Reflection on 2018

The year started in Sweden where we celebrated the New Year with my good friends who had come out to Bali just a few months before. We had come to Sweden as I had been making a journey around Europe with my wife (Aini).  We had been in Portugal for Christmas and saw the cheapest flight I could find back to Europe was from Sweden to Thailand. So we had an excuse to go to Sweden, first so I could spend time with my friends, and secondly, so I could finally tick off this country. In this mission to get to all the countries in Europe Sweden had always looked like this huge hanging mass in northern Europe that for one reason or another I was just not getting clicked off, so now the time had come and this would make Scandinavia complete.

Places visited in 2018. 5 continents in 1 year. Not bad right?

New Year’s Eve although a little strange, was nice. My friend had told me that they were planning a little house party and was going to cook some food. Being vegan, I tend to get a little anxious when non-vegans offer to cook, but my friend Gustaf and his friends were very sensitive on this and took it as a challenge to create a vegan meal. It was only Aini and I that were vegan, so I felt a little shy, humbled and appreciative that these guys were willing to make such an effort on our behalf.

To get there we had to make our way across the city in the dark and cold, looking for a house in some fancy residential area. It was right across the city and we had to navigate ourselves across this city using the bus and tram system. It was bloody cold, wet and dark. Everyone I know told me not to go to Gothenburg this time of year, and they were all right. We made our way to the bus stop near where we were staying and got on the bus, in the wrong direction. Ok fail, we got off the bus, crossed the street and waited for the next one going in the right direction. We waited about fifteen minutes and the same bus was making its way back, so we got on it again and made our way into the city. The bus got into the city but did not stop exactly where the tram connected. There was a bit of messing about and getting freezing in the process, but we found the right tram, thank god. Now we had to find the place. The tram stopped someway from the house, so we had to walk around this little housing area to look for the place. Just as we found the house, I stepped off the pavement into a massive puddle and soaked my feet and the bottom of my trousers, great, and even better in this freezing weather.

Gothenburg City Center

Finally, we arrived and all the guests there were dressed up in suits and ties, some with little dickey bows and the women with formal evening dresses, and here I was with my hoody and jeans. What the hell have I come too? Why would you dress-up so formally to come to someone’s house? Were these guys a bunch of weirdo’s? Was this night going to conclude into some strange rituals? I felt totally out of place and really nervous around this group and was thinking this might have been a terrible choice. They have alluded me here with the promise of vegan food and now we are going to be sacrificed in some ancient Swedish blood ritual. What a shitty way to start the year.

The night was a three-course formal dinner around a dining table and it felt very formal. At the start, it felt like we were some special needs charity case that had been brought to the fancy table. But even though we were backpacking, I did have a formal jacket and shirt with me. But Gustaf had assumed that I would not have such clothes and did not want to stress me out. As the evening progressed, people started to open up a little more and I realised they were not the cult weirdos I had labelled them as. Actually, everyone was really nice and we shared some great conversations. It just goes to show the labels and stereotypes we all put on each other, even when I am very conscious of this and studied stereotypes and prejudice as part of my masters early last year. As the clock struck midnight, we went outside the house to see some fireworks going off. As the house was close to a lake the view was really great. The night had come to an end and one of the couples offered to drive us back, oh thank god, I was not up for spending the night on public transportation.

A formal New Years dinner in Sweden

We had a couple more days in the city and thanks to another friend of mine Ewa we were staying in a lovely apartment all to ourselves. She is a Polish lady married to a Brazilian guy, together they have two kids who both speak Polish, Portuguese, Swedish and English. Do you feel useless yet? Her brother was also living in the same complex and was back in Poland for Christmas, so she said just to stay here for free, what kindness. We spent quite a bit of time with Eva and her family and they are all such warm and kind people. It was such a pleasure to spend some time with them and to experience their hospitality.  

We spent a couple more days in Gothenburg and then took a train to Stockholm where we would fly back to Asia. We only had one night in Stockholm, but from what we saw it was really nice spread out among a bunch of islands. We walked quite far in the city and took a nice dinner in a vegan buffet place overlooking the waterfront. The next morning we were up very early, as we had to get a bus to the main airport which was about 40 mins outside of the city.

Qatar Airways was having some deals and we saw a very cheap flight going to Chiang Mai, Thailand, it was somewhere we always wanted to visit, so we thought why not. Arriving in Chiang Mai we got in about 6 am, we had not slept all night and we were too early to check into our hotel. We put our bags in the left luggage and walked around the city like a couple of zombies. We managed to find a little café with vegan options, which also had an area for cats in the back. The owner clearly liked cats a lot and made a little playground for about 10 cats. There was only so long we could hang about in this kitty café and we were wondering where else to spend time before we could check in and have some sleep. What we thought was the closest to having some rest was to go for a massage, which was a great idea. By the time we were done here, we went back to the hotel and slept until the evening.

Just one of the many beautiful building is Chiang Mai

We really had made little plans for Chiang Mai and just wanted to chill and defrost after being cold all the time in Sweden and the rest of Europe. For one of the days, we rented a motorbike and decided to go for a bit of a drive. We went to the main hill in the city and it was really nice to just drive around and see some of the temples and views. We went as far as we could and saw a little local village as well as one of the king’s palaces. Sometimes I just like the journey more than the destination, while the sights were very cool; I really just liked getting on a bike and driving around the hilly roads. Chiang Mai is really chilled and has a great vibe to it, so it was nice just soaking up the atmosphere. Oh, and FYI, the vegan options in Chiang Mai are great, for sure I could spend a few months in this city. It is so pleasent walking around the streets and catching the night market is really fun.

We did decide to take one tour and that was to the Golden Triangle where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet, on the route we also went to see the white temple in Chiang Rai that was beautiful. On the way to the Golden Triangle, we stopped at a traditional village where there were a community of women who are famous for stretching their necks. I was not sure about visiting this place and if it was going to be some sort of freak show setting, but it was actually very nice. From what I understood our visit supports that community. Once someone has decided to stretch their neck (if they decided, but apparently now it’s more of a choice) your abilities to work and earn money are vastly reduced, so people visiting allows them to make a living by selling products that they make themselves. Ironically the most popular thing they sell is scarfs. 

