For someone who writes a travel blog, I don’t really read a lot of travel blogs. I tend to hate them. I find single entries really useful for planning things but I don’t like a lot of the writing I find enough to add travel blogs to my regular interweb reading roster.
Then my friend Mali, who I went to college with, started tracking her family’s drive across the US and eventual flight to New Zealand to live and work for a year. And I am so in love with it. I have been reminded again how talented the people I went to school with are, especially in the writing department, and that makes me really happy.
It’s hard work keeping a regular post schedule going. To do it while traveling is even harder. And to do it with two small children to take care of, and do it WELL, is incredible and commendable, and has been producing on-point and often deeply hilarious results.
I have been able to relate to a lot of what Mali is writing even from a completely divergent life path. This may be partially because she is my friend, but I think it’s mostly because she is (and always has been) blisteringly honest and willing to deal out some pretty personal, internal stuff in a beautifully-written way.
I won’t ramble on more about it. Just do yourself a favour and go read Flawless Plans. It is genuinely fantastic.
It’s Frankie Manning’s birthday today, and also World Lindy Hop Day. And since dancing has done so much for me in such a relatively short period of time, I’m going to gush for a minute.
Perhaps a lot of these positive personal changes are a result of age and experience, but I’m pretty sure Lindy found me at the exact right moment, so there’s something to be said for the perfect storm.
Sometime in the summer of 2013 when I was finally coming out of a pretty dark place, Duncan showed me a Movits! video that had some of the Harlem Hot Shots in it (SO MUCH CHARLESTON). I immediately fell in love with a random Swedish hip-hop swing band in a way I’d not fallen in love with a band since I was a teenager, and the ‘oh-swing-dancing-is-a-THING-and-wow-it’s-kind-of-awesome’ wheels started turning.
It took 9 months (and my friend Kate mentioning she’d been thinking about trying swing dancing while we were eating ice cream) for me to go to my first lesson. And another 6 months to the tipping point, when I was considering giving up, but the perfect combination of circumstances and people landed me in ESDS, and something clicked.
I met, and continue to meet, some of the best humans I have ever known. I have incredible friends – family, really – that have come from dancing. I discovered a worldwide community where I’ve been welcomed with encouragement and enthusiasm. I now know such a huge variety of instensely intelligent, introspective, strong, and talented-in-all-kinds-of-fields people that I may have never known if we weren’t all doing this crazy dance together. How lucky is that? On its own.
But there is so much more. For one thing, body image. Lindy is for everyone. You don’t have to be some model perfect looking human being to be a good dancer, you just need some rhythm and an ability to have some fun. People of all shapes and sizes and ages do this dance and they all look awesome because they are freakin’ enjoying themselves. It’s a nice big ‘fuck you’ to the imagery we’re constantly bombarded with about what’s good-looking and happy.
And personally, after dancing for a while and realizing my body could do all this stuff I never thought I’d manage even a year before, my self-image got a lot more positive. Of course I have days where I’m like, oh my god, I hate all my clothes and I feel like garbage, but for the most part, I feel pretty damn good. I am the same size I’ve always been, I’m just stronger, healthier, and happier about it.
After my first full weekend event (ELX 2015), I felt so badass, I went out and bought the first bikini I have ever owned. (I did need a new bathing suit, it wasn’t just a random decision.) I was 31. I never, ever thought I’d feel comfortable enough to wear a bikini in my life. Then I christened that sucker in Lake Baikal.
So the confidence boost in general is pretty transformative. I mean, in addition, if you had told me a few years ago that I’d regularly be going up to strangers asking them to dance, I’d have looked at you like you were an alien from a strange and distant universe. I am so not that person. It’s still pretty hard to be fair, but I do it all the time. I’m constantly amazed at this. (And at the fact that I can do Suzie-Qs, which is like some kind of disconnected foot magic.)
I also know that mustering up the chutzpah to do the whole quitting my job and finally going on this massive trip I’d thought about for so long thing had a lot to do with the nerve, direction, and general belief in myself that was not previously present in such high doses.
(Also also, I bought a bike, which I’d never have done if I hadn’t started dancing, but that’s a whole other life-massively-improved-by-self-reliant-transport story.)
All of this from just going out and dancing 2-3 times a week. It has been better than any gym or therapy or medicine you could ever offer. I am still the same person and I have as many shit days as anyone, but I bounce back faster, and my good days are even better. And I’m only ever a day or two away from being able to swing out and forget any stupid thing that’s bothering me, even if only for 3 minutes at a time.
So. I am relatively certain, in a way that I am not often about many other things, that, barring injury or illness, I will be doing this for the rest of my life.
Frankie said that if the whole world danced the Lindy Hop, there would be no wars. Obviously that’s some wishful, utopian thinking. But a big part of Lindy is connection, and if you can connect to another person long enough to enjoy a swingout, a circle, and some quality lindyface, you can think a little further than your own wants and beliefs. That’s a damn good start.
Before I even got back, people were asking me this question. People continue to ask me this question every day. So here! By popular demand. A short list.
Somewhere in Scotland (or northern England)
We’re due a group camping trip this summer. So at some point, I’ll dig out the totally loud but amazing tent Kristina gave me, load it into someone’s car, and we’ll trek off to the highlands or the Borders or the Lake District and tromp around and have a grand old time, even if it rains sideways.
