Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Nepal photos!

Our photos of 3 months in Nepal and trekking in the Himalayas are now on my flickr page:

Monday, 29 July 2013

Travel photos

The trip is about long enough ago for us to start feeling nostalgic whenever a photo pops up on the desktop!
That must mean it's about time to share some of them. They will trickle onto my new flickr page over the coming months, but here's the first set: India, Istanbul and the Andamans

There's also a map on there so you can see where they were taken. I hope you enjoy them, and I'll post more links on here as new sets go up.


Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Big Trip Awards

In the latter stages of our trip and since our return, most of the questions we've been asked are along the lines of 'What was your favourite...?' 
We're really happy when people are interested in our travels, but it's not so easy to answer the questions. How do you choose when everywhere is so diverse, and each country had highs and lows? Nevertheless, we've decided to devote one, final blog entry to 'The Big Trip Awards'. After all, there are some places so unforgettable they deserve to be shared.

Most awe-inspiring view

Harriet: Gokyo Ri, Everest region, Nepal

The view of Everest from Gokyo Ri
On this detour from the Three Passes trek, I was tempted to turn back a dozen times. The path zigzagged up steep, boring scree. We were above 5000 metres altitude, so climbing seemed impossibly hard work, and we were walking in thick, cold fog. But Karl was keen to press on, and FOMO (fear of missing out- a major driving force in my life) kept me following him. Finally, we came out above the cloud. We were surrounded by prayer flags flapping in the wind and the panorama that opened up included many of the Himalayan giants - Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse and Makalu to name a few. It was just the two of us perched there above the clouds. A very Himalayan moment; feeling like we were on top of the world, and actually not being too far from it.

Karl:  Under Mount Cook on the Ball Pass circuit, New Zealand

The Caroline Face of Mount Cook
This view was hard earned, and appeared from nowhere. We’d spent four hours walking along a dusty, scree ridge on the lateral moraine of the Tasman glacier, stumbling on football sized boulders, no shade from the dazzling sun and no view at all - just grey scree rising on either side of us. The path up to the ridge from here was crumbly and steep. But we popped over to find ourselves right beneath Mount Cook’s Caroline face - as close as you can get to this hugely impressive side of the mountain. The face was over 1000 vertical metres of glistening snow, ice and rock. It was beautiful and very humbling. We watched house sized blocks of ice fall off, starting avalanches. Against the majesty of the mountain even these looked small. We camped up there, and it was even more magical at night with the moon lighting the face and the constellation of Orion rising above the summit.

Best tropical beach

Harriet: Neil's Cove, Havelock Island, Andamans, India

A place to hang a snorkel, Neil's Cove
Pretty early in our travels, but I knew when I walked along the sand (soft, white...), with a soundtrack of bird song from the pristine forest behind, that this beach was going to be hard to beat. The water was clear and turquoise, there were calm shallows to wallow in, snorkelling with lots of octopus, shady mangrove trees to hang our hammock up, and no one else to share it with.

Karl: Pulau Kepa, Alor, Indonesia

Our own beach at La Petit Kepa
We stayed in a little guesthouse on this tiny island with only a handful of thatched huts and about 7 other guests. The beach was 2 minutes away through some trees. It was totally private, with views of the hilly mainland across the water. The sand was bleached white, washed clean by the tide. Snorkelling off here was fun- a high speed, effortless drift along the reef, spotting turtles and a resident baby black tipped shark. One night we swam here under a full moon, the water so clear you could still see the fish. Amazing.

Closest wildlife encounter

Karl: Seal viewed underwater, Kaikoura, New Zealand

The best way to see a seal
In Kaikoura we decided to try snorkelling with the resident seals. It was only early spring so the water was freezing, despite our wetsuits. Putting our faces in led to ice cream headaches, and our bare hands were completely numb.
On land you can't approach within 50 metres of seals without them panicking, so cumbersome they stumble over and knock themselves on the rocks. In the water it was a different matter. This particular seal was relaxing on the surface, unperturbed by us. She was lying on her back, washing her whiskers. It seemed too close, too intimate, and we were about to back away. Then she swam straight towards us, nostrils flaring as she breathed. At the last moment she dived. We watched her glide beneath us, turning upside down to get a better look. Bubbles of air were trapped in her whiskers and fur. It was one of those moments when you only realise afterwards that you were holding your breath.

Harriet: Black bear crossing a river, Yosemite, USA

Moments before our first bear sighting
We were swimming in a river on our first day in Yosemite when I saw a brown flash approaching the water about 20 metres downstream. I looked up half expecting a dog, but there it was - a bear. Right there! It hadn’t seen us as it walked down to the water and then gambolled across, splashing through the river, droplets landing all over its golden brown fur. Reaching the opposite bank, it climbed a small tree and started to pull down branches to eat the fruit, the trunk bending under its weight. It seemed to happen in slow motion as we watched, mesmerised- our first view of a bear in the wild.

Favourite journey

Harriet: Rail journey from Trivandrum to Chennai, India

Travelling through rural India by train
India is best seen by rail, and this was the most enjoyable trip of the lot, with our own little curtained off bunk that handily converted into seats. 18 hours on the train gave us long enough to really relax and get into the journey, watching the world through the window. Then there’s the interest inside the train, with a constant procession of salesman offering ‘chai chai chai’ or steaming tubs of curry and biryani. 

