me to our accommodation. She kept mentioning how she was a slow driver, however as we weaved through moped traffic, potholes, and at one point directly on the runway (a shortcut) I realised this may not be the whole truth. Either that, or people in Thailand drive faster on average.

 

The international carousel at Samui airport

At the accommodation, I fell straight onto the bed and slept fitfully for a few hours after the flight, surfacing only in the early evening. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast over Myanmar at dawn. The walk to the main beach road was short, lined with small shacks, shops, and stray dogs napping in the glow of dusk. There are no traffic lights or pedestrian crossings on Samui – apparently there was one traffic light on the neighbouring island Koh Phangan but locals destroyed it, preferring the game of chance they’ve played for years. 

 

I knew the beach was on the other side of the main road, but was obscured by buildings. I finally found a path through an overgrown car park area, then realised once I was on the beach how hilariously dodgy that would have been back in London. I’m in paradise at last, but the entrance is through an abandoned stretch of dodgy land. The beach was beautiful – I’ve seen some beaches in my time but have always pined for the perfect tropical paradise, lined with coconut palms. This was it – a toe in the water proved what I’d read, that it is as warm as bathwater.

 

Bangrak beach at sunset

I fell back into a fitful sleep back at the accommodation, and was woken by a female voice calling out late in the evening. I waited for the longest time, hoping they would go away, before finally heading out to find two Dutch girls. They were leaving, they said, because there were millipedes on their bedroom walls. I assured them I didn’t work there, and that also there seemed to be a lot of millipedes around anyway. The teacher had told me there were 4 other students joining class the next morning, I thought these girls were part of this number. After they left, I sat in the dark in bed wondering ‘what on earth have I done?’ ‘Is it really that bad?’ ‘Should I also leave?’ In my notebook, I constructed a calendar with which to tick off the days, as if I could even tick off hours passed it would get me home sooner.

 Top: my room for the duration of the course; bottom: a chill-out area on our patio

The next day meditation started at 7am. Three other bodies found their way to the patio from their respective bungalows. Turns out the Dutch girls weren’t students, we were awaiting one more girl to join us a few days later, and the other students were fairly normal. Thank goodness.

We sat on the beach, joined by a friendly-ish stray dog our teacher called ‘Goofy’ (his real name was Moo Ping which means BBQ pork, his favourite thing to steal from the food stall he hangs out by). We meditated on the root chakra mantra ‘lam’; although I meditated on the beach, the view, and the little hermit crabs scuttling across the sand in front of us.

After meditation was a coffee break initiated by me – I had brought a tin of Nescafé Azera from the UK, my only comfort – I could not deal with caffeine withdrawal symptoms on top of culture shock and jet lag. This post-meditation coffee break became a daily ritual for us, necessary energy for the day ahead.

A 90-minute yoga sequence followed coffee – on the first day it was a welcome novelty. There was a lovely open-air shala (yoga studio) at our teacher’s house deep in the Samui jungle. The following days, when I realised we would repeat the same sequence every day I felt disheartened – the humidity, sweat, mosquitos seemed too much at times. 

 Our own jungle shala

We learned about yoga philosophy, sat on the patio and drew our own yantras (like Buddhist and Hindu mandalas) for the elephant god Ganesh, and wrote down 10 wishes. This was the perfect time to do so, our teacher told us, as the course started on the new moon which is intention-setting time. The table – a standard issue wooden picnic table – was nicknamed the ‘yoga’ table due to its propensity for collapsing to one side if someone got up. I later worked out it could not be a yoga table for that very reason – it should have widened its stance.

 My yantra

Our fifth student joined us a day or two later, a spur-of-the-moment flight from Boston. I felt for her, we had already become accustomed to doing the yoga sequence amongst the millipedes. Turns out I had nothing to worry about – she was a plucky Russian native who fitted right in to our motley crew.

Over the following days we meditated and asana-d our way through the chakras from root to crown. The second day (sacral chakra), I struggled with moving my body in the heat, some emotions during the tough yoga practice, and with unexplained nausea that sat in the pit of my stomach for days. I thought: this is going to be a long slog.

 

We had breakfast and lunch during our school day, served initially by the accommodation’s housekeeper. The usual cook, Ronald (not his real name), was in Phuket trying to bail a friend out of jail for a crime he didn’t commit, apparently. Once he was back we enjoyed salads with exotic dressings, jerusalem artichokes and blue rice noodles. After the first few days of an egg-heavy ketogenic diet, and suffering with this nausea, I spoke up. ‘I don’t mind eggs, I just barely eat them at home. I’m struggling with having them every day’. I asked for at least a smaller portion. It became an in-joke with my classmates every time we were served eggs, I’d brace myself and mix each small bite of egg with as much of the exotic local veg garnish as I could fit on my fork. Eggs or tofu, or eggs and tofu – we had it all.