We’re also definitely going back to Newtonmore in September. Ain’t no party like a Lindy Hop party in a quiet highland town.
Swing Summit, Ferme Les Costes, Ardèche, France
I’m going to Swing Summit (yaaasssssssssssss!) with friend and dance partner extraordinaire, Chris. It’s an intense, week-long camp based on super-focused teaching in small classes for Lindy technique nerds in the gorgeous mountains of southern France. There’s outdoor dance floors and a pool and a dog and they sort all your food for you. It’s going to be difficult and fun and exhausting and flippin’ AWESOME.
AND I intend to have a ridiculously huge French lunch in the 5 or so free hours we have in Lyon before flying home.
New York & Delaware, USA
I have promised I will hit the US sometime before the end of the year. Hopefully in the Autumn. This will involve family time and bagels and Dogfish Head and hopefully some mother-effing hot apple cider. And I still haven’t danced in the states, so I will take care of THAT while I’m over there.
To visit Felix, of course! It seems like a really cool city, so I’m excited to get the local treatment. It will be relatively easy to do, as there’s a direct Edinburgh-Hamburg EasyJet flight, so I’m really hoping I can swing it this year, financially.
New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
Because food and music. Those should really be the only reasons I need to cite. I can’t eat anything involving crawfish unfortunately, but there is plenty more to be getting on with. And I have a serious weakness for New Orleans and Dixieland style jazz. Plus I have seen relatively little of the US, and it will be nice to go somewhere different over there.
I realise that’s a wide net to cast, but it’s the only continent I’ve not hit yet (aside from Antarctica, which, well, after the cold of Siberia, I don’t know if I’m running down there anytime soon). I just want to go everywhere. Bolivia (salt flats!) , Argentina, and Uruguay are all on my radar as excellent options. I have mixed feelings about whether or not I should go to Galapagos. In any case, this will probably be the source of my next major travel adventure, but it’s going to take a while to get there, and it will probably look very different from the last trip. Much slower, for a start.
Mongolia (in the summer, please)
I’ve said it was my favourite and I’m not lying. I’d really love to go back in the summer for 2 or 3 weeks and go out wandering, camping, riding lovely horses, and EATING yes please. Preferably with a wee group of friends.
It’s Record Store Day and I have this sourdough starter I took on as an afterthought staring me in the face every time I open the fridge. And I’ve been thinking about the X-Men since last night when Tessa mentioned her daughter was getting way into them.
These are tied together by the fact that they’re all part of the long list of things I have not, and may not ever, get to. The sourdough will probably happen. At least once. But I’ve already secretly deep down come to terms with the fact that I’m probably not going to be a constant artisan bread maker. But. But! I am a baker! Of course I’ll bake bread!
It’s unlikely that it will happen with the regularity needed to keep a starter alive though.
And while music is pretty much half my blood and I lust over Kristina and Yann’s impressive vinyl collection and absolutely amazing turntable every time I’m in their flat and I miss the high school thrill of hanging out in Record and Tape Traders even when I felt not nearly cool enough to be there, Record Store Day is probably not a thing that will ever happen for me either. I hate to say it. I’ve been listening to 6Music talk about all the lovely events and shops around the UK all day and thinking, well, that could have been my life. I could have been queuing since 4am geeking out with my fellow music nerds.
But it’s not. There are just too many great things I have to be getting on with to allow myself to add even more.
This is how I feel about comic books and theatrical set design and stage management. It’s how I feel about curling and archery. It’s how I feel about the massive store of bookmarks pointing to cool project ideas sitting in Firefox I never look at again and all the books on my shelf I still haven’t got to.
I have dabbled and I have turned my back. I love a lot of things I have to turn down. I can’t throw myself full-force into every single cool thing I’ve ever done, though believe me, if I found a way to do so without dying of exhaustion and insanity, I absolutely would. I mean, when JK Rowling chucked that Time Turner in there, I was RIGHT THERE WITH HER.
I get so into the things I DO stick with that they have their own nested priorities. My to-do list grows at an exponential rate. My Lindy Hop Trello board alone is an incredible exercise in ambition and daydreaming. Even my ‘ways to get some freakin’ actual paid work’ plans have grown far beyond my abilities to carry out.
I have to tell myself at least 3 times a day: ‘No. Stop. What is the one thing you ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO DO right now? OK DO THAT THING. But I could just also maybe… NO. (Also: eat something, then do it. (Also also CLOSE THOSE FUCKING TABS.))’
Because trying to do ALL THE THINGS is the number one way to send my anxiety levels right up to danger zone and I’ve been trying pretty hard to train myself to keep them out of there whenever possible.
There’s definitely an element of Fear Of Missing Out in all of this, but it’s like, self-FOMO, which isn’t even what that shit is all about.
Since I got back from the grand adventure, this has been a bigger problem that I ever expected it would be. For someone so underemployed, I am crazy stupid busy. It’s all great stuff I’m busy with, so that’s fine, but I have been writing this post in my head all day and I’ve probably lost the best of it because it materialised this morning while I was moving boxes and I have not had a single moment in the past 12 hours to sit and even jot a short, undeciperable-later-on-but-made-sense-at-the-time list of the ideas buzzing around up there. I’ve just had to try to remember it all because it’s far more important to me than any writing that I am fully present when thanking people for moving and storing my shit, and drinking coffee and learning what the deal is with kefir, and sewing an exciting resurrected tailoring project and (badly) playing football with the world’s best puppy.