Karl: Bus ride to Annapurna,
View from the bus roof

Bus journeys in Nepal were all interesting, but this was the one where we got to ride on the roof! We shared it with a large group of school kids off for a picnic by the river, treating us to a soundtrack of their loud, happy singing. They all wanted to shake hands, but it was really hard to let go of the rail for long enough to do this as we’d fly up in the air and land with a painful bump. The road was rough and narrow, and we travelled through rural Nepal, watching people working in the fields and bringing in the harvest.

Most memorable wild camp

Karl: Crazy Jug Point, North Rim of the Grand Canyon, USA

Waking up on the rim of the Grand Canyon
Reaching this spot involved driving on a dirt track through forest for 35 miles, until the land ran out. The point had just enough room for our tent before it dropped into the canyon, wilderness stretching away into the distance. We had a fire, watched storms pass through the scenery, saw the canyon change colour at dusk and dawn, and slept outside with our feet practically dangling over the edge. It didn’t seem like it should be allowed- camping there, for free, on a point of rock jutting out into the Grand Canyon- it doesn’t get any better than that!

Harriet: Gertrude Saddle, Fjordland, New Zealand

Our tent at Gertrude Saddle
A relatively short climb up from the Milford Sound road brings you to this rocky saddle, with two deep, glacial scoured valleys either side. Waterfalls stream down the cliffs to the green of the valley floor, framed by impossibly steep mountains. There wasn’t a breath of wind so we could camp in the most exposed place possible, with the view dropping off beyond. I spent the whole time there just trying to absorb the ridiculously scenic view in every direction.

Favourite meal

Karl: Sushi restaurant in Kyoto, Japan

Sushi in Japan
Japan was a fascinating eating experience, with restaurants specialising in all sorts of themes - slurpy noodle bars, meat grills, cafes where you choose a plastic version of your dish and order it from a vending machine. This sushi restaurant was worth seeking out. The kitchen was open plan and you sat at a bar, watching the chefs work in their white hats. The whole team of chefs would personally greet each arrival to the restaurant. They would all call out together in unison, bowing each time someone arrived or left, one rushing to escort them to the door. It made for such a friendly atmosphere and a unique restaurant experience.

Harriet: Night market, Kupang, West Timor, Indonesia

Fresh fish in Kupang's night market
Kupang was a run down, dirty Indonesian town where we kept getting stuck between transport connections to other islands. But every night the main street would be closed to traffic (no motorbikes to dodge!) and dozens of food stalls would set up. Most served the daily catch of fish and prawns, which you chose and watched as they seasoned and flame grilled it, or stir fried it in big woks. Meanwhile you can order a fresh smoothie from another stall (avocado and chocolate was a bizarre but delicious favourite!) and afterwards a dessert of Bulan - thick pancakes filled with custard. The place was always full of local families and everybody shared big tables under glaring lamps in the warm night.

Most amazing underwater experience

Karl and Harriet: Diving at Manta Point, Komodo National Park, Indonesia

Harriet meets a Manta
This was the best dive either of us have ever experienced. We were lucky enough to have 14 manta rays glide past us during this memorable hour of our lives, some so close you instinctively ducked, even though they are very gentle and never touch people. They are massive, graceful, intelligent, and alien. Combined with the lunar landscape of the seabed here and the fast currents that whizz you along, it was an out of this world experience.

Karl and Harriet: Snorkelling at Pulau Bunaken, Indonesia

Pulau Bunaken, just like an aquarium.
The reef here is packed with an amazing diversity of life; dozens of species of coral, brightly coloured fish, turtles and the odd sea snake. Snorkelling involved a relaxed drift along the wall at the point where it dropped hundreds of metres into the deep blue ocean. Big fish would swim by in the blue, but the real interest was the coral garden and its inhabitants in the warm, perfectly clear waters. 

Most unusual accommodation

Karl: Houseboat in Kerala, India

Through the backwaters of Kerala on our own houseboat
We spent a couple of days on our own punted houseboat in the quiet backwaters of Kerala, far from the crowds of motorised boats in Alleppey. It felt very indulgent and colonial, lying in deckchairs being punted along waterways by our 2 boatman, while our personal chef served delicious buffets of Keralan food. We cruised along canals lined with palm trees, chinese fishing nets creaking on big frames and locals waving from the shore. In the evening we took out a dug out canoe to explore the narrow waterways between houses, and spent the night on a quiet mooring looking out over the reflections of palm trees.

Harriet: Hotel Langtang View, Langtang Valley, Nepal

A tea house in the Himalayas
This particular spot was very small, just a little hut with two rooms. It was early in the trekking day to stop, but the rare promise the owner made of a hot shower was too much. We relaxed in the afternoon sunshine until my ‘shower’ was ready. The owner then directed me to the cabbage patch behind the house, where a hot bucket of water awaited in the middle of the field. It turned out there was no bathroom at all here, but pouring hot water over myself in the open air, in the relative privacy of a field with mountain views all around, is the most memorable wash I've ever had! The evening was spent with the owner in his kitchen, just the four of us and him eating  by the stove as he told us about life in the mountains and his family. It was more like a home stay than a guest house.

Best drive

Harriet: Desert road in Utah, USA

The road from Nevada to Utah 
We left Las Vegas on a ruler-straight, empty road, the city disappearing in a desert haze in the rear view mirror. As we entered Utah the skies darkened and the desert lit up in sunlight. There was a rainbow overhead and the road twisted between red cliffs layered into stripes and cut through with gorges, all glowing in the dramatic light.