 

A typical lunch

I found a kindred spirit in the only guy on the course, a half Brit-half Singaporean who had been through the UK private boarding school system. Every day after food during our lunch break we would sneak down the road to the local French bakery for good coffee, and every other day a buttery pain au chocolat or chocolate-laden sacristain twist. We chatted about home, our jobs, and shared stories of boarding school shenanigans. At dinner, it was always us ordering Chang or Singha beers to quench our thirst. We’d decided early on that we’d need every little bit of fuel and comfort to get us through 11 hours of yoga every day, and as drinking tap water isn’t a thing you may as well order a beer.

 

One dinner-time restaurant stood out to me, a small unassuming spot close to our local 7-11 store. In front was a cart where broth for noodle soup was made, and in the back were a few basic chairs and tables. The chicken noodle soup was cheap and delicious, the fried morning glory on the side (kind of a cross between kale and tenderstem broccoli) spicy, crunchy and rich with garlic and oyster sauce.

 Chicken noodle soup, morning glory, and fried pork.

One Sunday evening we were taken to the local ‘green market’ after class, where our cook and co-host (who had returned from multiple trips to the mainland and Phuket to save the friend from jail) had a stall selling salads and a range of kombuchas. ‘He’s a microbiologist and an ex-rockstar’ our teacher assured us. I took this with a few grains of salt, this guy apparently lived in ‘a shed up the mountain’ and wore tatty, too-big chino cut-offs. The green market was in the back garden of a bar, and attracted a strange mix of eclectic expats getting drunk on wine and smoking cannabis. ‘Cannabis is now legal on Samui’ we were assured, however a quick google search proved this to not be the case. We would certainly not be taking any chances.

 

After the first few days I’d gotten used to our daily routine, my body slowly becoming stronger with every sun salutation I did. I got used to being sweaty – dripping off me at every opportunity, and not wearing makeup. I also got used to big, ugly mosquito bites all over, and dark blue residue from the yoga mats sitting underneath my nails. I didn’t look at myself in the small mirror in the shared bathroom, preferring to get in and out of there as quickly as possible. Early on I discovered that I shared the bathroom with a tiny little jumping frog, and that the pipe from the sink just drained onto the bathroom floor. It had very few walls, as did the bathroom at the yoga shala.

Bathroom frog

From the beginning, I had to accept that I was here, I’d chosen to be here, and pretty much had to see it through. I had to surrender and just go with the flow, something I realised I’m not good at. Back home I felt like a bit of a hippy in the city, but here in the jungle with locals and on the beach with dreadlocked, tye-dye wearing gap year students I felt like a type-A control freak.

To be continued, read part 2 here

Exploring darkness in the polar night – Tromsø, Norway

I went to Norway for an environment that made me feel small and insignificant. To be awed and inspired, to be close to the edge of the earth. Think that’s a pretty niche travel requirement? Let me explain.

I’m obsessed with landscapes of extremes, so far mostly deserts. This time, I wanted to try something different and visit the arctic circle, the most northerly of circles of latittude surrounding the north pole. I live in a big western European city, where we don’t see many extremes of weather. It sometimes feels, as a newly minted adult (I say newly, but I’ve had some years’ practice) that the world is on my shoulders. The city can be a fast-paced place of ego, where things happen mostly if you make them. It’s easy to get stuck in my head, stuck in a state of anxiety about some thing or another. Lather, rinse, repeat. Also, coming from the Southern Hemisphere, I still struggle with the deep darkness of a northern winter. I wanted to see what made people tick this far north, where lettuce certainly doesn’t grow all year round, and where for a couple months per year the sun barely tops the horizon all day.

The polar circle

When we landed in the dark on a Saturday night in the tiny Tromsø airport, my husband hilariously but also pretty aptly asked me ‘WHERE ARE WE?!’ It felt like in the three hour flight from Gatwick we had truly flown into the unknown. We went straight to the local supermarket, which I guess is a pretty brave choice, and stocked up on groceries for our Airbnb. A search for dairy-free milk involved desperate comedy-sketch levels of Google translating.

Dressing on morning one to head into town involved base, mid, top layers; two, three pairs of socks, and outdoor gear. Having to succumb to the weather gave me a vulnerability that felt different. This wasn’t scared walking home alone at night in the city, this was an adversary you could prepare for but that could also beat you with no effort.

We came to Tromsø at the tail end of the polar night, when at full midday the sun barely makes it over the top of the peaks surrounding the island Tromsøya that the city sits on. This daylight is a suspended dawn of blue light leading directly to a soft bubblegum dusk sky. 3pm felt like dinner time, 7pm felt like bed time. We were reduced to basic survival (millenial style, á là Airbnb): eating when we needed fuel, sleeping when our bodies told us to.

View from the harbour of Tromsø

We arrived with a far smaller itinerary than normal, I had very few things I wanted to actually do in Tromsø. I wanted to see the elusive Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), go see a nearby ice hotel, try spot a reindeer, and clear my head for the rest of the time.