And even if it wasn’t, I forgot to bring my notebook with me when I left the house anyway.
There are a million and nine things I’d like to work on this weekend, but I keep needing to get them in line. And the back 90% of that line needs to know it’s getting turned away at the door, because I am well past sold out before I get anywhere near considering leaving the house to go to a record store.
I had Nutella on my toast this morning, which in itself is not a rare or remarkable thing. But it came from this wee pot Miriam brought back from her hotel in Berlin, and with it came a flood of happy food and travel nostalgia.
The first time I ever had Nutella was in Germany. I was about 13 and my father had decided to bring his parents and me and my sister and mother over for a holiday so we could see where my Grandpa’s family came from and where he grew up when they lived there. My Grandpa was actually born in the US, but his brother was born in Germany and they went back there to live in Lichtenfels for a while when he was young.
Anyway, the idea was for him to get to see it again one more time, and for my Grandma and all of us to see it for the first time. It was also the first time my sister and I had been out of the country, so there was the whole exciting business of passports and wondering what a trans-Atlantic flight would be like and trying to learn bits and pieces of German (Mom says ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ first, of course, we were too young for ‘beer’, but it sounds the same anyway).
We spent 2 weeks buzzing around southern Germany in a Fiat minibus with the most uncomfortable hard seats I’d ever experienced in a car up til that point. We marveled at the speedy efficiency of the Autobahn. We almost instantly turned the German word for ‘exit’ into a fart joke. We stayed in small European hotels, the like of which don’t exist in the US and so are that much more novel, specifically to a 13-year-old suddenly experiencing The Simpsons and Walker, Texas Ranger overdubbed in German on the TV and meats and cheeses at breakfast.
And Nutella. Glorious, glorious Nutella. Chocolate for breakfast! How advanced these Europeans were. Every hotel we were in had it as standard. I specifically remember my Grandpa encouraging me to swipe a few of those wee pots in the morning for use later. I was a vegetarian at the time (I know, a teenage vegetarian in Germany – my poor parents) so I lived on pommes frites, afterthought side salads (bad), spaetzle (very good!), and afternoon car snacks of Wasa crispbread with said swiped Nutella smeared on it washed down with kirsch Capri Sun.
It’s curious that I have such vivid food memories of a trip on which I’d given myself limited menu options, but then the adventure of being in Europe for the first time, even while holding up my surly teenage grunge phase business of Totally Not Being Impressed, probably had a lot to do with that. Pretty much everything was new, food or not. Fanta! Milka bars! The Verve’s ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ on MTV Europe, 6 months before we ever heard it in the US!
Germany was also the first place I encountered the kiwi spoon. We went to the zoo in Köln during some sort of festival where there was all sorts of free stuff, including a Zespri booth pushing New Zealand kiwis. They were handing out kiwi halves with the little plastic spoons stuck in them. If you’ve never seen a kiwi spoon, they’ve got a pointy spoon at one side and a serrated edge on the other so you can cut your kiwi in half and scoff it with the same tool – there are even two different designs! Years later when I was in New Zealand with Scott, we got some in the grocery store. When they broke back in the UK, he was so devastated I wrote to Zespri and asked if I could buy some from them. Instead they sent a wee package of 6 of each type to me for free. How’s that for customer care? I still have a few of them. They’re pretty handy, as bits of plastic go.
How many can you cram into your bag unnoticed?
But I digress. What I’m really getting at is how nice it is to be reminded of an entire experience, and of my Grandfather in general, by nothing more than a mini pot of Nutella with a German label. I tend to think of my Grandpa when I have Nutella anyway, but this may as well have been the very pot I slipped into my pocket nearly two decades ago as he slyly encouraged sugar-related mischief, as grandparents are wont to do.
12 years (gah!) in the making
3 months in the doing
8 long distance buses (too fucking many)
1 bamboo raft
Numerous metros, taxis, tuktuks, motorbikes, and other local transport
1 pair of hiking shoes
1 pair of sandals
1 pair of dance shoes
10 forms of currency
Temperatures from -39C to +39C
23 hostels and guesthouses
7 locals hosts
1 budget hotel
8 Lindy socials
1 weekend dance camp
I don’t know how many kilometers or miles I traveled. I probably should have kept track of the distances as I went, but you can see on the map that it’s a bloody long way. I’m happy to leave it at that.
So what did it all cost?
£715 on new gear pre-trip
I didn’t keep track of what I was spending pre-trip. Some of the things I bought I needed for other stuff (like the hiking shoes for the trip to the highlands) and some things I got as gifts. So this is a rough estimate of the total cost of what I bought new within the past year if I’d had to pay for all of it myself (I probably only paid for about half).
It looks like a lot of money, but actually almost everything I bought is really good quality, was on sale when I got it, and will come in handy for trips within Scotland and just in general, so I’m happy I have it all now. The only thing that I’ll need to replace soon is my shoes I think (the bottoms are pretty worn out).
£230 on clothes, shoes, and shipping in Hoi An
I have kept the cost of the stuff I got made (and shipped home) in Hoi An separate from the main budget, mostly because I want to show what all the normal costs added up to on their own. I did some buying of stuff within the budget, but only little bits here and there that were more like standard travel costs. I’m perfectly happy to tell you what I spent though!