Karl: West Coast, South Island of New Zealand

New Zealand's West Coast road
It was a long wait before we could make this journey, stuck in the van in a boring west coast town through some terrible weather. After 2 days of solid rain, the sun finally came out and we travelled the winding coastal road to Punakaikai under blue skies. Surf crashed onto every beach as we wound up and down headlands, the road lined with exotic green tree ferns. What cars were made for!

Best cultural experience

Karl: Tongkonan building, Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia

Karl helps with the final stage of Tongkonan construction
We spent two days on a self-guided village to village trek through the interior of Sulawesi. On the first day we stumbled upon a large gathering. The village men were on the final stage of construction of a huge, ornate traditional wooden Tongkonan house. These unusual buildings are shaped like a pair of buffalo horns and look more like boats than houses, covered with intricate wooden carvings. There was a party atmosphere, with all the women and children gathered to watch as the final strut was heaved into place by teams of men on three sets of ropes. I was invited to join in on one of the ropes, before we were served coffee by the village women. It felt like something that would never have happened on an organised tour.

Harriet: Shiva festival, Kollum, India

Elephants, parasols and pom poms at the Shiva festival
A rickshaw driver invited us to join him for an evening festival at a temple in Kollum. All the temple elephants in the region were brought together and dressed in their full finery, before being paraded around the candle lit temple complete with parasols, dancers, bugle players and torch bearers. There was so much going on, with praying, dancing, music and elephants everywhere, and our friendly rickshaw driver explained and translated everything for us.

Overall highlight

Evolution Lake on the John Muir Trail
Harriet: If I could choose just one part of the trip to have again, it would be the month we spent hiking the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada, California. It was all that I love about mountains, wilderness, camping, hiking and wild swimming, and I enjoyed every single day.

Van life, surfing in the Caitlins
Karl: Exploring the South Island of New Zealand with our own van and all the time in the world to do everything we enjoy.

And now for a few of the worst!

Worst room

Harriet: Tea house in Lobuche, Everest Valley, Nepal

We arrived into the Everest valley late after a very high pass followed by a stressful crossing of the Khumbu glacier. This is where crowds of Everest Base Camp hiking groups were staying for their final night, and we struggled to find anywhere with a spare room. Eventually we had to accept what was offered- basically a freezing cold plywood shack with a broken bed, a draughty door and holes in the floor. It was a really miserable night.

Don't touch the light switch, Kupang
Karl: Guesthouse in Kupang, West Timor, Indonesia

The few budget options in Kupang were equally disgusting, dark and dank with mould on the walls, filthy light switches, and wires hanging out of the sockets. They were ‘en suite’ with a combined squat toilet and shower - a cold water pipe sticking out of the wall. We had no choice but to stay and just try not to touch anything.

Scariest experience

Karl: Los Angeles, USA

We made the mistake of trying to walk a couple of blocks in downtown LA- just to get to the bus station. Between boarded up shops there were coupon food halls and the streets were full of the lowest rung of American society- drunks having heated arguments, heroin addict prostitutes, hobos pushing their life’s belongings in a shopping trolley. Everybody was staring at us and we felt very vulnerable. There were no cars driving the street, and no taxis to hail so we turned on our heels and retreated to the normality of Broadway and one of its cafes. A real eye opener on our first day in the USA.

Harriet: Tubing the Waiau river, New Zealand

Harriet and her spare tyre
The first time we tried out our tubes was on this wide, braided river in the South Island. We started slowly, but before long were keen to try out a bit of white water. It was deceptive though, and on this one particular rapid we’d definitely bitten off more than we could chew. I went first, Karl merrily following, videoing me until he realised I’d come off my tube in a rough section of rapids. He then capsized as well, although I was unaware of this. I was focused entirely on survival, hanging onto my tube and desperately swimming for the river bank that was speeding by. It almost put me off tubing entirely.

Worst food

Our kind hosts in Sulawesi (shame about the food)
Harriet: Ordering the only thing I thought might be safe in a station café in Java, Indonesia- a fried egg. It arrived cold, having been cooked the day before and left out, and was covered in dead ants.

Karl: This sounds ungrateful as it was a very generous meal. When we were trekking village to village in Sulawesi we stayed in the home of the local teacher. His mother served us meat stew, which was probably a rare occurrence due to our being guests, but it was full of lumps of gristle and fat complete with skin and, most disturbingly, hair. I managed to eat it for politeness sake, but was also forced to subtly have Harriet’s portion too as she just couldn’t stomach it!

A final note

Congratulations for getting this far! This is the last entry of the blog. We hope you've enjoyed reading over the past 18 months, and might have been inspired by some of the places we've written about and the adventures we've had.

For us, it all comes back to one question (and it’s one we’re not going to address for a while): 

Where next?!

Harriet and Karl

Monday, 27 May 2013

Coming home

Volunteering at Esther Honey
I left South Pacific Rarotonga with a lump in my throat. My month working as an island vet with the Esther Honey Foundation was a time I will never forget. I met inspiring people and was left with no desire to go home and return to ‘normal life’, more an increasing wanderlust combined with a motivation to go and volunteer wherever in the world I might be useful.