The second night, I booked a last minute Aurora tour with Brynjar from Arctic Breeze. On the night of Imbolc, the Pagan festival of light in the darkness of winter, we saw the most fantastic display of lights within barely half an hour of leaving Tromsø itself. Surely this was not possibly real, I am still having to check the photos our guide took to remind myself. We celebrated with hot chocolate around a fire on a fjord beach, under the dull remains of the lights. The experience certainly felt real when the -15’C temperatures started settling in to our boots and our bones.

Photos from our tour taken by the guide, Brynjar

The following day we got on a bus south towards the Tromsø Ice Domes, a new-ish ice hotel in a valley around an hour away. As we peeled away from the steaming fjords (cold arctic air hitting the relatively warm water) and headed inland, we watched with grim glee as the temperature display on the bus dropped from -12’C. When we arrived at the ice domes, the reading was -18’C.

Inside the hotel

The tour was lovely, so was sitting in the ‘warm dome’ afterwards with soup and spirits (Glenfidditch for him, Baileys for me). The arctic cold was really starting to set in, and the novelty wear off. As the sun begn it’s descent below the mountaintops, the temperature dropped further. If I remember anything of this trip, it is the sudden change from hospitable to the opposite. My phone died, my digital camera died. My jacket zipper broke clean off, like when movie crooks break into a safe by freezing and smashing the lock. Any exposed skin, like my hands desperately trying to take last pictures, felt the burn of near-frostbite in just a few minutes. On the bus home, the temperature reading was -25’C. I could definitely believe it.

Wednesday brought the first overcast skies; one day of snowfall. Wednesday also brought on a cold I’d been fending off for weeks with Vitamin C. We stayed in and claimed a snow day with endless Netflix.

Snow in our neighbourhood of Breivika

Waking the day after a snow storm is so exciting still – although I’m sure the novelty must wear off. We took the Fjellheisen cable car to the top of a peak overlooking Tromsø. What looked from the bottom to be quite a height turned out to be the first of many small peaks towards the true summit of Mt Storsteinen. We walked to the next peak in single file through the shin-deep snow, falling in to the Fjellheisen summit canteen after for a burger and pints of pilsner.

View from the top of the Fjellheisen cable car

The Arctic Cathedral near the base of the cable car

It’s funny how pushing the body in the cold takes so much more out of you. We joked every night that the reason we couldn’t keep our eyes open at 8pm was because of ‘all the fresh air’ breathed that day. It’s true though; the tap water tasted glacial, the air a special brand of crisp. Facial moisturing started taking on as many layers as my socks had, the cold a different level to any I’ve felt before. Traffic lights changed especially quickly for pedestrians – almost to get them in out of the cold quicker.

Ski jump towers at the University of Tromsø

What will I remember the most? The lights from Tromsdalen twinkling at us from across the water. The taste of beer (we had to sample all of it of course), the sighting of reindeer on the university campus. The cut of the cold, the warmth on getting in to the flat, how kind the people were. The feeling of being somewhere different to anything else I’ve experienced, and the feeling of being ever so slightly changed and not knowing quite why.

Desert Dreaming: My Arid Landscape Bucket List (part two)

Check out part one of my favourite desert landscapes that I have, and hope to visit!

 

Arabian: Wadi Rum, Jordan

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Wadi Rum Tourism

Around two hours south of the famous ancient city of Petra is the Wadi Rum Protected Area. Moon Valley, a site within the conservation area, is so-called because of its remote and extreme conditions. The seemingly endless peaks and crags present plenty of inspiration for activities. Imagine hiking the same paths that Lawrence of Arabia did years ago?

I want to sleep beneath an endless sky in an authentic Bedouin Camp, and round off an enlightening trip with sand boarding and a camel safari. Wadi Rum looks like the quintessential desert experience.

Stay at: Wadi Rum Bedouin Camp


Atacama: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

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I have always wanted to visit the Atacama – it is the world’s driest desert after all! No bucket list would be complete without some superlative, and the Atacama really seems to be one of the last uncharted places left.

When I go, I want to see flamingoes, vicunas (relation of the llama) salt pans, pastel-coloured hills, and miles of endless expanse. Due to the altitude and lack of pollution, star gazing will be the ideal nighttime activity – no effort required!

Stay at: Hotel Poblado Kimal


Sahara: Morocco, Northern Africa

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Of course, it’s the SAHARA, it has to be on this list. It was the first desert I learned about, and one that still carries so much intrigue to this day. The Sahara is one of the largest desers in the world, covering a large portion of Northern Africa, so provides a near endless selection of ways to enjoy the landscape. My dream thing to do in the Sahara? Stay at a real-life desert oasis by night and wonder the dunes by day.