Young child starting the neck stretching process while her mother makes a scarf

Finally arriving at the Golden Triangle we were able to take a boat over to Laos to a small town designated as a special trade area. It was a bit of a hustle and felt somewhat more desperate compared to Thailand, but then they have much larger economic challenges, but I am not sure how much of a taste of Laos I really got from this small town. Despite some little market stalls and eating places, it seemed the main economy of the area was some Chinese casinos that had opened in the area. Gambling is illegal, so the Thais go to the border to indulge in this. I was in Cambodia the year before at the Thai border and it was also full of casinos. The experience was a little sad, as I had been part of a project that was looking at schools and school development. We went to see one school, which had a very dynamic female head teacher who was putting in lots of effort to inspire the children to raise their aspirations, and you could see the effect this was having, especially with the girls. Then we went to take lunch in one of the casinos, where it seems that people go if they want to go somewhere fancy. The casino was full of young girls in little dresses who were working as I guess cocktail waitresses. Like I guess in this area in Laos, this is the main work opportunity and I felt that despite how this great teacher was trying to be a great role model, what realistically are the options for young girls in this area if they stay in the city? And what are the other things that the area can do for economic development? It’s all a little sad to contemplate. After this little trip we were back over the river to Thailand and back to Chiang Mai. The next day it was back home to Bali.

Back home to rest

We had been on the road for six weeks so it was nice to come home, sleep in my own bed and just catch up on myself. Also, having been on the road that long it was hard to focus and get any work done, so I know that the rest of this month was going to be about that. The rest of January was quite uneventful, mostly working and catching up with people. I think this for me is the issue of digital working, its great if you can stay in one place for a while, but if you keep moving it is a little hard to stay preductive, or at least for me.

In February one of my great friend Alenka, who I had missed catching up within Gothenburg was coming to Bali. She had not long had a baby, so she and her husband were taking advantage of the great paternity and maternity leave that Sweden offers and was travelling and living across South East Asia, amazing. It was a very short catch up, but wonderful, just one of those people that despite how much time goes by and how life changes, the time you spend together is always amazing.   

A visit from my friend Alenka and family

February was also a quiet month; we did host one project in that time where we had delegates from China, Slovenia, Poland, Turkey, Lithuania and Kyrgyzstan. The project was easy going with little stress and the group was a really nice bunch. Of all I found myself getting on really well with the guys from China. Between 2008 and 10 I had worked mostly on cultural relation projects between Wales and China when I worked for the British Council. Despite the work sometimes being a challenge I had great colleagues I worked with from China and became quite close with them. I think having China as a partner on this project brought back some positive memories I had and really encouraged me to work with these guys in the future. We will have another meeting in China in 2019, so I look forward to this trip.

March was the start of a big journey. Initially, we flew to the Dominican Republic; this was one of the longest flights of my life to get there. The first flight was from Bali to Singapore, then transit in Qatar; this was followed by a fourteen hour to New York. By the time we got into New York, they were experiencing a snowstorm. We stayed overnight in New York as by this time we had already been travelling for thirty-seven hours. We got to the hotel, lay down and was out till the morning, the next day we just had to make our way to the airport and travel on a short 3.5-hour flight to the Dominican Republic. As we arrived at the airport, the host of the project we were there to attend was waiting for us. He took us to the hotel; we rested up for a short while and then just ate in the hotel that night. FYI, if you are a vegan in the DR the options are quite crappy, well at least in Santo Domingo, that night we had pasta with pesto sauce and that would be our only option in the hotel for the week.

The next morning we woke up and decided to explore the city a little, we were staying in the capital Santo Domingo in a hotel in the colonial quarter, the area was very nice, but once you walked around a couple of times you got the idea. That morning we walked into the city and there was a parade going on, people were celebrating their independence. At first, I thought this was independence from Spain, but I later learned that it was independence from Haiti. The DR (Dominican Republic) has a somewhat complicated relationship with Haiti and this is rooted in its complicated history and how the different sides of the island experienced very different realities. In a nutshell, it goes something like this… Christopher Columbus discovers the island and claims it for Spain, the island is rich in resources and a great fertile ground for exports like sugar, other countries in Europe want in on the action, France end up taking the 1/3 of the island in the west, where DR colonists start to mix with the native population and imported slaves, France run a very aggressive slave colony that not only destroys the land by over growing single crops, but work slaves so hard they revolt and create the first free black slave republic. DR gains independence and a few years later and Haiti feels they can have a more economically strong country if they take the whole island, which they do for a period of 20 years. Ever since there have been minor conflicts between the nations. DR is far richer than Haiti, to give some indication the average annual salary in DR is $8,200 per year and in Haiti, it is $1,300, as a result, many Haitians migrate to DR which is the core of their current tensions.

Getting some vegan food at the only place available in Santo Domingo

Anyway, we went again with our host in the evening that took us for dinner in a great place, which seemed to be the only place in the city to have a vegan option. The next day the rest of our international group arrived and the week was spent doing some visits to local organisations who were somehow supporting Haitian migrants in the DR, it was very interesting to learn about the situation, but also very tragic at the same time. I feel that despite Haiti invading the DR some 200 years ago, as a nation and people they have suffered and continue to suffer a lot. 

Over the course of the week, we got to explore some nice spots on the island with our group and saw what I can only label as some of the most paradise white sandy beaches I have seen in my life. If you are looking for a beach holiday Ponta Cana is really worth it, but it seems the tourist reality and the local reality are very far apart.

Aini and I enjoying the stunning white sand beaches in the Dominican Republic

Leaving the DR we flew to New York again, we had a day to explore the city and get some great vegan food and then we went and took a bus the next morning to Niagara to see the falls. To be honest, we did little in New York because we were just so sleepy, and we had been in the city before, so was not sure what new things we could see. We took a little walk in an area called the high line, which is an old high railway line that has been converted into a promenade and park, it was very pleasant to walk here, but we were freezing. Bali life has made me soft. 

It was a twelve-hour bus ride through upstate New York and there was still a lot of snow on the ground, by the time we arrive at the bus terminal on the Canadian side it was almost midnight. Getting off the bus it was freezing and there were no cabs around and we were struggling to find a WiFi signal, luckily we found out that the hotel where we were staying was only a five-minute walk away. We got ourselves to the hotel and started to defrost. Our hotel was basic but pleasant, we wanted to travel for as long as we can, so we needed to budget this trip where we could.

The next morning we took a walk along the river until we got to the falls, this took about forty minutes from where we were staying, but it was a great way to slowly arrive at the falls and see them in all their splendor.