All through this trip we’d met people who were on their last stop before returning home.  They had  made me a bit smug - glad it wasn’t over for us yet. However, I always thought that a time would come when I felt ready to go back, and after 18 months it was a bit surprising to realise that I wasn’t there yet..

Celebrating with Emma on my first night back in Britain
It was probably a good thing that my passport was about to expire, as that meant that I couldn’t even contemplate staying in the Cook Islands, or doing anything other than returning to the UK - the only country that would now let me in with just 2 months left on my passport! We’d stretched out travel for travel’s sake as long as we could realistically afford to, but that didn’t make it any easier to stop.

Flying into London
Of course there were positives about coming home too, and it was lovely to fly into London over a familiar skyline for once, and to head over to my good friend Emma’s flat- not needing a map to get there, everything how I remembered it. I saw friends for the first time in far too long and enjoyed London, one of the best cities in the world after all, in the spring sunshine. Emma lives in Westminster in the heart of the city, surrounded by iconic architecture and green parks. St James Park was full of daffodils and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. It had been a good idea to come home for the spring, and we’d timed it just right. Only a couple of weeks earlier the country had been buried under the latest snowfall, which would have made for quite a shock after the tropics.

Back together in London
Karl and I were reunited in London. His hair was now long enough to tie back, blonder than ever and he was super tanned after his month surfing in Costa Rica.
Together we began our slow journey around the country. We collected our rusty white camper van from friends who’d looked after it in Southampton and travelled northwards over a week, staying with friends, eating lots of delicious roasts and meeting the next generation (four babies having arrived in our absence). People’s lives had definitely moved on while we’d been away, quite a few of our friends buying houses and turning into families.

New families

Food with friends

Birmingham was our last stop, and on what was really the final morning of the trip we woke up to a shock. Our camper van was missing, no longer on the street where we parked it. Inside were many of the things that had survived, unscathed, around the world- dive log books, journals, the beer labels we’d been collecting in every country, shells, maps and souvenirs. Nothing ‘valuable’, but when something like that happens you quickly redefine the word- I would much rather my valuables were taken, and we didn’t even care that much about the van itself. My first thoughts were along the lines of ‘do we really want to stay and live in this country?’.  We'd not been victims of crime anywhere in the world, for it to happen now. We’d been back in the UK less than a week.

We could just about see the funny side though- we were locked out of the friend’s flat we’d been staying in, sitting in a car park in Birmingham with our backpacks and a mattress a friend had given us, and feeling more like tramps than ever before. We tried to reason that if this was the worst to happen to us in a year and a half it wasn’t bad going- it was only stuff after all. But the irony of it being our very last day, so close to making it home, was painful.

Safely back home in Southport with the van
Luckily, later that morning the police informed us they had our van – it had been broken into in the early hours by two guys who didn’t want to pay for a taxi home after a night on the town – so decided to steal a car instead! Someone heard the glass smash and called the police, who arrived in time for a brief, drunken chase by foot.
They had done a fair bit of damage, pulling out electrics in a futile attempt to hot wire it, but the van and the criminals were all safely impounded in Birmingham police station. To cut a long story short, we were able to drive home to Southport that evening, despite wires hanging out around the steering wheel and shattered glass everywhere. The missing window was draped in plastic that flapped noisily and we raced up the motorway to try to beat dusk as we now had no lights or indicators, Karl winding the driver’s window open for hand signals every time we had to overtake. It wasn’t quite how we imagined finishing the trip, but after the shock of the morning we were very glad it had all worked out so well.

Visiting my parents in Ireland
After a week unpacking and settling into our temporary home in Southport (Karl’s old family home, which we are living in while we clear it and put it on the market for his mum) we had a final holiday to Ireland to see my parents in the far corner of County Cork, enjoying rainy dog walks and some sailing in Bantry Bay, and trying to get used to needing coats and even woolly hats again.

A reminder of life on a Thai island last year
So we strung our trip out as long as possible, but now it is definitely, emphatically over!
Without noticing, we’ve slipped back into life in Britain and its novelties have quickly worn off. The first night in a house was quite exciting, wearing slippers and a dressing gown and drinking blackberry brandy. Too quickly though, we’ve started to take things like having a fridge, an oven, a wardrobe and a comfy bed for granted. We’ve found ourselves bogged down in mundane daily tasks as we try to get our life ‘sorted', and are also wondering why we ever needed so much stuff, having become truly adapted to everything in one’s life fitting into a 60 litre backpack.
It is surprisingly easy to forget we ever went away, but I do get a buzz every time a random travel memory pops into my head or an exotic photograph appears on the desktop to remind me. It DID all really happen!

Bringing in the sardine catch in Kerala, India
My advice to anyone who’s thinking of taking a year or so ‘out’ and doing something different that they’ve always dreamed of is DO IT! I know for a lot of people the idea of never knowing where you’ll be sleeping that night is not very appealing at all, and they can’t think of anything worse than leaving the homes and lives they’ve made for something entirely unknown. Fair enough really, it's not everyone's idea of a good time! 