Stay at: Riad Nomad


Sonoran: Phoenix, USA

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Of course no desert list would be complete without a real wild west backdrop – the saguaro cactus-lined Sonoran desert. Extending through Arizona to Northern Mexico (including the Baja California peninsula), the Sonoran desert has always been a dream destination for me. Unlike a lot of other deserts on this list, it is not completely desolate, but actually full of flora and small fauna. This is the place to hike all day, and camp in a secluded spot at night.

Stay at: The Wigwam Hotel if you don’t fancy a tent!


Viana: Boa Vista, Cape Verde

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A bit of a rogue and unexpected entry, but one that coveniently combines tropical sandy beaches and barren African desert in one handy trip. Off the coast of northwest Africa, a bit further afield than the Canary Islands lie the Cape Verde islands. Unspoiled scenery and an eclectic Creole-Portuguese-African culture make this a little gem, only around four hours’ flight from London. It’s like our own little Caribbean!

Stay at: Spinguera Eco Lodge

Spotlight: 18 Hours in Los Angeles

At the end of our California trip, we spent a whirlwind night and morning in Los Angeles. This is a how-to for finding a selection of pintrest-worthy hotspots in just a few hours.

 

 


 

The skyline of the city of angels appeared over the horizon of a six-lane motorway. It almost felt like we were emerging into civilisation after living in the wilderness – the freedom we’d experienced at the lake, and in the desert dissipated with every mile driven into the concrete heart of the city. We arrived at our hotel in Echo Park, a rather grim low end chain joint, but even this was covered by the almost trademark Hollywood glow.

Rosa Mexicano


For our last night in the USA, I had a Lakers game at the Staples Center planned. I was excited to go to Rosa Mexicano for a pre-game meal, as I have always been a fan of their New York location. The food was plentiful, and the heaped, fresh guacamole made table-side was luxurious. I dragged my food coma to our seats, way up in the dizzying height of the nosebleed section. After the game, we lost our parking space for over half an hour. Roaming the emptying lots, we laughed as we retraced our steps multiple times and in various different directions before we could retrieve our car.

Staples Center

LA Lakers v. Toronto Raptors


Our flight was at 4pm the following day. As soon as we woke, our bags were in the car and we stopped for fantastic flat whites and handmade pastries at Alfred Coffee on Sunset.

A good motto


It seemed like this was the embodiment of L.A; it was a bricks and mortar metaphor for a city built on facades, glitz and the money of some.

There were so many things I had hoped to see in L.A, we just did not end up having time for every one of them. However, we had a few hours to kill before our flight from LAX, and were up to the challenge of hitting a few spots on the way to the airport. To do this, I combined sights that were in close vicinity. First off, across the street from the cafe, were the Micheltorena Stairs.

Micheltorena Stairs


Next, we headed further west towards the Pacific. The Hollywood sign was visible to our right as we drove high above the city on the Rosa Parks freeway, even through the heavy morning cloud and fog.

Tired and Sad on Santa Monica beach

Towards the Pacific


Sticking to the ‘two birds, one stone’ method, we strolled a few minutes down the beach boardwalk until we found hidden between the modernistic millionaires’ homes a real-life Barbie house; the home of Barbie Creator Ruth Handler. It seemed like this was the embodiment of L.A; it was a bricks and mortar metaphor for a city built on facades, glitz and the money of some.

Barbie House, IRL


The drive southward, and ever closer to the airport, took us through iconic Santa Monica and our final L.A stop: Venice. Very different in winter to the lazy, sunny, surfer images I had seen, the quiet side streets off Abbot Kinney Blvd contained every dream bohemian house I could have imagined. We roamed the streets, waiting for our lunch reservation at an eatery I had always wanted to go to. The Butcher’s Daughter, on Abbott Kinney, is a vegetarian restaurant that serves food as beautiful as the surroundings it is in. We each had a huge mixed bowl, for him a tumeric latte and for me a cacao latte on the side.

The Butcher’s Daughter, Venice


Strangely, it was here we felt the most out of place on our whole trip. Slim, highlighted blonde girls dressed similarly in expensive knitted jumpers gossiped over coffee; tall, athletic-looking guys talked about crossfit, mindfulness and yoga over their food. As beautiful as this place was, and as tasty the food, we were outsiders in our hiking boots and unbrushed hair.

In a way, it was almost a perfect end to our trip; the only way to leave a place you love is to finally look forward to going home.

Mairead Daly, 2017

Spotlight: A day in and around Joshua Tree, CA.

Read more about our stay in Palm Springs here.

 

During our stay in the desert of southern California, we spent a day further in the Mojave desert. Driving down the Twentynine Palms Highway, winding up to higher ground, the dark grey sky sat heavy on the horizon. This was the first day on the SoCal leg of out trip that it really felt like winter, it lent a different quality to the desert landscape than one normally sees in photos. This area is of interest ecologically, a place where two desert landscapes blur. It shoulders where High Mojave and the Low Colorado deserts merge. This strange feeling sits low to the earth here, the jarring and contrasting landscapes provide a true otherworldy experience. This small part of the world has inspired some of our favourite music: desert rock, Josh Homme, and U2’s eponymous album. Rancho de la Luna is one of the recording havens for many artists; John Lennon and Jim Morrison also both recorded music in this corner of wilderness.