On the bridge between Canada and the USA

Although the falls were incredible to see we were freezing and we needed to get inside and warm. Next to the falls was some centre which also had a restaurant, we stayed here for a while and then decided to check out the town. It was not my first time here, I had been to the falls with my Canadian family back in 1996 and the town was just how I remembered it back then, still crappy, but it is what it is. The town is full of little novelty shops, cheesy ghost houses and a Ripley’s believe it or not. I went to these places the first time and I somewhat remember having fun, but this time I just had no interest. The next day, we wanted to explore the falls from the American side. We made our way to the bridge that crosses the river and went over. Despite immigration feeling a lot more intense on this side, the town felt very nice and seemed to have a bit more going for it. We went around the park that was nice, but again we were so cold it was hard to stay out in it so made our way into the town to get a warm meal. Jumping on my happy cow app (vegan app to find vegan food) I could not find any places. We saw a TGI Fridays, which Aini said let’s try, but I was very reluctant. As we got the menu I saw they had a vegan burger, and to date, this was the best vegan burger I have had, Darn, who would have thought. That evening, we took another bus to Toronto where my family greeted us. It was such a pleasure as it had been eighteen years since I last saw them.

We spent about 10-days in Toronto mostly staying and hanging out with my family. I have two cousins there, and one had just bought a house in the suburbs of the city. It was a massive house that also had an apartment below where her parents were living, and that is where Aini and I stayed. My uncle and aunty are great and so kind, they even insisted that we stay in their bed while they slept on a sofa bed in the living room, I felt terrible for this, but this is the hospitality of my family.

My aunt and uncle are from Portugal but have been more than 40 years in Canada, but in some way never left Portugal. They watch Portuguese TV, listen to the Portuguese radio and shop in Portuguese stores; in Toronto, they also have a little Portugal area. We went a couple of times with my auntie to a small Portuguese café/supermarket in Mississauga where she often likes to meet up with her Portuguese friends. On one of the days we went there we also hooked up with my other cousin Susana and her kids who are now fully grown. Last time I was in Canada I stayed in her place and the first child must have been about 3 years old, how time flies.

My aunt and uncle from Canada (Portugal) before they invented colour

On one of the days we all went for a meal together to a Chinese buffet, it was really great to have all the family together. My other cousin Ana had told the staff it was my birthday, even though it wasn’t, and all the staff came around singing happy birthday and put a Chinese farmer’s hat on me. It was a nice feeling to have everyone around though.

A fake birthday with the family in Toronto

We went into the city a couple of times and on one of the days we caught up with a friend who we met about 10 years ago backpacking around the Balkans. After seeing the CN Tower together we went to some place where they did vegan steak sandwiches and they were awesome. Oh FYI, Toronto is amazing for vegan food and the vegan culture and community seems incredible. Well, after a great time in Toronto we were on the road again, this time to Chicago. Chicago was always one of the cities I wanted to see, maybe because I love the Batman movies hehehe.

It was a long ride to Chicago from Toronto, but like the ride from New York, it was good to see all the country on the way. We crossed the border at Detroit, which of course seemed like another paranoid border, but we had become used to this now crossing a few times into the USA.

It was about midnight by the time we got into Chicago and I think like many bus stations it was not the best of atmospheres. We tried not to hang about there and jumped into a cab. At first, the cab was bringing us in the wrong direction, so we had to direct them to where our Airbnb was. Once we arrived the driver said, “Y’all staying around here?”  This was not the best sign. He then said, “don’t go any further in that direction”, pointing down the street. Accommodation, in general, is expensive in Chicago, so after some shopping around this was the best place we could find. It was a large townhouse where each room had been given a lock so they could market it as an individual room. But it was really crappy. Once we arrived it appeared that there was a young couple sleeping in the living room and one of them hesitantly woke up to show us our room. The room was really small and not very clean, there was also a shared bathroom that was not so clean either. Throughout the night I can swear I was hearing gunshots, I know Chicago had a violent reputation, but I thought this was just maybe my imagination running wild. The next day I woke up to take some breakfast. I went to the shared kitchen, which of course was dirty, and there were still people sleeping on the floor. I thought fuck-it and had my breakfast anyway. I finished my breakfast, took a quick shower and then we headed off into the city. To get into the city it was a small walk to the metro station and to be honest, the area felt a bit rough. Finally, we arrived and I know that the first thing I wanted to do was see the famous iconic riverside, which was really cool even if it was overshadowed by the massive Trump tower.

The riverside in Chicago

We spent a few hours exploring the city and had arranged to meet with a good friend of ours who used to live in Bali and had returned home now to do a PhD. It was great catching up, as it had been about 6 years; we went for a nice meal together. We left that evening and went back by cab to the Airbnb we were staying in. Again, it just sucked and I was up through the night as I am sure I was hearing gunshots again. The next morning I turned to Aini and said, screw this place, let’s spend money and stay in a hotel in the city, so we did. It was more than we wanted to spend, but so worth it and from there I started to enjoy my time in the city.

Like in New York, as I walked around the city you have all these visual references to American TV shows and movies you had seen. I was mostly remembering the show ER and the movie, while you were sleeping with Sandra Bullock. This city seemed a lot smaller than what I imagined it to be, and I think like other places I had seen in the US, a little disappointing in real life. It is not that the places are not nice, it’s just that the US really over promote themselves, so the expectations are so high. I think this is why I like places where I had little or no expectation and found my self pleasantly surprised. Anyway, we had the last night in Chicago and the next day we were on a plane south to Florida to stay with some great friends.

We got into Tampa at night and our friend Kevin and Titiq were at the airport to collect and bring us to their wonderful home. We stayed with them in the same home back in 2010 and I just love their place so much. It is in a nice quiet community just north of Tampa and the house is very homely and spacious, real American style, all open plan with big kitchen space and massive bedrooms.

Watching the Bolts in Tampa

Last time when we stayed with them we were really excited to see and do a lot of things in the area, this time, to be honest, we were happy to just take it easy and spend some time together. We took a couple of trips together while we were there, but the real highlight for me was going to see an Ice Hockey game. Kevin and Titiq are big hockey fans and devoted to their local team the Bolts, so going and watching a game together was a real treat, ‘GO BOLTS’. I really love the American sports and the atmosphere that surrounds this. Back in 2010, I went to a Basket Ball game in New York in the Garden, and this was such an amazing experience, A real must do when visiting the states – if you like American sports, that is. Read my USA blog here.

After a good week with Kevin and Titiq, it was time to say goodbye again and get on another plane, this time to South America, whop-whop. Kevin and Titiq drove us to the airport in Orlando and from here we flew down to Brazil via Colombia. I was turning 40 this month so instead of spending money on a party all I wanted to do was go to Rio for a month. We rented a small apartment on Airbnb in Copacabana and just spent some time to feel and experience the city.