£4338.52 spent on the trip
This should be pretty accurate, with a relatively small margin for error. I was obsessive about recording absolutely every expense, down to the 5 Baht or 1RMB it sometimes required to use a public toilet (categorised as ‘health’ of course). What I think I probably missed out on were things like adding extra Skype credit or buying ebooks here and there. So let’s say I could be up to £100 out at most, but I’d be surprised if it was even half of that.
A word on the cost of full-time travel
When I compared the daily spending average of this trip to the month I obsessively kept track of for a baseline idea of what my life costs (September 2014), I found it was almost exactly the same. The costs I kept track of included all rent and usual bills aside from my US student loan payments, which I also kept out of this trip’s cost within trail wallet, but saving for 4 months payments was a big part of the challenge of saving for this trip – it added £1200 to the cost of things.
The point is, it costs pretty much the same to live while traveling that is costs to live in Edinburgh. And I know the traveling would cost even less if I hadn’t moved so fast.
It’s nice to see proof that it’s affordable, so if you’re the sort who has a location independent job already, you could definitely take it on the road. But I will not tell you it’s easy to work on the road, and unless you want a whole lot of extra stress, I wouldn’t recommend the digital nomad life if you don’t already have the job you’re going to do before you set off. It’s just as hard to find work wherever you are, and unreliable WiFi connections are more common than not.
I’m not saying any of that is impossible, but it’s also not as breezy as some travel bloggers make it out to be. It’s also not for me.
The categories are as close an approximation I could get to what the money was actually spent on. For example, a lot of hostels included breakfast, but those costs are still filed under accommodation. Any gifts I bought for Couchsurfing hosts are also filed under accommodation.
Drinks includes all alcohol bought on its own as well as coffee or other random drinks during the day (coconuts!) All water is filed under health. If I bought a beer or glass of wine with dinner, it stayed in the food cost.
Miscellaneous includes gifts, postcards, and various clothes and supplies I needed along the way.
Entire trip: £45.19 per day
*Includes all my first aid kit stuff and various other bits, but the week in Europe WAS incredibly pricey, thanks to going via Scandinavia.
**High because I basically paid for a private guide as I had no one to split the cost with.
***Deceptively high because of The Big Bang. Thailand was cheaper than Cambodia in terms of food, hostels, and entertainment. And the cost of staying at a resort and dancing all weekend was actually pretty low compared to what it would be in Europe.
Not an exhaustive list, but the most important and heavily used
Jodi has a travel prep resource page that is second to none and covers everything you need to think of before you go. She also answered my questions about eating street food in Vietnam with a shellfish allergy, which was super helpful.
Too Many Adapters
I got a lot of my tech advice and ideas from TMA. It also has great reviews of all sorts of gadgets you may be thinking of buying for a trip.
Helped organise some of my rail tickets, provided visa support, and answered all of my related questions. They are fantastic and highly recommended.
Travel bloggers of the world
Numerous travel blogs found through Google searches on various different locations. I couldn’t possibly list them all, but I can tell you that if your Google-fu is strong, you can find info on any travel destination on this earth because of the lovely people who write about their adventures (and misadventures).
Currency converter. Could not live without.
Using offline areas (which stopped working or were unavailable in some places).
Whatsapp and FB Messenger
For WiFi messaging and sanity. Whatsapp also works in China without a VPN!
If you’re going to be in China you pretty much need to get Wechat. Everyone uses it, and it’s also your gateway into a lot of the free WiFi available.
With Skype-Out credit for uber-cheaply calling friends, family, and on at least one occasion, my bank in the UK.
I used this mostly in Russia, where the instant offline photo translate was super useful for reading signs and menus.
For some absolutely lovely local experiences and accommodation.
How I booked most of my hostels. Although if I’d known about Agoda sooner, I’d have maybe gone with that because it lets you pay in advance by card.
For planning and pre-trip to-do and packing lists. Also how I organise most of my normal life.
My tech and data safeguard arsenal
Every time I was connected to WiFi, crashplan automatically updated my cloud backup. This meant I worried a lot less about my computer being stolen or destroyed because I knew all my actual stuff was safe.
Find My iPhone
Set up in iCloud before I left for both my phone and my computer. More peace of mind knowing I could immediately wipe either if they were lost or stolen (and include a snarky message to the thief should I so choose).
I took a lot of pictures and I did not want to lose them! Again, every time I was connected to WiFi and the Uploadr detected new images on my computer, it automatically loaded them to my Flickr pro account privately, so I was never in danger of losing any photos I’d put on my computer (and I was pretty good about doing this daily).
On both my computer and my phone, for safeguarding data when using banking, email, etc. Also got me under the wall in China whenever I had a strong enough connection.
Used to store copies of all important travel docs and my itinerary plan sheet. These were also shared with my parents and friends in the UK for emergencies.
Further backup for documents, as well as sharing photos with fellow travelers along the way.
Free anti-virus software to keep the computer squeaky clean.
This will be the last post for a while as I regroup and figure out what the future of this blog is (if it has one) or if I’ll start a new project. I have kept this up for nearly two years and it has been an adventure in itself. This kind of consistent writing is an exercise in serious self-discipline. It is incredibly hard work (but rewarding!) and it’s been really good for me. I’m at least as proud of myself for sticking with it as I am for completing such a bonkers trip.