The High Desert

 

 

First stop was coffee at Cafe Frontier in Yucca Valley for two flat whites and two buttery chunks of coconut-oat flapjack. Attached to the cafe was Hoof and the Horn, a store with bohemian homeware and western-inspired clothing, where we wondered around with our coffees. I bought a beautiful handwoven throw that I was willing to forgo a few clothing items in order to fit into our case. This shop seemed to embody our spiritual home, a far cry from our current past-paced city existence.


Shop goals

Empty intersection in Yucca Valley

‘They say that this part of the desert has a ‘two or three year rule’

 

Driving off the highway up into the hills, we headed for Pioneertown. Historically created as a wild west film set, the ‘town’ still operates today with a saloon, motel and selection of small stores. Still, the heavy grey sky loomed over us, a reminder that most people were home with their families during this time of limbo between Christmas and New Year. I forgot my jacket in the car when we got out at Pioneertown, I could feel the ghostly desert cold seep into my bones and we cut our stroll short, in favour of the warmth of our car.


Above: Entry to Pioneertown; Below: Pioneertown Motel

 

Joshua Tree National Park welcomed us, and our little jeep wound through the nearly empty roads. Getting out several times for photo stops, the silence almost became the third passenger on our drive.


Joshua Tree N.P Entrance

Above and below: desolation in Joshua Tree

 

 

Imagining what it would be like to visit in the height of summer, at first I felt let down that we were missing that true ‘desert’ experience due to the rain. However, we really had the place to ourselves, and barely bumped into a hiker or cyclist the whole drive through the park. This in a way was more special than seeing it properly, a desert is inhospitable and empty whether it is dry or wet.


Climbing in flipflops

 

They say that this part of the desert has a ‘two or three year rule’: that after this time the extreme conditions either spit you out or change you forever. Regardless of outcome you will never be the same after spending time in a place like this. I now often think of this in relation to living in London, of course a different experience, however such extremes to pace of life will either change you or make you leave. When I travel, I always aim to completely immerse myself into the area, and mainly visit places I could see myself living in. It’s easy to see where I fit in to a landscape, the footprints left behind, but it’s often only when one is long home that the imprint of a place recently left can be felt. Such was the mark Joshua Tree left on me.


The unbelievable luck of seeing an almost double rainbow in the desert

Our way home wound past Desert Christ Park, a sculpture garden on the hills overlooking Yucca Valley. The modest park was created by Antone Martin, in the height of the late 1940s Cold War tension, and was dedicated on Easter Sunday 1951. Antone’s hope was to inspire world peace in a time of fear and war. All the statues embody this desperation and unease.


Meanwhile, for us night was fast falling, and the grey clouds were slowly turning to indigo. Being the only people moving for miles, we walked trough the white statues alone and in silence.


All above: Desert Christ Park

The view to Yucca Valley

 

Back at our kitcsh Palm Springs hotel, we were too tired for anything but some low-key pasta and hotel room margaritas. Early the next day, we would be leaving for L.A. Tomorrow we would leave behind this haven of bandits and dreamers, anarchists, bohemians and loners.


Mairead Daly, 2017

Lazy Beach Days: Ibiza Weekend

June brought a long-awaited trip to Ibiza for the wedding of two friends. I arrived to our house at Vadella Pueblo past midnight on my own, my own husband having arrived earlier for the stag party. The 40minute taxi ride to the little bay where we were staying for the weekend, Cala Vadella (Vadella Cove), was stressful conducted in my half-Spanish. It included many dead ends and wrong turns, literally, not linguistically, as the driver spoke to me in fast Spanish. I went to bed after checking all the closets for hidden intruders by torchlight, glad to put the journey behind me.

Cala Vadella, Ibiza

I woke up to the steady hum of cicadas, alone in the silence of our whitewashsd house, and able to actually see it in the light of day. I pottered around, looking through each of the rooms in turn. When I had left my hunger long enough in the empty apartment, I prepared to venture out En Español.

Barely a breeze

Walking down the quiet street towards the beach of Cala Vadella, I marvelled at the Balearic houses sitting perfectly in place under a flaring hot sun – whitewashed with cactus-lined pools.

The view from our front door

The road to the bay veered sharply to the right at the edge of a cliff, then wound steeply downwards. Through a break in the trees the sapphire bay opened up dramatically in front of me, and though it may sound corny it did take my breath away.

Cala Vadella from above

My husband joined me, and we spent our first afternoon together on the sandy beach eating bocadillos de jamón at Vadella Beach Bar and drinking fabulously strong mojitos para llevar from Restaurante Cana Sofia.