Just loving the beach in Rio

OMG, I love this city so much. I was first here in 2002 and I remember that I loved the city then. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of issues in the city and country, and crime is out of control and the politics is horrible, but there is just an energy and vibe in the city that I don’t feel anywhere on the planet. Brazilians just have a great energy about them and Rio is on a whole different level. The city has it all, beaches, nature, mountains, sea, and a great lake in the city and since the controversial Olympics, there are now amazing cycle paths all over the city. Almost every day I strolled all cycled up Copacabana and into Ipanema. It was a fantastic month and one of the things I love about the city is how the vegan scene is really growing and there were vegan markets almost every week. I just can’t express how much I love this city and miss it. I hope I can come back again and spend more time like this. Read more about our time in Brazil here

The Incredible Iguazu falls

Towards the end of the month, we also decided to make a small trip to the Iguazu falls, which are out of this world. There are 275 falls all in one place on the Brazil Argentina border. We decided to stay on the Argentinean side just to have a small experience in this country. After seeing the falls we stayed a night on the Brazilian side and stayed near the Paraguay border, as we wanted to have a day trip to the country and explore the countries second largest city. Read more about our time in Paraguay here.

Finally, after this trip, we were back to Rio for a few more days before our next flight. This time we were flying to Chile, we had rented an Airbnb for a week and planned to stay in Santiago. The city is really nice and Chile is really easy going and decently the safest country in South America. We were staying in a little apartment in the centre of the city, in the daytime we could see the cityscape with mountains in the background with snow-capped peaks, and in the night we had all the lights of the city. The apartment was in a massive complex with around 2000 apartments, all very modern and nice. We had a duplex apartment with a nice little kitchen and a balcony.

A bit chilly in these Chilean mountains

The city was easy going and fun to explore, we did some tours outside the city too to Viña del Mar and Valparaíso that are laid-back coastal towns. Chile has a really great vibe and it is refreshing to be in a very safe country in South America. I do love South America, but crime and violence is a real problem in many of the countries, as is the amount of guns. Read more about our time in Chile here.

After a fun week in Chile, our South American adventure came to an end and it was time to head back to Asia. Our flight was at night and would fly over the south pacific with a stopover in New Zealand. From Santiago, it was about 12 hours to Auckland and we had about 6 hours in the airport. It was around 5 am and we were debating if it was worth leaving the airport to explore the city in the dark. We thought why not as we don’t know when we would have the chance again. We passed through border control and got on a bus going into the city where we headed to the waterfront. We walked around the waterfront and some parts of the city before taking a break in a coffee shop that had opened for a little tea. My best friend (Corey) is from New Zealand; so I thought with the time difference why not give him a call. Corey and his family had always regaled me with stories from New Zealand but I had never had the chance to see it. Well, I was here now, even if it was only for a few hours. I understand that Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city at around 1.6 million inhabitance, but it still felt very small, but cosy. For sure I was gutted not to have more time here, but I am sure I will be back, now it was time for one more location before this trip came to an end, this time we were flying to Korea.

Flight route from Chile to New Zealand

Coming back to Indonesia from Chile via Korea was crazy, but for some reason, this worked out to be the cheapest flight. As the flight was stopping in New Zealand I thought maybe it would be cheaper to just fly to New Zealand, but no, it was almost double the price. But it was so cool to fly across the Pacific, well cool for a geography nerd like me. So from New Zealand, the flight was another 12 hours, but soon enough we were there in Seoul.

Wow, South Korea is amazing, it is like being in the future, everything is super efficient and high-tech, very cool. We got out of the airport and straight onto a very comfortable bus with WiFi that took us to the southern part of the city where we were staying in Gangnam (yes where the song gets its name). By the time we arrived we were exhausted and just needed to sleep, so on the first day we did very little and just checked out the local neighbourhood. The next day we had our energy back so we’re ready to explore the city. We got one of these hop-on-hop-off bus passes for 3 days and saw the city a little from here, then we went out an explored more of the city on foot. Seoul is massive with loads of cool small neighbourhoods. I also really like the old part of the city were you can see the traditional houses, this part is of course really touristic and really popular with East Asian tourists as it is possible to rent traditional costumes and do photo shoots everywhere, well I guess travel is all about getting that pic for the Gram now right?

Getting some tea in this Korean Palace

On one of the days, we also did a trip out of the city and went to see the DMZ line between North and South Korea. It was an interesting time to go, as it was hot in the media as the two presidents had just met and they’re looked like movement in terms of a peace deal. From the people I spoke to, they did not seem to have much hope and felt they had seen and heard it all before. People are very suspicious of the actions of the north and people also seem to worry about the logistics of unification, but still, want to help and support the people of the north. It is so crazy how high the standard of living is in the south, and that in the north people are reportedly eating the bark of trees just to stay alive. How can this be happening in 2018? Read about my time in Korea here.

At the train station that goes to North Korea

Well, this was the last part of the trip and it was time to take the journey home, but after almost 3 months on the road, it was nice to get back to my bed, life and routine, at least so I thought. Not even a week back and my brother-in-law was in touch and asked if I wanted to go to Kuwait. Well, this is not my dream destination, but as I am one for clicking countries it was hard to refuse. He had planned a business trip for his company, but for whatever stupid reason, the Kuwait embassy had refused his visa, so he offered if I could go on his behalf. I said ok, but I asked him if he could send me to Bahrain too as I had not been there, he said ok. Boom! Another country to tick, hehehehe. So I got to sleep in my own bed for a couple more nights and then we were on the road again, first stop Bahrain.

On the road again

We had a bit of drama getting to Bahrain which you can read about here, but once we were there all was good. I think this might be the friendliest border I have crossed in the Middle East, and overall I felt this friendly atmosphere in the country too. Read more about this trip here.

From the airport it was straight to the hotel, we only had a couple of days here so there was not so much time to do things, but Bahrain is really small and there was not that much to do anyway. I seemed to do the normal thing I do in Middle Eastern countries, and that is going to the shopping centre when it is plus 40 degrees, what else is there? I went to see the world trade centre and also took a walk along the waterfront. I also tried to visit the museum, but it was closing as we arrived, but they let us take a quick walk around for free. Before we knew it our time was up and we were off to Kuwait, country 83.