So, know that I will be doing SOMETHING eventually, I just don’t know what yet, and I think I’ve earned a bit of a break in the meantime.
‘Maybe Tomorrow’ by Sterophonics has been on heavy rotation in my Chill The Eff Out playlist for this whole trip, most likely because it’s used on Long Way Round, so it was somehow already intrinsically connected. But it’s on an album called ‘You Gotta Go There To Come Back’, which is a phrase that’s been bouncing around my brain since I boarded my first train at Waverley in November. I had unexpectedly got to a place I never really considered I’d be, which is, loving the place I live in so much that I missed it before I even left.
It’s not true of everyone who travels like this, but a majority of the people I’ve met along the way have some sort of restlessness with where they come from. Sometimes they’re a bit bored of it, sometimes they’re indifferent, and sometimes they flat out hate the place. Those are as good reasons as any to find somewhere new for a while, but I have no such negativity towards my home. I did not aim to get (or run) away from anything – except possibly my old job, but I could have easily done that without leaving the city.
What’s happening here is more like the fulfillment of something I’ve been thinking about for such a long time that it felt like I’d be doing myself a disservice NOT to go. The idea of this trip felt strange and not necessarily impossible, but so big it couldn’t possibly happen in my normal life. So of course I had to prove that wrong. Now that I’m at the end of it it still feels that way. It’s really hard to believe I’ve just done all the stuff I’ve done in the last three months. Rolling into St Petersburg feels like a lifetime ago. This will all fade into a sort of memory legend quite quickly, and I suspect sometimes it will feel as though it never happened.
But I had to go there to come back. Not many people get the chance to prove to themselves they are precisely where they need to be. That’s not what I set out to do. I just wanted to see some stuff really. There was no big deeper meaning or life changing goal. It wasn’t as much of a why as a why not?
Perhaps I’m a bit more patient in some ways, or slightly more adaptable to difficult situations. Maybe my problem solving or resilience is better. Hopefully I’m a slightly better dancer. But I’m still mostly the same. In a bit of an email chat with a friend the other day, he said that clearly I must be tired of being alone because it means I’ve got no one to kick off to. And I laughed because not 30 minutes earlier, I’d been walking down the street thinking, ‘WHY IS IT THAT EVERY HUMAN BEING EVERYWHERE ON THIS PLANET CANNOT WALK DOWN THE STREET WITHOUT THEIR FACE IN THEIR FUCKING PHONE’ (seriously though, why?) but I had no one to rant to. So it’s true – more patient on the outside I may well be, but I am still quick to call out the world’s bullshit. Some things will never change.
Anyway. If you’ve been reading this you know that I was kind of ready to go home a few weeks ago, but I had this one last weekend to look forward to – my first international swing dance camp. This trip has been powered on many things, but predominantly: free WiFi, the kindness of strangers, and Lindy Hop.
Dancing in the street. (Photo credit to Big Bang Swing.)
I have been welcomed like family to so many places just because I dance, and I really don’t think this trip would have been as amazing as it was without that. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end it than The Big Bang. To the point where I teared up when writing a thank you on the Bangkok Swing Facebook page because there is really no way it could have been better, and I appreciated the awesomeness of it all even more because of the low-ish place I’d been in the week or so before. Lindy has not only saved every low moment of this trip, it has turned it around into something joyful and magical. Everywhere I danced was great, but Bangkok was truly the best.
Now I’m sitting in the airport (a novelty!) drinking a very strong coffee to combat my total exhaustion from the weekend and waiting to finally go home. I am. So. Happy. About that.
So. Thank you to everyone who put me up, showed me around, woke up early to call me taxis in their language, made me breakfast, bought me lunch, dropped me off, picked me up, jumped in lakes with me, and ordered local food for me. And of course thank you to everyone who danced with me.
Thanks to my rockstar friends who all provided support from afar via some form of modern technology at some point along the way. Every short message and long chat was appreciated more than you know.
Thanks to my family for trying to understand all this and not worrying too much too openly.
And I end with another thing in my regular rotation. You may have seen this coming. It’s the best song for the occasion.
I told myself a few weeks before I got to Cambodia that my beach time would be total holiday from travel time. I wouldn’t do any work. I wouldn’t worry about updating the blog or searching for jobs or organising my life. Nothing but swimming and eating and reading. And then once I got there, it wasn’t really the beach I was thinking of.
Because the thing about paradise beaches is… they’re kind of boring.
Best beer in Cambodia
This was the first day when I was simply happy to be swimming
Day trip to the islands
Cliff jumping, which I couldn’t do because my foot wasn’t good enough to climb yet
Hiding from the sun
I KNOW, I know, what kind of weirdo complains about sapphire blue water and sunshine and nightly beach barbecues and people serving you drinks in chairs and all of that. But if you know me at all, you know that I have a pretty hard time doing nothing. Also, perfection is dull. So I have discovered that while this is some peoples’ idea of the ideal holiday, well. I prefer Delaware. Or at the very least, somewhere with some actual waves. Somewhere a bit rougher around the edges.