Cala Vadella

Laziness and hunger took us from our beach loungers to Cana Sofia when the sun started setting, where we had a meal of freshly prepared tapas under the vines. We sipped on ice-cold rosé wine and watched people walking the beach beside us.

We returned to our balcony to sip a €4 bottle of local cava, listening to the steady hum of crickets and cicadas and talking long into the night.

A long evening on our balcony

The heat woke me before sunrise, I returned to my spot on the balcony from the previous night, and watched the sky turn from navy, through light blue, to spectacular pink.

Timelapse of the sunrise

 

The second day was our wedding anniversary. To celebrate we did what we do best, headed down to the beach to do it all again. I swam through the azure water, one of my favourite things to do, and had a run-in with a rogue jellyfish producing a nasty sting. I had no idea at the time that this sting would ‘re-appear’ weeks later as the venomous stingers were still in my arm. We had a fantastic stone-baked margarita pizza from Cana Sofia (again!) which was covered in fragrant basil leaves the size of my hand.

We went home in the late afternoon to freshen up for dinner, and I was desperate to see a famous Ibizan sunset as clouds obscured the one the night before. On our walk back in to town for dinner, we stopped at the cliff, in a deserted parking lot. The sunset was better than I had hoped for, the sky seemed to be set on fire, and it gave both our faces a golden glow as we looked around. We could hear music, and walked closer to the cliff’s edge to see a huge sound system set up in a small cave below, the bass so loud I could feel it in my chest. Only two people danced around, and it felt like we had crashed a secret party.

All above: that golden glow

 

We concluded the night with an enormous, and first ever, paella, followed by a beer on the beach. I can still taste the flavour, it was so rich and savoury.

Ibizan sunsets: plenty bang for your buck

The next, and final, day was the wedding day. We struggled to a achieve any semblance of ‘pretty’ in a heavy heat, but made it to the other side of the island in time regardless. Experimental Beach was a venue within Las Salinas nature park, a UNESCO world heritage eco-system area, and a large exporter of salt. I knew we were drawing near in the taxi when we passed salt ponds and piles. We were greeted at the venue with a citrus-crisp white sangria, and we had enough time to look around before the wedding got started.

The venue before the guests arrived

After a beautiful ceremony where two friends were promised to each other for life, we ate and drank in the glare of the setting sun, and danced for hours under a navy blue sky.

The venue from the beach

 

Ibiza was a surprise, it was somewhere I hadn’t really planned to go to due to its reputation for a wild party island. What I saw was completely different, our quiet bay was such a refuge from City life, the local food so spectacular. I found the locals on ‘our side’ of the island to be some of the most friendly I’d ever met. I loved the peace and being close to nature once again.

 

 

 

By Mairead Daly

High Desert: Palm Springs, USA

Make sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this road trip

 

The first morning in Palm Springs, I knew in my bones I was somewhere else. The light was so different, a hazy glow, that even going through everyday routines felt foreign. Even on the stroll for breakfast and the first coffee of the day, the street seemed to be covered by a halo. Breakfast was from Koffi, an egg-ham-cheese bagel for him, and a fruit parfait for her. Even in late December, the weather was mild enough for a t-shirt.

Koffi coffee

Houses on E. Canyon Drive

Tiredness from the previous day’s mammoth drive, we stayed local and ran some errands. Ed enjoyed the laundromat, the waiting room peppered with heckles from locals aimed at the political coverage on the small television.

At the laundromat

That night we ate at King’s Highway, the restaurant at Ace Hotel. We ate real-deal tacos, and had fabulous cocktails (including a spicy chilli margarita).

King’s Highway at Ace Hotel

Holiday season in the desert

The following day, we ventured south-east towards the Salton Sea. First stop, Shields Date Garden for a famous date shake. I would recommend sharing one with at least one other person, it is huge, thick and heavenly.

The route to the Painted Canyon

Shields Date Garden

At midday, we headed further south-east through citrus grove after citrus grove, the fresh sweet scent lingering in the air. It amazed me to see such vibrant life erupting suddenly from the bone-dry ground. Around two kilometres of dirt road led to the mouth of the Painted Canyon, in the Painted Hills. It wasn’t hard to find the Ladder Canyon, a picturesque slot canyon waving and weaving through the ochre-red rock, following the carving force of water years before. I walked, slow as a trickle of water, running my hand along the curve of the canyon.

The mouth of the canyon trail

Slot canyon path

The namesake ladder

After navigating our way safely through the canyon (someone else was not as lucky and was being airlifted out with a broken leg), we ate pre-packed Reuben sandwiches from Vons supermarket and drove to a destination beyond the scope of our satnav: Salvation Mountain. We reached the nearest town, Niland, barely a one-horse town, and had to just drive into the desert, hoping we could find our destination. And find it, we did.