In Kuwait, the border control was the direct opposite and it seemed clear that we were not so welcome, but we dealt with the grumpy border control and then we were into the country. Kuwait felt a lot more hostile and edgy from the quite pleasant Bahrain, but Kuwait city is a big and developed city, we also were able to find some vegan options here (Indian of course). Although there was a lot more going on in Kuwait I really did not feel a great vibe about the place, it is hard to judge in such a short time, but there are just some places you get a feel for and others you don’t. Read more about this trip here.

Making some friends in Kuwait

Back to Indonesia

So the trip was over and it was time to head back. It was a big national holiday in Indonesia, so we flew to Jakarta and then went down to Bogor to spend some time with Aini’s family. It was a nice quiet time with the family, eating, going about the city and just overall spending time together. We stayed with Aini’s brother. After a very nice week, it was time to head back home to Bali with no more travelling for the rest of the year. Which was not a bad thing.

For the rest of the year, we had to plan and deliver some projects and then by October, we received 4 volunteers from Southern Europe who were coming to do their service with our organisation in Bali. Our organisation has started to work closely with the department of youth on the island and they had given us a free working room and in return, we were putting on a number of events for them.

One of the sad parts of the year was that 2 of our cats died 2 weeks apart from each other. One was a stray cat that we had taken in that we called Rudy. We called him Rudy as he kept breaking into our place, sleeping behind the sofa and stealing the other cat’s food. But once we saw him he would run outside and pretend nothing happened and ask for food, which we were giving him every day (a few times a day). Then it seemed that he had been in a fight with some of the other street cats, (sadly being Bali there are a lot) and he was not looking so good. He had got some infection in his leg and he was limping and suffering. He was still running away every time I caught him in the house, but one day he was trying and he just could not run. I comforted him and then we took him to the local vet. Additional to this infection the vet said he had F.I.P, which is a fatal illness for cats. The vets stitched him up and he spent some days in the cat hospital on a drip, then we took him home and looked after him. It was clear he was not going to make it, but he was with us for 2 months and had some ups and downs, but we only hope that we gave him some quality of life in that time. In those 2 months, we saw that Rudy was really a sweet cat that just wanted a family and a bit of love, although short we did our best. On the last morning, I went to check on him and he threw up some blood, it was clear there was no more fight in him. He looked exhausted, we rushed him to the vet but there was little more we could do for him, there was not even any colour in his gums. Following the vet’s advice, we just had to put Rudy to sleep and it seemed that he was not putting up a fight for this at all.

My wonderful cat Tiger R.I.P

Two weeks later my other cat Tiger also passed. I had had Tiger for 6 years since he was a kitten and he was the closest to me. With Rudy coming in an out Tiger seemed to be quite insecure about this and was going out more as well. It seemed that he was also getting into fights with other cats and I had noticed that he had got some infection in his face that was inflamed and then burst. Behind this, I could see that there was some small hole that was bleeding, so it was back to the vets. They cleaned him up and prescribed him some antibiotics. He seemed to be doing fine and despite the wound, he was showing great signs of recovery. We had had to keep him locked in a room, as I was worried about the open wound. Every day I was spending some time with him in the room and I was working on helping him readjust to the house and not to feel threatened anymore as Rudy was no longer there. I had spent a good part of the day with Tiger and he was overall looking ok, a little-pissed off, as he had to wear a cone around his neck. Then in the evening, I came to bring him some food and he was foaming at the mouth and could not stand. We rushed him straight to the vet, they took his temperature and he was 35 degrees, which was a bad sign. They did what they could to keep him warm and had him on a drip, but his heart was getting weaker and his temperature was not rising. After a couple of hours, it was clear that there was nothing more that could be done so I took him into a private room they had and Tiger laid on my chest until he quietly drifted away. I was so heartbroken by this and only felt more upset wondering if it was the antibiotics that killed him and not the infection. But how can I know? We just had to return home and in the morning I was digging another hole in the garden.

Vegan Christmas Market Bali

Making a Christmas Market in Bali

Rounding up the year we had started a partnership with some local business and the Indonesian Vegetarian Society. Together we had set up and delivered a vegan Christmas market for the community. Earlier in the year, there was a big vegan festival, but tickets were really expensive (about a month local salary), so we wanted to make something that was free and accessible to all. It was a really fun day with lots of stalls, presentations and some cooking demonstrations too. As time goes by I feel more and more motivated by the whole vegan topic, and am gaining some positive energy around people that share this ideology and want to make fun events. We are now having meet-ups every two weeks and have made some really great connections with individuals. What I like about this little community we are forming is that the individuals are more into making veganism fun and accessible and giving a great support network.

Three Colours Blue. The view from the Amed Villa

Just towards the end of the year we had a couple more visitors, first was one of our former volunteers also called Aini who now lives in Melbourne, Australia. She got married a couple of years ago now and was making a return trip with her new baby. The other meet up was with a former colleague of mine from my British Council days. My friend Nadine and her husband John rented a villa in Amed (east Bali) and asked if we would like to join them there. The place was totally gorgeous with a stunning view of the sea. It was also nice to catch up. We had both left the council at a similar time to explore new adventures and horizons. Nadine and John went off to volunteer with VSO and did a two-year placement in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Since then they have now been living in Bangkok. It was kind of ironic that I would also go to work with VSO a few years later, so Nadine was a great person to speak to, to get some realistic perspectives of how the organisation would be to work for, and everything she said was true, so I appreciated that a lot. It is really shocking that an organisation famous for placing volunteers is not so good at managing them properly.

The last thing of the year was Christmas. This year we were not able to go to Europe and be with the family, so we opened our house and invited all of our local in foreign volunteers to come for a potluck. A fun and positive evening with some singing, games and good old conversations.

Christmas with the Act Global crew

Although New Year’s Eve was pleasant, it was hit quite hard by the passing of my Aunty who lives in Australia. She had struggled very hard for a number of years with dementia and finally, she could not fight any more. With the loss of her husband (my uncle) just a few years ago, it can not have been easy for her. My Aunty met my uncle when she was just 16-years old and they married three years later. I wish you peace and hope the two of you are happy now together. My heart goes out to both my cousins Neil and Scott who did their best to give her the best quality of life she could during this time. Thank you Uncle John and Auntie Maureen for all the great memories and times. Rest in peace.

Maureen Kelley 1941-2018

As it stands this year I am not sure what things will look like for 2019, if we will stay in Bali, where we will travel too and what work I will engage in next, but I guess if it was all so clear it would not be so interesting right? I know that we need to make some changes and this will involve doing something dramatic, so watch this space and let’s see where this rabbit hole takes us.  Thanks for reading and hope this blog entertained you in some way.