So I didn’t end up doing much work due to lack of good wifi, but I didn’t really do that thing where you just sit on the beach for 6 days. Because I CAN’T. And that is a valuable lesson to learn. Now I know precisely what sorts of beaches I can enjoy. I think next time I’ll go somewhere like Cornwall.
It wasn’t all bad. One of the first nights when I was in Sihanoukville, there were two girls from Australia, Tina and Darlene, who were Cambodian. Darlene actually spoke Cambodian so a few of us went for dinner at a super local place one night where I had the best Cambodian food I had the whole time I was in the country. And Tina and Darlene were both like, ‘THIS is home food. This is really good.’ And I never would have eaten somewhere like that otherwise.
But after a week of not really loving the beach like I’d hoped, I moved east to Kampot, which is on a river, and far more chilled out. It’s full of expats and therefore full of amazing places to eat, as well as one damn good coffee shop owned by Australians. It was there that I decided to get all honest about what travel exhaustion is like, and that got a bigger response than anything I’ve ever written. That was weird. I’m not really sure what I expected. It did help me work out how to slow down even more and pick out the things I wanted to do and the things that didn’t matter. It also helped me decide to go to Bangkok a whole week early so I could stay in one place and get to do a bit more dancing on the local scene before The Big Bang.
I also took a day trip to Bokor National Park to see the old abandoned Black Palace and French hill station/hotel/casino. THAT was pretty awesome. Particularly wandering through the maze-like Palace Hotel as the clouds slowly descended on the mountain. There was a sunset river cruise included in the package as well, and then I went to a freakin’ wine bar and had a (really good) cheese plate after bemoaning the lack of the stuff in my life, so it wasn’t a bad way to spend a day.
The best ginger beer I’ve ever had!
A lovely family from the fishing villiage I was staying near who let me take their picture
Black Palace dancefloor
Bokor Palace hotel from afar, clouds approaching
I swear there is no filter or post-processing on this. I didn’t even use the sunset setting on the camera.
Salt workers statue
After a week of chilling out in Kampot the way I’d sort of meant to at the beach, I had a brief stop in Phnom Penh where I was able to meet back up with Stu from England, who I’d initially met in the hostel in Hanoi. This was very good for my whole low social energy thing. It was really nice to hang out with someone I’d already got to know a bit. We had cheap beers and dinner and talked travel challenges. I then used my one full day in the city to visit the Prison 21 genocide museum, which is very well done but obviously a pretty rough thing to take in. After that I had energy for nothing but noodles and iced coffee.
No trip to Cambodia would be complete without a trip to Angkor Wat, and I had marked that as my last true Tourist Thing I was going to do. I took a bus to Siem Reap and sort of gave up on trying to find someone to share the cost of a tuk tuk driver with for my day at the temples. This ended up being a better decision than I’d initially thought. If you get a one day pass to the temples, it allows you in for sunset the night before. So I went at 5pm, got my ticket, poked around the actual Angkor Wat temple when it was much less crowded, and staked out a spot to watch the sunrise the next morning. Because THE THING to do is get up at 4.30am and watch the sunrise behind the main temple with about ten billion other tourists.
So I did that, and it was worth it, but I immediately saw the value of paying for my own tuk tuk driver. Before the actual sun appeared, the clouds made the point of sunrise kind of pointless, so rather than wait with the increasingly restless and jerkfaced hoardes, I buzzed out of there early so I could get to Bayon before the crowds followed. This meant I had the place virtually to myself for at least 15 minutes. The early morning light was incredible, it wasn’t too hot yet, and it basically felt like I was in a movie. It was probably my favourite of the temples.
I went on to the rest of the places in the small circuit at my own pace, hopping back in the tuk tuk when I’d seen enough. By the time I got to Ta Prohm, which is the Tomb Raider temple, it was MAD crowded and I was completely exhausted. There are TONS of temples and you could spend days on end seeing them all, but when you’ve been up since 4.30am and it’s 10am and things are starting to get hot and busy, everything starts looking the same and you become INCREDIBLY happy that the when-to-go-home decision is yours and yours alone. Hooray for that. I was back at the hostel just before 11am, where I had second breakfast and a well-earned nap. But know that Angkor Wat is absolutely amazing, and totally worth the exhaustion. I’ll let the pictures speak for me.
My tuk tuk driver, rocking a pretty rad jacket
These super young monks had just run away from a monkey screaming, it was hilarious.
The tourists and their go pros
Found a good spot for 5am
I think this was a 4 second exposure. And you can see what I think is either Mercury or Venus! (I never checked properly)
The best of the colours
This guy was staring at me, but he ran away before I could focus properly
Tomb Raider land. (I’ve never actually seen it though.)
I then had one last long-distance bus ride and one last land border crossing and now I am in Bangkok where I’m spending 6 nights in the same bed for the first time since November. I am dancing, eating, and applying for jobs. I got a haircut. I’m doing arts and crafts in the hostel to make my party costumes for the Big Bang. I went to the cinema to see Deadpool and it was So. Fucking. Good. (Also, fun fact, in Thailand you have to stand for the King’s Anthem before all movies. It was… interesting.) I’m basically in travel recovery doing whatever the hell I want. On the weekend I’ll dance my face off, and then I will fly home. And that is that. I’ll post some wrap-ups and probably something on The Big Bang once I’m back, but for this week, I’m really on holiday. Thanks for sticking with me guys.