Salvation Mountain

Salvation Mountain

The view from Salvation Mountain

 

Cirrus clouds flecked the sky, the sun sat low in its winter position in the sky. Looking around from where I stood, all I could see was complete desolation. It was a fantastic feeling. We continued along a dirt road through Slab City, an off-grid community of activists and anarchists, to East Jesus. As the sun slowly lowered in the sky, shadows brought all the sculptures to life in a completely different way. The sound of gunshots peppered the air and, not sure if they were a threat or not, the vibe felt well and truly wild. My imagination ran wild thinking of what life was like here, hidden deep in the desert, free of legal and social convention. On the drive home, the haze-covered, malodorous Salton Sea lay to our left and a mile-long cargo train racing us to our right. Phone batteries dead, we turned on the local radio station; Alice in Chains, Led Zepplin and Black Sabbath blaring out the windows as we drove into the fading sun.

All above: East Jesus

 

On our final day, slightly margarita-hungover and dreading the impending end of our trip, we spent time in the Moorten Botanical Garden admiring the cacti under a heavy grey sky. Hummingbirds darted through the air, jumping from leaf to leaf. An empty semi-circular arrangement of chairs lined a lonely glade under a giant aloe, and I thought about whose wedding it might be arranged for.

Top and bottom, Moorten Botanical Garden

 

 

Check out my follow-on spotlights on Yucca Valley/Joshua Tree and Los Angeles, the finale of out trip.

Where Snow Meets Desert: Lake Tahoe to Death Valley, USA.

Part two of my USA retrospective, find part one here.

After our last photo stop, we took the route 50 perpendicular to the lake that wound through the mountains. The contrast between the thick pine forest, streams and snow of the lake basin with the desert beyond Lake Tahoe’s surrounding peaks was astounding. It somehow felt like we were either returning, or going into outer space. I couldn’t quite work out which.

In Carson City, NV, we took the route 395 headed almost due south. Anticipation and trepidation filled the air gaps in the car between us and our suitcases. As we left the relative comfort of Tahoe, we knew we would head far south, beyond our comfort zone.

The route

Where snow meets desert, Mono County.

 

The road followed California’s backbone, the Sierra Nevada mountains. We watched the landscape slowly change from snow, to the moon-like desert as traversed Mono County. I’d found another brewery for us to stop at for lunch on our journey. We turned off for June Lake, the sleepy little sister to Big Mammoth further south. June Lake Brewing was hidden deep in the little town, seemingly the only place people existed here. We ate Hawaiian Tacos at Ohanas food truck parked in the brewery lot.

June Lake Brewing against a crystal clear sky

 

Messy Hawaiian taco-eating

 

The tacos were messy but delicious, and we enjoyed a small beer in the brewery enjoying the heavy metal echoing throughout the building. We bought a few large bottles of porter, and rejoined route 395 to resume our journey.

”With the burning red-pink of the Sierra sunset now behind us, we were headed into the darkness of the desert”

The small towns of Mono then Inyo county passed by, empty motels with ‘Vacancy’ signs blowing in the wind. Luck would have us find a Starbucks in Bishop,Ca. The town was otherwise a more local affair. Towns got smaller and smaller the further we drove, and our last tough with civilisation was Lone Pine, CA where we stocked up on gasoline and water.

From Lone Pine, we forked left towards Death Valley National Park. With the burning red-pink of the Sierra sunset now behind us, we were headed into the darkness of the desert.

A glowing Sierra sunset

 

We survived multiple hairpin turns and arrived at Panamint Springs Resort, on the edge of the park – our home for the night. We foolishly had no camping supplies, and the shop had run out of sleeping bags for hire, so we donned our ski gear and sat on the picnic bench outside the tent to have one of our June Lake beers.

 

Home for the night

 

Death Valley National Park is a recognised dark sky area, and I never fully grasped how much I could see without air pollution and high-rise buildings obscuring the view. The milky way looked close enough to touch, every single star glowing as bright as the moon, and shooting stars framed our view. Road-weary, we went to bed and endured the coldest night of our lives.

An unbelievable Panamint sunrise

Before dawn the next morning, feeling fragile and ready to flee our campsite, we waited for the gas station to open for coffee and gas before hastily retreating deeper into the park. The elevation dropped and dropped with every mile driven, giving fantastic views for miles.

Waiting for the only gas station for miles to open

 

Panamint Springs general store

 

The road into the park at dawn

The descent into the heart of Death Valley

Mesquite Dunes

 

Palms outside the Furnace Creek Resort

 

We drove through the park, stopping to add our footprints to the Mesquite Dunes and later the Furnace Creek resort for a slightly bizarre and hasty breakfast. The palms outside the resort signalled that we were getting closer to our final desert destination. Leaving the heart of Death Valley behind, we headed to the deserted south. Badwater Basin, the lowest point of elevation in North America. That was a bucket-list item ticked off.