Reflections on 2017

                  Countries visited in 2017

Just before Christmas, the year before I had taken a job-based in Malawi working for a UK based NGO. However, for Christmas time, we had decided to spend this with the family in the UK. As a family, we had decided to rent a house through Air BnB in Brighton. Christmas was great and simple and we spent it in the apartment cooking some food together. After Christmas Aini and I had to fly back to Malawi, but we stayed two nights in Ethiopia on the way as the flights were cheap and we wanted to see Addis Ababa (Ethiopia’s capital). It was a short stay so we did not get to see much, but from the feel, Ethiopia has a very rich culture which we would really like to come back to explore.

My friend Pappu who runs a Vegetarian restaurant in Malawi

We arrived back in Malawi for the new year where Aini and I went to a local Indian restaurant ran by a friend I had made earlier in the year. We just spent the night together eating, chatting and watching some Bollywood award ceremony. It was a bit of a surreal way to spend New Year, but the guy we were with is so friendly and made us feel very welcome. My friend was running the only vegetarian restaurant in the country, and his food was amazing. After going there a few times I knew I had to make this guy my best friend in Malawi. He was fantastic and whenever Aini was out of the country he would often drive to my place after work to bring me food in case I had not eaten.

January was mostly spent working in Malawi and I also started writing my dissertation for a distance masters I was doing. But by the end of the month, Aini (my wife) had to go to Macedonia for a project and I was sent for one week to Cambodia. After only being three months in Malawi I was so excited to go back to Asia. Being in Cambodia I just instantly felt comfortable, I knew then that Asia was much more my place than Africa. I had worked in the Gambia in 2005 for three months and found it a real challenge. Don’t get me wrong, Africa is a great continent despite its challenges, but Asia is just somewhere I feel more comfortable and really enjoy. I feel Africa is great for a holiday, but a bit of a challenge for living, at least for me.

Me in Angkor Wat, Cambodia

So after a week in Cambodia at a conference, I was sent to Uganda. In Uganda, we had a team meeting and the feeling was so different. Where I really liked being in Cambodia the conference was a total mess and I have no idea what it was meant to achieve. The Ugandan meeting was the total opposite. The team I was working with were clearly together and had great leadership. I was there with my line manager, a Canadian – South African woman who had worked in Africa and was very inspiring. She had worked in many countries in Africa including Mauritania, Sierra Leona and the Democratic Republic of Congo. She was full of stories like being locked in a hotel in Goma while there was an active war going on around them. A fascinating and very strong woman.  At the team meeting the event was managed by a guy from Sunderland who was now living in the Philippines, also a very fascinating person, married to a local Filipino.

Kampala (Uganda’s capital) felt like a very modern and vibrant city, especially compared to Lilongwe (Malawi’s capital). I went out a number of times with the team in the city, which was enjoyable. After the meeting, it was time to return to Malawi and back to the job. Aini was already back by this time and we spent the next month living in the city, going out with new friends we had made and making some small trips to nearby places like the lake.

Lake Malawi

By Mid March I was off to South Africa for a week to work out of the Pretoria office and preparing to go to Mozambique where I would be managing a project until the end of April. It was a very strange feeling in South Africa, the development was perfect, and there were all the trappings of the western world. They had shopping centres, nice roads and pavements, 24-hour electricity and more importantly access to the Internet. However, the safety situation was bad. All the buildings and homes were surrounded by high fences that were electrified, by the time it was dark you had to be inside. The murder rate was still very high and I became very aware of my race. The apartheid system in South Africa was long over, but there was still a strong tension between ethnicities in the country. I instantly felt that my race classification was important without my consent. I felt like I wanted to go up to people and say, hey I’m a cool white guy, I love black people and actively do work to tackle discrimination, but how would that conversation go down and how crazy would it look. It made me wonder how is the race experience for Black people back in Europe and do they experience such similar experiences. I just know that the feeling sucked.

In the office, I got speaking to one Black guy from South Africa whom I had also met in Cambodia. He told me that should I come to South Africa he wanted to show me ‘the real South Africa’. I had been speaking to him about my interest in race and race identity and about my study, that I was looking into how contact reduces racism. I’m sure this was very amusing for my new friend who planned to take me out for an evening in the township.

A night in the township

We drove for quite some time before arriving in one of the townships. I was brought to what seemed to be some kind of social club. It had a good vibe with a bar, a BBQ going and a DJ playing what I can only guess were some of the old hits. It was mostly an older audience of people around 40 +. I was the only white guy in the building, there were clearly now white people in the township and I am not sure when the last white person had stepped into this place. At first I felt peoples eyes burning into me, but after time some guys came over and spoke to me. These guys were mostly drunk, but overall friendly and glad that I came to their place, which was nice. After this my new friends took me to a place where their was a younger crowd, this had a totally different vibe. The eyes were really burning into me here and I could see that I was not welcome at all. It was really uncomfortable.  Whereas I believe that contact reduces prejudice, the contact situation needs to be planned and my permission or access to this place had not been negotiated. After some time some guys where coming up and speaking to me, but they clearly wanted to intimidate me and mess with me a bit. They were playing with my hair; getting up and close to me and then asking me what I was doing there? Where some guys I felt could be cool and genuine, some where just pissed that I was there. It was clear that it was getting to tense and my new friends could see this too and got me out of there. Reflecting on the experience I was glad to participate in what seemed to be a social experiment, but it was frightening and intimidating. I would really like to explore this further in some study, but under the right conditions.

Just before heading off to Mozambique Aini had arrived in South Africa back from a work trip she had to Bulgaria, which seems to mostly involve skiing. We stayed for the weekend in Johannesburg in a nice hotel and just hung about a shopping area district as this seemed like one of the safest areas.

Early Monday we were at the airport ready to fly to Maputo (Mozambique’s capital). We were both a little nervous as the visa process had proven to be a little difficult for me and Aini was trying to get her visa on arrival, which we were told was possible. After a long wait and very unorganised method of applying we were happy because she got the visa. We were then picked up at the airport by a driver that had been arranged to take us to our accommodation. What luck, we were in a city centre apartment with a view of the ocean on one side and a view of the city on the other. The apartment had Internet and was in close proximity to local shops and restaurants. The city also had security issues but was nowhere like South Africa.

View from our Maputo apartment

Overall Maputo was a pleasant city to live, despite the huge poverty issues. I was also working for a nice Bosnian lady who even welcomed us to her house for dinner and took us for the weekend to the beach.