But others are held back by practicalities that are quite easily overcome. Don’t be too scared to leave a job- unless it really is your dream job you’ll find something else, ‘Life is too short to work it all away'....
A road in New Zealand

And don’t think you could never afford it, travel can be a lot cheaper that you might think. The whole trip has cost each of us about the same as a new car, and less than the average house deposit or wedding.
We tried to travel on a pretty small budget of £20 each per day, so that’s about £11,000 each for 18 months away.
It certainly didn’t allow for many luxuries but we still drank beer, took flights, and it even included a rationed amount of expensive activities like scuba diving. In short, we did pretty much everything we wanted to do and never felt particularly limited. We decided not to work on this trip as we didn’t want to be tied down or have to plan work visas and jobs, but that's a good alternative. Many people we met are breaking even, or even making more money than they’re spending, by interspersing travel with periods of work abroad.

Last sunset in Rarotonga
It is intimidating leaving everything familiar for an unpredictable life, but as soon as you take the first step, the world quickly becomes smaller and less scary. Time also becomes distorted, the weeks and months slipping by. 18 months really isn't that long after all, especially when you come home and find that everything is just how you left it.

We will always be glad we went. Travel really does open the eyes and broaden the mind, and I have come to realise that there are many, many different ways to be happy. Life is what you make it!

Right, now it’s time to get a job….


Sunday, 21 April 2013

Pura Vida!

"Pure Life" on the Nicoya Peninsula

I was very reluctant to get out of bed. And it wasn´t so much because it was 5am and I was exhausted from 7 days of cycle touring. But rather because it was the beginning of the end of our overseas adventure, and that for the next 5 weeks I would be without my trusted travelling companion and wife (same person). But I still had things to look forward to on my journey home, and it was the thought of this that overcame my sleepiness and got me on the bus to the airport.

Lily shares the Stewart family appetite
My first stop was Sydney, where I was to spend the weekend with my brother Mark, his partner Jude, and my neice Lily. I had last seen them all 18 months ago, when Lily was just a baby. Now she was a walking, talking little girl, with bags of personality. Lily was shy and silent at first, but soon found her voice, and I felt very much part of the family. Although I only spent 2 days with them, it was a typical family weekend, spending time both at home and down the beach, and I will remember my visit fondly.

No time for dawdling, I then flew NE over the Pacific, to spend the next two days of my journey home at my Uncle Fred´s and Aunty Joyce´s home in Orange County, California. We had visited them last summer whilst we were in the states, and it was funny how much it felt that I had come home - everything was familar. But these two days were a little more hectic, as I had already lost half a day having had to fly unexpectedly via San Francisco, and the remaining time was mostly spent shopping for essentials for my next destination. But it was never-the-less nice to see them both again.

Thus began a rather extended journey that took me from Los Angeles to the surf town of Tamarindo, on the Nicoya Penisula of Costa Rica. In an effort to get the cheapest possible air fare (are you really surprised), my flight to Costa Rica took me first to Las Vegas, then to Dallas, then to Fort Lauderdale before finally landing in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. My first few hours were spent in the airport, catching up on sleep and wasting time, until my tourist shuttle was due to depart. I arrived in Tamarindo in the late afternoon, somewhat dazed and confused after a 36 hour journey.

Sunset in Tamarindo
Tamarindo is considered the surf capital of Costa Rica, and a snesible base from which to start my surf adventure. My first sight of the waves of Costa Rica was a bit of a disappointment, as a sea breeze was blowing on shore with full force, obliterating the normally reliable surf. So I spent my fist afternoon shopping for a surf board. Tamerindo is chock-a-block with surf shops, so I didn´t have trouble picking up a half decent short board for a reasonable price of $220.

Although considered the surf capital of Coast Rica, this is perhaps from a beginners point of view. The water just out from the town is blessed by a mellow learners wave, but consequently the water is packed with kooks (trainee surf dude), and the waves lack the spunk that more advanced surfer such as myself are seeking. However, 20 minutes walk south of town, or 40 minutes walk north, there are more advanced surf breaks, and it is here that I spent most of my time in the water. The walk north along the beach to Playa Grande is a bit of a hike, but the waves there are much bigger than those close to town, and they look like they have been made by a machine. Perfect A-frames peel onto the beach, time after time after time. I had been warned about the localism at this popular spot, but was still taken aback when on my first visit there I saw a full on first fight, first in the water, then in the shallows, as some local goon tried to drown a fellow surfer. Once the poor victim had stopped fighting back, the goon then set about smashing the guys board to pieces on the beach. It was such a shameful thing to witness.
Helps me get traction!

My routine whilst in Tamarindo was to rise with the sun at around 5am, and wolf down a quick breakfast. If I could be in the water by 6am, then that gave me a good 3 hours before any sign of a sea breeze would be likely. I would return to the hostel for a second breakfast, and then probably chill by the pool until around lunchtime. If I had any jobs to do then I would pop out after lunch, before a bit more pool time. I would plan to be back in the water around 4pm, which gave me 2 hours of surfing before the sun went down, which i witnessed whilst out on the water on many a memorable occasion.
I ended up spending 10 days in Tamarindo, which was much longer than I had anticipated. This was in the most part due to the unfortunate timing of Samana Santa (Easter), during which the entire country heads to the beach before the public transport system shuts down for the long weekend.