At Badwater Basin

With the end of the national park, we entered the Mojave desert. Food options were a bit grim roadside in Barstow, CA, so we bought Jerkey and Reese’s cups and pushed through exhaustion for the last of the day-long journey.

Arrival into Palm Springs

 

The tell-tale windfarm heralded our arrival into chic Palm Springs, welcome civilisation after what felt like an eternity in the vast and lonely expanse of the desert. Our hotel, a 60s-themed tiki establishment (definitely what I would consider a niche market!) had a plush king-size bed and on-site restaurant, everything one needed after a frightening frozen desert night the night before.

Death Valley made me feel small, it is so hostile that surviving there for only one day feels like an accomplishment. Watching the snow turn to sand as we covered only inches of the map of California felt like a small rebirth. Seeing the small roadside towns, the forgotten ones like Independence and Baker, CA gave me a glimpse into the victims of the American dream. The orphans left behind their glitzier cousins, where faded pitch and putt greens sat unused, and teenagers’ best prospects may be to depart for somewhere bigger.

This is the real US, no In-n-Out or flat white coffees, no Whole Foods or kale. Just real people, scratching out a living in the middle of nowhere, wathing the odd tourist pass by on the way to somewhere else.

Part 3 | Palm Springs coming soon!

Lake Tahoe, USA

I thought I would go back over our honeymoon trip of a lifetime back over Christmas 2016 in a 3 part series including: Lake Tahoe, Death Valley, and Palm Springs.

I knew I was never going to be the same after our trip to a small part of the Wild West. We decided to take our honeymoon to the US over our first married Christmas, to put off the ‘whose family will we spend it with’ for another year. I could easily orientate myself on the flight route from San Francisco, CA to Reno, NV. I knew the wide expanse with no lights to my right to be Lake Tahoe, a deeper than black hole in the night, followed by the festive glimmer of Reno in the distance. To get to our condo, we had to drive over Mount Rose pass, which winds treacherously over its namesake mountain.

Flying over Reno, Nevada
Our condo was in Incline Village, right on the shores of the beautiful lake Tahoe.
During the days, we snowboarded at Homewood Mountain Resort, where we had a great 3-day beginners package deal. The mountain had excellent choice of terrain, and everytime you turned your back to the mountain you would be rewarded with the jewel-like lake. I literally felt like a different person when staring at the peaks lining the Tahoe bowl, and never thought I would have the chance to see such an iconic, all-American horizon in person. The base restaurant at Homewood served up the enormous plates of chilli/burgers/pulled pork required to keep us going all day.


The courtyard at our condo


The view from our window

Jet-lagged early mornings gave us a chance to watch the first snowfall out our window before any of our neighbours even stirred. Cup after cup of filter coffee passed the time from 4am twilight to fully-fledged day. I could just imagine a mama bear and two cubs trundling by, paws crunching the new snow.


The view from the lower Homewood slopes

A secret find of mine to surprise my beer-loving partner was Alibi Ale Works, where locals serve and drink fantastic brews. We tried the Rubus Nocturne, a barrel-aged dark raspberry sour, a pale ale, and Boysenberry Berlinerweisser. The porter was rich and deep giving us a warm glow to carry on our walk home. We panic-bought a couple of growlers of that to keep us going over the Christmas period when shops would not be open.


Alibi Ale Works, Incline Village, NV.

We didn’t eat out much in the evenings, jet lag and hours being flung down slopes rendered us useless past 6pm. Homemade margaritas, blue corn tortilla chips and pasta were generally all we could muster up the energy to put together.


Homemade margaritas

One of the first days, we visited Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows resort while we had a rest from mountain activities, ate delicious football-sized burgers fireside at the Plumpjack Inn, and strolled through the faux-alpine ski village. There was such a peaceful calm about the place. Due to the altitude, we could feel the sun beating down overhead in contrast to the ice cracking below our feet.


Squaw Valley, Ca.

We spent Christmas Day at Lone Eagle Grille, literally on the Incline Village lake shore. The Christmas meal was a buffet, not my usual choice, however it proved handy this time when we went back for the pork belly canapés too many times to count! We tried razor clams, crab, and had lamb that melted in the mouth. Cocktails were at the fire pit afterwards, all wrapped up and ruddy-faced from a bottle of rioja. I had a spiked hot chocolate that seemed made for this moment. It was this evening I fully caught the splendor of a Tahoe sunset, as previous evenings had seen snowstorms.


Top to bottom: spiked hot chocolate, sunset, fire pit

On our last morning, as we started heading south to our next destination, we had to stop multiple times for me to take pictures. The Lake really pulled out all the stops, almost as if sensing and regretting our impending departure. On these last few looks back, over the mirror-blue surface, I knew I would never be the same. I knew I would be back, and somehow, to own my own clapboard condo and stroll those lazy streets forever.


Top and bottom, our final views of Lake Tahoe.

Make sure to check out parts 2 and 3 of my Wild West restrospective, coming soon!