I still don’t have a definitive answer on this, so I have mostly been calling it Saigon. This seems to be what the locals call it. (And the local Lindy Hoppers!) When I was in Hanoi, I was told that most people in the North call it Ho Chi Minh, and in the South, it’s more often Saigon. Apparently sticking to that as a general rule is respectful. It’s all political, as it was renamed Ho Chi Minh to celebrate reunification and it’s all tied up in the war, although they don’t seem to expect foreigners to call it either one. I heard it called both in both places, but definitely more frequently Saigon when actually in the city.
ANYWAY. Saigon is another place I don’t have a lot of pictures of. It was also the first place I was really, really hot. About 33-35C as standard. Yuck. So I spent most time hiding from the sun when I wasn’t searching for tasty street food.
I had another great hostel where I met lovely people to hang out with who were all staying in my room. On the first day, I went with Fran from South Africa to walk around and hit some sights. We went to the museum of Ho Chi Minh City, mostly because we just happened to wander past it, where there was some history of the city along with a few tanks and jets, which seem to be everywhere. Then we went to the Reunification Palace, which is a really cool building designed by a French architect. We both thought it was a shame that it’s only used as a museum now, because it seems like it would be a lovely place for a party. Especially the wicked dance floor on the top.
Fran headed off to do a tour she’d booked for the afternoon while I checked out the bunker in the basement of the palace. Lots of old radio equipment and various war rooms full of maps, which is a bit creepy.
Outside the Ho Chi Minh City museum
I was a fan of this lighting fixture.
Down in the bunker
Exit through the kitchen
Cathedral with bride
The post office
I really wanted to see this closer but it was behind fences.
Inside the post office
When I got out of there, I found a street vendor selling Kem, which is ice cream of some non-determined fruity type flavour. It’s all different colours and topped with some condensed milk and nuts and it’s delicious. Sold off the back of a motorbike, like absolutely everything in this country.
I had a look at the cathedral, where there were loads of Vietnamese women getting their wedding photos done outside (or perhaps modelling, or both, who knows), and then the stunning post office building. Then I took a very hot walk back to the hostel by way of some lunch to start the routine that has now stood for the remainder of this trip: get up early, go exploring, eat lunch, hide in the air-con or fan/shade until the sun goes back down and it’s mildly less sweltering.
That night was the Saigon Swing Cats regular Sunday social. My foot was not feeling all that great, but good enough to walk, so I decided to go regardless and just take it easy. There weren’t loads of people there because of the upcoming Tet holiday and Wednesday is their bigger night anyway, but it was lovely to meet up with people and do some fairly low-key dancing. Nothing fast and no Charleston for me, which is SO FRUSTRATING BECAUSE CHARLESTON IS MY FAVOURITE, UGH, INJURY. But I think I managed to not push myself too hard. The excellent sangria on offer didn’t hurt either. AND I met at least one person who was going to the Big Bang – Eric, who’s American but living in Bangkok at the moment – so I’ll have a familiar face when I rock up at the Bangkok socials.
I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again. It was such a wonderful thing to go to a social and feel at home in the world. Everyone there was so friendly. And there were other people traveling too (Eric plus a girl from Portugal who had even convinced her non-dancing friends to come along), so you get people who immediately understand you from two different directions. It just made everything worth it all over again. Even the heat.
The next day I went to the War Remnants Museum with Hannah and Eric (different Eric), a couple from Canada who were also staying in my room. We wandered around on our own once we were there, which is good because I spent the whole time getting increasingly pissed off and upset at America. BIG SURPRISE.
There’s a letter to Obama from a 23 year old woman who is a 2nd generation victim of Agent Orange which they’ve enlarged on the wall, and it’s just near the end if you go through things in the order they suggest. She’s admiring him for how he raises his daughters and how he believes in opportunities for all, but then asking why he doesn’t help 2nd and 3rd generation victims get the compensation and help they deserve. This is after you find out that the chemical companies were eventually forced to pay American victims but the Vietnamese have never received a cent. One of these companies is Monsanto. The same one that fucks over farmers around the world, but especially in America, on the regular. These companies are on par with murderous dictatorships. They are pure fucking evil. Unfortunately they’re protected by capitalism and the government and god knows what.
I am well aware that plenty of Americans were against the war in Vietnam. I am not going to go into my own specific politics on any of it. If you read this enough you’ll know I’m a humanity-loving, socialist-leaning pacifist. Suffice to say we should never have been there. We had no business doing any of it. And I don’t think we’ve learned from that error, in terms of the decisions being made today about the military. (And god help us all if maniacs vote Trump into office.) It’s really depressing and it’s a wonder the world doesn’t hate us a lot more. Luckily though, so many people are generous and forgiving. We seem to be on the receiving end of that a lot more than we deserve. But that’s precisely the foundation of my faith in humanity. So.
ENOUGH ABOUT THAT. We went to a cafe to recover from the misery and eat lunch. They had a locally brewed IPA from Pasteur Street Brewing Company that was the nicest beer I’d had in weeks. Not lager! Hooray! And after the requisite hiding in the hostel aircon for the rest of the afternoon, Fran joined us and we all went for dinner.
Epic rice pancake with coconut meat which was bigger than my head.