Typical dry scrub landscape of the Nicoya Peninsula

Once the weekend was over however, I left Tamarindo for a surf spot enthusiastically reccommended by the hostel owner, who himself had just returned from there. He raved abut the surf at Playa Maderas in southern Nicaragua, where the wind blows offshore all day, due to the close proximity of the massive Lake Nicaragua. The consequence of this offshore wind however, is that the sun warmed surface water is blown out to sea, and replaced by chilled water from the deep. I had experienced the dramatic temperature change when the wind blew offshore for a couple of days whilst I was in Tamarindo. Overnight, the sea temperature went from bath water to pond water, and I struggled to spend more than 30 minutes in the water at any time. I had prepared for this Nicaraguan temperature change by picking up a cheap (and badly fitting) wetsuit, which made the surf bearable if a little less enjoyable.

Hostel Clandestino

Playa Maderas is wonderfully undeveloped, and most people who surf there prefer to stay 12km away in  tourist friendly San Juan del Sur, and catch the surf shuttle out to the waves each day. But I was keen to surf the waves at dawn and dusk, and was not put of by the lack of facilities. There are two basic hostel-restaurants on the beach, but I opted to stay slightly up the hill, in beautiful tree house Hostel Clasdestino. The waves at Maderas were very different from those in Tamarindo. Here, the beach is quite narrow (making the water feel more crowded) and the waves aren´t so clean. It took me a couple of days to get a feel for the place, but once I had, the waves proved to be a bit more meaty than those in Tamarindo. After 4 days here my body had got used to the water temperature sufficiently to allow me to go out without a wetsuit, but I still craved the bath time of further south, so set off to find some waves down there.

Hollow waves at Playa Maderas

My destination from Playa Maderas was back into Costa Rica, and further down the Nicoya peninsula, to the area known as Nosara. The further down the Nicoya Peninsula you travel, the worse the roads become, and the last two hours of the journey to Nosara was on bumpy unsealed roads that filled the bus with chocking dust. I arrived in the dark in a battered state, having missed my stop and requiring me to hitch a ride with a rucksack and board bag of a guy on a motorbike with no headlights. Oh what fun!

Wild beach of Playa Giones

I was staying at a hostel next to Playa Giones, the beach with the most consistant surf in the area. There are always waves here. But that is not to say they are any good. My first impressions of the surf at Giones was not great. A massive beach with peaks breaking all the way along, apparently at random. The bigger cleaner sets would break maybe 100m out back, and this made for a punishing 5 minute paddle marathon to get out there. And  a constant set of rip tides would either pull you along the beach or further out back. However, after a few days I started to figure where the waves were better (follow the crowds!), and one particular morning session where I caught 5 long rights back to back, I was in love with the place. It was here that I caught perhaps my biggest wave ever, a short left at possibly double overhead (i.e. a twelve foot face), and all captured on my GoPro adventure camera.

Another highlight of my time in Nosara was the rodeo. The Nicoya peninsula is traditionally an area of cattle ranches, so the rodeo offers a chance to see the real Costa Rica, undiluted with tourist trash. And what a great experience it was. Health and safety dpeartments in the UK would have a heart attack, but by far the best seats in the house are those actually on the fence of the main enclosure, up close and personal to the action. The main activity at the rodeo is the riding of the bulls as they are released into the enclosure, bucking and kicking as they go. The riders risk snapped necks from the voilent bucking they encounter, but perhaps of greater danger comes at the moment of dismount, which must be done cleanly and quickly. But it´s at this point the real fun begins as those spectators brave (read drunk) enough run into the enclosure and attempt a game of tig with the bull. With so many spectators in the ring, the bull struggles to lock onto a particular target, but occasionally he picks his man out and charges. The spectators scatter, so heading for strategically placed narrow doors in the enclosure, others taking running jumps up the wooden slats. The bull will often run round the edge of the enclosure, requiring everyone to lift their legs clear of his horns. But one time as a bull approached us on is tour of the ring, he decided to start bucking again, with his hinbd legs reaching 10 foot in the air. At this point lifting our legs wasn´t enough, as we quickly struggle to stand on the top woodne slat of the fence, a difficult manouver with a beer in one hand and a camera in the other. So close was this encounter that the girl next to me got swatted in the face by the bulls tail as he went. On hand in the enclosure are two cowboys, who expertly ride their horses around ready to come to the rescue. The skill with which they throw their lassoos has to be witnesses to be believed, with backhand throwns behing their heads whilst galloping at full pace past the bull.
Myself and friends quite literally sitting on the fence!

I moved on from Giones with one week of my adventure left, heading further down the peninsula still, to the surf village of Santa Teresa. Originally just a simple fishing village, surfers discovered this place over 20 years ago, and surfing is now the be all and end all of the town. Spread out along a dusty road parallel to the beach, Santa Teresa is blessed with atleast 4km of quality beach breaks. This place is as close to surfers paradise as I think you could find. The dry brown landscape encountered in all of my previous stops finally gives way to lush green palm trees lining wonderfully clean sand. Morning surf sessions here are amazing. With no widn the water takes on an oily texture, and its the most beautiful sight to look up and down the beach and see peak after peak of waves barrelling in.

On our first day here the waves were too big to be surfed, closing out in 10 foot dumpers. I watched a guy paddle for a full 20 minutes trying to cover the mear 50 meters to get out back. He never made it, but did end up half a mile further north along the beach for his troubles. With the surf too big for most mortals, I opted to rent a quad bike, and along with 3 friends from the hostel, we explored the rough dirt roads along the coast. The quads allowed us to reach a popular attraction in the area, a series of three swimming holes, each connected by a waterfall. A ten meter jump from the top to the middle pool provides the adrelaline rush missing from the day.