Halfway through my time there I needed to support a research activity in the centre of the country. I was a little bit nervous about going there, as I was aware that this was still a rebel stronghold area and that despite a recent ceasefire, a conflict could break out at any moment. I spoke to my director about my concerns and she told me that she felt it was safe, but I was not forced to go. However, this was coming from a woman that lived through the conflict in Sarajevo, so I was not convinced what she felt was safe was the same as mine. Anyway, I decided to go and Aini tagged along. The feeling in the city was fine and there seemed to be a number of Portuguese families that were running little taverners. To be honest it had a feeling of Portugal in the past. I worked with some very nice people in the area and came quite good friends with a local girl who was managing the project in the area.

Our trip to Swaziland

After my time in Central Mozambique Aini and I had to leave the country for a visa run, so the office had given us this huge 4×4 truck and we drove to Swaziland for the weekend. This was a lovely little break, despite the country having a marry happy king, the country felt very safe. We drove right across the country and went to some local cultural sites. Swaziland is very beautiful with its mountains and unspoilt countryside, it also felt very clean.

We came back to Mozambique and Aini was not back long until she needed to travel again this time to the UK. I stayed in Mozambique to continue the job. While here I also came to the realization that this job was not for me. I had always wanted to work in development, but while taking on this study I had found that academia was more for me.

While I was working in Malawi there were also massive divides between the local staff and expats living there, to the point it also required diversity training. I loved this training and I spend some time trying to support this cultural divide, for me it felt like this was a sign to follow my true path, so I decided to quit this job, go back to Bali and focus on my studies. However, I needed to give 1 months notice.

I came back to Malawi and started to close my life there, we had bought a car and also bought a load of things for the house we were living in, but what we learned in Malawi is that you can sell anything there. We managed to sell all the stuff we bought for the house and the car at a reasonable profit. On the back of this, we were able to buy ourselves a little holiday in Cape Town before we left.

Penguins in Africa

Cape Town is truly one of the jewels of Africa, and as it is expressed it is Africa for beginners. Cape Town had a very different vibe from Johannesburg and Pretoria. Cape Town felt less stressed and much safer, but there was a high police presence. The landscape is absolutely breathtaking and the beaches can be put alongside some of the best in the world. It was really worth the visit and a place I would definitely like to come back too.

We left Cape Town and came directly to Bali, this was a really long flight via Dubai and we were so tired by the time we came back. It was great to be back in Bali, I found that I missed it a lot. But there was not much time to enjoy as the next few months would be devoted to finishing my study, which involved interviews, literature searches etc.

In September just before finishing the study we had a short visit to Macedonia, Albania and Greece. We had a project in Macedonia and as we flew all this way I thought it would be nice to finish some of the countries in Europe we had not seen. We were based in the south of Macedonia so going to Albania was just a short trip. We had gone with our Macedonian hosts for a day trip around Lake Ohrid, which also took to Albania. Once the project was over one of our hosts drove us to Tirana (Albania’s capital). We only had one night there and by chance, we caught up with one Italian girl who use to volunteer for our project in Bali. She was living in Tirana now and was working for an international organisation there (Read the Albania blog here).

Standard tourist photo of Greece

We had a great night on the town, but the next day we had to fly to Greece. It had always been one of Aini’s dreams to go to Santorini, so we were flying there directly. Santorini has some wonderful architecture, but it felt very overpriced for a rock in the middle of the sea. We hired a bike and drove around the island for a few days, we got a good chance to see all sides of the island and stayed in a simple homestay.

Catching up with old friends

After Santorini, we flew to Athens and stayed a few nights in the city taking an air BnB. I really enjoyed the city; it too had a great vibe and felt like somewhere I could spend more time. After just a few nights it was time to return, we flew to the UK to see the family and catch up with some of my friends. One of my really good friends had returned to Hastings after living in Canada for 12 years and was now looking to start a new life again with his family. We went out for one night and had a real blast; it was so fun to be with two of my best friends after so many years, it was like we just picked up where we left off all that time ago.

It was time to come back to Bali, I spend the next few weeks finishing off my Master thesis and getting this submitted. Then it was time for another project, this time in Nepal.

Staying with our Nepali host family

Back in 2014 I was in Sardinia and was at a meeting where I met one guy from Nepal, we got on right away and had remained in touch ever since. I was in contact with my friend and he insisted that I stay at his place while I was in Kathmandu. The meeting I was going to was also in the city, so we just came a few days earlier to hang out at his place. My friend’s wife was the perfect host for us cooking us all our meals and making sure our stay was enjoyable.

The seminar began and we caught up with all the partners that we knew. Most had come to Bali earlier in the year for a meeting they had there, so it was good to see some of the same people. After the project, my friend who I was staying with before invited us to come and spend Diwali (Tihar in Nepali) with his family in the south of the country. The journey was a bit of a mission as they were developing the roads, so it was about 7 hours with the last 3 being very rough and hard. Again my friend’s family were the perfect hosts, but the conditions were very basic, so it took some adjustment for Aini and I.

Tihar celebration Nepal

After a pleasant time with the family and a great festival experience, it was time for Aini and I to hit the road again. We had booked a hotel in the city of Pokhara for one week where we wanted to soak up the mountain and lake views. On the 2nd day in the city, we took a helicopter ride to the Annapurna base camp. It was an amazing experience to be standing halfway up an 8,000-meter mountain with stunning views all around. The air was a little thin and there was a hotel at this base camp. While there we also met some people filming a movie that was fun. While getting onto the helicopter we met with a Malaysian couple. The guy had not long turned 70 and had driven to Nepal from Malaysia, he was telling us how he had driven a few times from the UK to Malaysia, it was really inspiring to meet them and see them still doing these incredible travels.

We came back to Pokhara and the next day Aini became sick. It was hard to know what really caused it, but it knocked her out for most of the rest of the time in the city. The day before we left though we took a bit of a city tour and went to the temple of peace on the nearby mountain. As the journey to Pohkara was crazy we decided to spend a little bit more and fly back to Kathmandu rather than take that bus again.  Back in Kathmandu we just spent a night back at my friend’s place as we were leaving the next day. (See some funny videos I made in Nepal here)

Aini working on her yoga poses at 5000 meters

The next day Aini and I left but on different flights, I had to go to Bulgaria for the week, but Aini was heading back to Bali. In Bulgaria, I was there for a project about how countries are adapting to new migrants coming to their countries and the participants were from Estonia, Germany, Bulgaria, Dominican Republic, Kenya and me representing Indonesia. The city was great and I was really happy, as this was the last country for me in the Balkans. After a week I needed to head back to Bali.