Me in freefall!

I´m writing this blog on the afternoon of my last full day in Costa Rica. I will be getting up at 5am tomrrow to have my last surf (the forecast suggests it should be a good one), before I have to sell my board and catch a shuttle back to the airport in San Jose. I´ve got a full day in the States on the way home, where I hope to make it to the Kennedy Space Centre, but all being well (or not, depending how you view things), I´ll be back in the UK on the morning of Wednesday 24th April. I hope you´ve enjoyed reading about our adventures as much as we´ve enjoyed having them, although perhaps that´s a bit much to ask.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Surgery in flip flops

A month as a Cook Islands vet at the Esther Honey Foundation

I was apprehensive as I left Auckland for the island of Rarotonga, one of the Cook Islands in the midst of the bright blue South Pacific. It wasn't because I was on my own or because I was heading to a new country- it was because I was about to be a vet again. I tried to reassure myself that all the veterinary knowledge and skills I'd left behind when I gave up my job in small animal practice 18 months ago must still be there...somewhere. I hoped that they were just very dusty, and that I'd be able to brush them off and feel like a vet again, but there was a real fear that I had genuinely forgotten it all.

In Rarotonga airport a man with a floral shirt and straw hat was playing a Ukelele and singing to welcome the newcomers to the island. It made for a nice chilled out arrival to a country, and Rebecca, a vet nurse and fellow volunteer, was waiting to meet me. Even at midnight it felt very hot and sticky as we drove the short trip in the dog-hair covered car, and I wondered how I'd cope with working in this humid 32 degrees.

Ginger kittens- my favourite!
Arriving at the clinic immediately brought back that long forgotten but distinctive smell of all vet practices, a mixture of medical cleanliness and animals. It was a messy little bungalow situated in a garden full of barking dogs attached to trees. This would be where I would live and work for the next month. 
There may have been palm trees, but this was no tropical haven. Next to the island road, close to the runway, and surrounded by a yard full of barking dogs and crowing cockerels with no sense of dawn timing. I asked Rebecca, 'How do you sleep?'. The answer came 'You don't'. I was at least relieved to be able to hear the waves on the reef- a welcome addition to the cacophony. Having the sea so close would prove to be a real blessing!

Posing with some of our patients
The Esther Honey Foundation is a charity animal clinic, the only veterinary practice in the Cook Islands. Treatment is provided free and the place is run by a constantly changing group of volunteer animal lovers, mainly vets and vet nurses. Most of the fund raising is carried out overseas, and volunteers come primarily from Australia, New Zealand, and particularly the UK. I was taking up a 'Senior Vet' position, which felt a bit of a joke given how long it was since I'd held a scalpel blade, and added to my first day nerves. 

The current set of volunteers were Michelle, an Australian vet of my age, here for 6 months, a Danish vet student Julie, and 4 vet nurses- Kiwi Tracey, and British Rebecca, Angela and Rachel. All girls apart from Gregg, the clinic director, and all working hard together in the heat to care for, feed, clean and treat the large collection of dogs and cats.

The outdoor hospital
The patients lived in the yard- in a set of hospital pens under the shade of a corrugated iron roof, a few kennels and cages scattered around the garden, and on a number of chains attached to palm trees. 
Among the animals here were two dogs with gunshot wounds, RTAs hit by cars and scooters, anaemic little kittens mewing mournfully, and three cases of fish poisoning. 
Then there were all the strays- adult cats with one eye (always hard to rehome), gangs of kittens, and dogs dumped here when their owners left the island for overseas. They were all desperate for attention, wagging tails and whining hopefully if it looked like you might be coming their way.

Are you quite sure you want to castrate me?
It was clear from my first rounds, talking through the cases in the clinic, that there was plenty of work to be done here. I tried to imagine what would happen without Esther Honey, and I knew a lot of these animals would be dead or dying painfully in some corner of the island. 
I may have been nervous about my own role here, but I was really glad to be part of this team, doing the good work we were doing. It was also fantastic to be back working with animals! The reason I'm a vet in the first place of course, but I've hardly even handled a dog or cat for months. Without exception the animals were gorgeous and deserving of all the help we could give them. Unlike some pets back home, they were incredibly accepting of anything we needed to do. It was like Mr Miagi the dog was saying 'Pick pellets out of the massive gunshot wound that's blown away half my neck? Okay then, if that's how you want to play with me, go right ahead'.

Lucy, a suspected fish poisoning case
Fish poisoning dominated the medical cases, and was something I'd never heard of before I applied to come here. I had been helpfully educated about it and given information and protocols for treatment before I arrived. Properly called Cigatuera toxicosis, this is a poisoning caused by eating certain fish from the coral reef that surrounds the island. It can happen to people too and is found in various tropical regions of the world, but dogs and cats are particularly susceptible. The effects are horrible, and can include a paralysis of the whole body. It isn't fatal and almost all cases will eventually recover, but only with weeks and even months of treatment and dedicated nursing. If we weren't here, without doubt many of these animals would die. At the moment we had Jango the dog, and the badly affected cats Vicky and Shrek.

Vicky having hydrotherapy
These three patients took a lot of time, requiring syringe feeding, regular turning, washing and grooming, physio and hydrotherapy. They were sorry sights, but despite being unable to move more than their heads, the cats would still purr quietly as you handled them. Jango the dog wasn't quite as badly affected, and he would attempt to get up, wobbling and bashing himself against something before he tried to rise again. It was hard to see animals like this but I kept the words that I had been sent in my head; 'Try not to give up on these cases, even if they seem to be going nowhere, as almost all will eventually turn the corner and start to improve'. I just hoped that would happen during my month here.

Hydrotherapy, South Pacific style

Tracey and I took Jango down to the sea for his first session of hydrotherapy. He was a dead weight in Tracey's arms and his heart was beating fast as we lowered him into the water, his eyes showing his trust in us, but tinged with apprehension. I worried he might think we'd taken him down there to drown him, and we gently reassured him. Carefully supporting his body we immersed him in the water, gently swaying his legs. There was no movement at all. We flexed and extended his limbs for him, willing life back into his muscles, but to no avail. It was much the same for Vicky the cat- we gently held her in a bowl of water, swishing the water over her skinny little legs.

Kisses from the 3 legged pup Boston
But as the days went by, things started to change with these fish poisoning cases. The cats raced each other to lap at food rather than have it syringed, then eat mush while their heads were supported, and then hold their own heads up for proper meals. They began to turn their necks and try pathetic attempts at grooming. Yesterday Vicky overtook Shrek's recover, and walked for the first time. Her forelimbs are slower to improve than her hindlimbs which gives her a comical Bambi like stance on rigid splayed legs. She falls over a lot, but she has quite clearly turned the corner, and sits in her cage looking almost like a normal cat. Meanwhile Shrek has started to use his forelimbs to pull himself up the cage bars. I think he's doing his own pull ups to speed the returning strength and function of his limbs, and to avoid the hydrotherapy pool.

Jango starts to swim for himself

On Jango's second hydrotherapy session in the sea he started to kick his legs, and then all of a sudden, over just a couple of days, he was walking, swimming, barking, wagging his tail. His owners came to pick him up and his excitement at seeing them, yapping like a puppy and tail wagging at full speed as he ran to the car, was ample reward for our time caring for him. In these cases it's not medicine that saves the animals, but TLC, and we have plentiful supplies of that!

Getting back into surgery
As for my own role, I needn't have worried so much. It helped enormously with my initial confidence crisis to have such patient and brilliant nurses for my first couple of ops, but within a few days I was feeling like a vet again. It turns out that even 18 months away isn't enough to make you forget! 

There's a real sense of team spirit here, with everyone working together to make sure all the animals are cleaned, fed, medicated and cared for. Consults and surgeries occur on a fairly ad-hoc basis, with people sometimes turning up at 2pm with no appointment and 5 cats they want neutering. This afternoon please. Esther Honey is obviously keen to neuter as many island animals as possible so we try to fit in as much surgery as we can.

Consultations can be interesting. Normal strategies don't always work too well, with questions as simple as the animal's name and age often drawing blanks ('Oh, this one might be Blackie. Or maybe Snow White', when the dog in question is neither black nor white!). There's sometimes not a lot of point trying to go into details of how much it's drinking or how long it's been ill.

Dinner time!
Some owners are very loving and come to visit pets who are clearly part of the family, but others leave us wondering. It is quite common to have ill animals left here, seemingly forgotten. We get them better and then ring the owners with the good news that their pet is ready to go home. Maybe a few days later they turn up. Perhaps it's 'island time'. 
We worked hard to save little Jessica the puppy, who came in critically ill, weak and anaemic. When she'd turned the corner we phoned her owners every day to come and get her, only to eventually discover they'd moved to Australia!

Jessica feeling poorly
I've had some memorable cases in my month here, like 'Tintin' the cat, a stray found with his whole head wedged firmly inside a tin can. To make matters worse he'd also been caught by a dog while in this state and shaken, causing fractured ribs and emphysema. He must have been petrified, and was well on his way to dying of dehydration and starvation, so it was very rewarding to free him, treat him and watch as he went from having a huge swollen, distorted and bruised purple face to looking like a cat again. There have also been some funny moments, like the call out to an attacked dog that turned out to be a perfectly happy goat! I've stopped expecting people to come in with a cat basket, most animals arrive here cradled in one arm, the other hand driving the scooter!

The clinic runs entirely on donations, and we try to be as efficient and inventive as possible with the resources we have. It has been an opportunity for me to get to know many alternative drugs and try to work around problems using what we have available. Many of the medical supplies are donated, often less commonly selected drugs in bizarre concentrations, given to us as they have expired and would no longer be used in practice. This creates an eclectic array of medicines to choose from, although there's always something appropriate. It will feel like luxury to go home to a well stocked practice with, among other things, more than one anaesthetic circuit, paper towel and different size needles, catheters and syringes! We always have a long wish list, and anyone in practice reading this may be able to help - please visit estherhoney.org.

After work drinks!
I have loved my month here as a 'honey'- it's been hard work at times but often very rewarding, and I always feel proud to tell people I meet around the island that I volunteer at the animal clinic. Locals and tourists alike are very grateful that we're here and it's nice to feel part of the island community. Although I did get one comment, 'Is that why there are so many dogs with 3 legs on Rarotonga? Do you vets come here to practise surgery on them?'!!

It's definitely going to be hard to leave, and I've even started to sleep through the nightly chorus of whining, meowing, barking and cock-a-doodle-doos!