A beard trim in Malta

I had only been back one night and Aini was off on a flight to India for another project. I decided to say as I had some friends from Sweden in Bali who I wanted to hang out with. They stayed in our place for the night and then wanted to explore different parts of the island. I joined them for a few adventures to the beach and waterfalls. As they left Aini came back, we had a couple of weeks relaxing at home before it was time to fly again, this time to Europe. Our first stop was in London but just for a connecting flight and then we were off to Malta for a week project, this time just with European partners. It was a nice easy project and I got a chance to catch up with a friend of my how took me to his mates barbers for a beard trim and a haircut. My friend is a beard model so I thought it would be a good experience to go to this barbers. I had let my facial hair grow for 2 months, so it was really great to get this trimmed and shaped, now I just need to work out how to maintain it. (See video on this here)

After a lovely week we were on another plane this time to Morocco. We first flew to Marrakesh where we rented an Air BnB in the medina. It was ok but very cold. We took some time to explore the city and the souk and had some small excursion to some city in the south. After this, we were meant to fly to France, but for some unknown reason Aini and I was just feeling that going there wasn’t a good idea, so we decided to stay in Morocco and make our way to Portugal over land. We made our way to the train station and just jumped on a train to Fez. Fez was really nice and for me the nicest part of the trip. Fez supposedly has the largest souk in the world and going around the market streets was really great, we enjoyed a lot getting lost and found again. We were only a couple of nights in the city before it was time to move on, but if I am to return to Morocco I would for sure prefer to stay in Fez.

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Going around Morocco is very easy and cheap using public transportation. From Fez, we took a bus to Chefchaouen, known as the blue city. The bus was very scenic and took some beautiful mountain roads, sadly the weather really sucked which affected visibility. We arrived at a cosy little hotel close to the famous blue streets of Chefchaouen. Again we only had a couple of days in the city to explore, but it’s a very small town so it was enough.

Our aim from Chefchaouen was to head to Spain, there are three ports that go to Spain but it seems that buses only went to Tangiers, so by default we had to travel to the port here. We came by bus and stayed one night in a hotel by the old city. I did not pick up a good vibe from the city and can not say I enjoyed it there. I had before in Tangiers in 2003 for a weekend and did not enjoy it then, but to be fair both times I did not really get the opportunity to explore. Anyway, the next day we headed to the port to take a ferry to Spain. This was so simple and fast, it was also very cool to be sailing between Europe and Africa.

Arriving in Spain the boat pulled into Tarifa, from there free buses were available to Algeciras, however, it was not clear how to get to the bus station from the port. We had to wheel our suitcases through the city and find our way to the bus station. Eventually, we found it and made our way to La Linea de la Concepcion, a small town the border with Gibraltar. I was curious to see Gibraltar and had an ex-colleague of mine now living there. We made our way over to the city and explored around. It was kind of small and quiet but at the same time a little weird. Gibraltar is a part of the UK but clearly has its own sense of identity. It felt like there were a number of things that had been copied and pasted from the UK but it is somewhat still very foreign to the UK. I had mixed feelings about this territory but it was interesting to see. Although having just come from Morocco where there are two Spanish exclaves within the country that are the most heavily bordered in the world, maybe Gibraltar is not so bad. We only spent one night and the next day we made our way to Seville where we spent two nights.

Seville had a much different vibe to Gibraltar, it was a very cool, young and vibrant city with a good energy about it. We spent a couple of days exploring the city and it was really nice down by the river. Some of the eating options were also great. We left Seville by bus to head to Portugal. The bus took us to Faro where we had the option of taking the bus or train. We decided to take the train as it gave us some hours to explore Faro, but it was a Sunday so Faro was closed and there was nothing to see or do. The train was not very special, but one we arrived towards Lisbon we crossed the bridge and it was a very dramatic entrance into the city.

Lisbon was incredible and a real highlight of the trip for a number of reasons, first as we would have Christmas here with my family including my uncle, cousin and his family, second as we had all come to celebrate my fathers 70th birthday and lastly because the city is just a joy to be in. I had been in Lisbon a number of times, but it had been a few years since I had been back. Being a bit older I was able to explore and experience the city in a different way. Everything felt cool and nice about the city and the surrounding areas are also very nice. It was just a shame that we came at a cold time of the year. We had rented again another Air BnB in the old part of the city. Location wise our apartment was great, but it was a very small apartment built into a cave, so there was no natural light and it was very noisy outside. On one of the days we went to explore Sintra with my cousin and brother, this was a really nice chilled out day with some great quality time with them. I really fell in love with Lisbon and the surrounding area and hope I will be back there very soon.

Aini and my cousin Pedro

We had spent ten days in Lisbon but there was still one more destination before we would end the year and that was Gothenburg, Sweden. The flight to Sweden was simple and we arrived late at night to the city. A friend of mine picked us up and brought us to stay with him. We spent a couple of nights with him and in that time I also went to see some other people I know in the city. One of the people we went to meet was a couple that had been living in the city for some years, the wife is Polish and the husband is Brazilian and they have two kids that seem to easily manage Polish, Portuguese, English and Swedish, it was incredible to witness. After joining one night for dinner they insisted that I should stay in their relative’s apartment who was away for the holidays which we did. It was a really nice apartment that was warm and spacious, so we were very grateful for that. They had shown us some incredible kindness and really made us feel very invited to their house. For the New Years Eve, my Swedish friend had organised a house party where they had made a full vegan three-course meal, it was very kind and thoughtful. When we arrived it was a little intimidating, I understood it was going to be a house party but when we turned up we saw that everyone was in very formal dress, I was wearing my hoody, so really clashed. At first, it felt a little awkward speaking to people as they seemed like a very close group, but as the evening went on we got to know people and had a lovely time. It was a nice close to the year watching fireworks outside over the lake. We spent a couple more days in the city before heading to Stockholm and then Thailand, but these stories will be saved for next year.

This must have been one of the craziest years of my life to date with very different experiences in all places. Of course, all the places have something to offer, things to see and experiences to be had, but as I reflect on the year it is the people that have made the places. It takes some bravery to allow yourself to be open to the kindness of others. Spending time with people in their places is something very special and it opens the chance to explore that friendship and understand the culture they are coming from. The more we travel the more we see the similarity in people who are all just trying to make the most of what they have and get on. It feels that deep down we are all curious about each other and if we can allow ourselves to be open and share our lives and stories with others we can learn to see the commonalities in each other and support each other too to work through the differences.