The next day was mostly wandering around and finding amazing food to eat. Fran joined me again for coffee and lunch, where we had Banh Xeo (rice pancake, which the Saigon version of is HUGE) and Banh Khot (little fried rice cakes with stuff on top), which we practically rolled away from. Those little fried rice cakes were probably my favourite thing in Saigon. But the pancake was good too, and the Pho I had for dinner at a place just down the alley from our hostel which was consistently busy was also amazing. (Although if I had to choose, I preferred the northern style Pho in Hanoi.)
I wish I’d had more time in Vietnam. I definitely preferred it to Cambodia. I could have paid for a visa, but I was being cheap. I’d have liked to see some of the Mekong Delta and the mountains in the north. But I maxed out my 15 days, so it was time to move on.
I woke up on the train to Danang to find the family who’d been in my compartment had gotten off sometime very early in the morning. I was alone, which was nice, but I was freezing. The air conditioning was turned up so high that I could see my breath. I found this hilarious considering I’d just come through Russia on trains that were storming through frozen Siberia but heated to sauna-like temperatures inside. NO ONE knows how to regulate train interior temperatures, it seems.
So I stood in the corridor with mostly everyone else, warming up and looking at the coastline along the last hour of the way. It’s pretty stunning. But I also saw how rough the water was, so I had an early indication I probably wouldn’t be swimming anytime soon. Apparently this was all caused by the same storm making Hanoi very cold.
I met a guy called Rob from Boston in the corridor traveling with his 9-year-old twins, Ella and Dylan. They were also headed to Hoi An, hoping to go on the local bus like I was, so we went off to find it together when we got off in Danang. I don’t spend a lot of time around kids, so this was a bit of a novelty for me.
Rob was a teacher on sabbatical so they were all traveling for the year in China, and they were just taking a few weeks break in Vietnam. By the looks of things, the kids were handling it pretty well. I didn’t talk much to Dylan because Ella latched onto me and talked my ear off about eee-verything from summer camp to how old her father was to what they did for their birthdays in Hong Kong to Goldfish and Cheez-its. When I asked what they missed about being home that was the main thing. Goldfish and Cheez-its. And they were really excited to find them when they were in Hong Kong. But overall they seemed to be enjoying themselves, and I was super impressed that Rob was doing all of this on his own. In CHINA. I’ve already told you how hard China is. I can’t imagine having to look after two kids in addition to myself there.
We all got to Hoi An in one piece and went our separate ways. I didn’t run into them again, but I’m sure they had a good time. Hoi An was a pretty chilled out, easy place to be. So chilled out that I decided almost immediately to spend 5 nights there instead of 3.
Coffee AND ice cream
My continuing efforts to try the local crap wine everywhere
In town with my trusty steed
Spring rolls and Cao Lau
Perhaps my brain knew what was about to happen, because the next morning, when walking out of the shop where I was getting shoes made (more on which in a minute), I stepped wrong on the lip of the sidewalk, rolled my foot, and pulled a tendon in it. And inside my head, I just went ‘FUUUUUUUUUCCCCCCKKKKKKKK’.
I have not had an injury since I started dancing and I knew it would happen sooner or later, but this was just a little over a month before the Lindy extravaganza I’ve been looking forward to in Bangkok, and I was immediately worried about HOW injured I might be and how long it was going to take to heal, particularly while traveling.
I hobbled back to my hostel (which was actually quite a long walk when your foot is screaming in pain) and asked the owners if there was a doctor nearby. They were so lovely and helpful, the owner’s sister took me on her motorbike to a local clinic where a doctor had a look, did some crazy ultrasound treatment which was super strange, had me ice it for 10 minutes, then gave me painkillers and anti-inflammatories and told me it was not broken (relief) and it would start feeling much better in 3-4 days, but I needed to elevate it and ice it and all that stuff as much as possible. (All that cost me about £4.)
Hoi An was probably the best place for something like this to happen because it’s not some huge city with mad traffic and everything all spread out. I was able to do more than just lying around in the hostel by using a bicycle to get everywhere. So I spent the next few days going between various places to eat and drink, and the shoe shop and tailors where I was getting stuff made while doing as little walking as possible.
In addition to lanterns and food, Hoi An is known for its tailors, and there are also a bunch of shoemakers there. I had been planning to get a few things made from the minute I decided it was going on the itinerary. What probably put it there was the fact that the website for the Vietnam Lindy Exchange (which is held in Danang and Hoi An every year) suggests getting vintage repro done there during the event. I am tall and I have broad shoulders. I’m difficult to fit at the best of times and I have almost zero patience for sifting through charity and vintage shop racks to find something that fits AND that I like. So this, to me, was potentially the best idea ever if I could find a good tailor. And I did!
I love. This dress.
Based on a few blogs and Tripadvisor reviews, I went to Ha Na tailors, and they made me some great stuff. I got a copy of my favourite tea dress with a few adjustments to make it even better, and then I got them to make a 30s style dress, and a 40s style pair of garter trousers and buttondown top, all based on things I’ve found on the interweb and knew would never fit me properly off the rack. They did such an amazing job (and they didn’t do any hard selling). The dress in particular is stunning and I can’t waaaaaait to show it off at the Big Bang vintage party. AND it’s machine washable, which is like music to my cash-strapped ears.
I got some shoes made as well because I have enormous feet and the only dance shoes I can buy in my size are canvas sneakers. That suits me fine, but I have ZERO vintage-y, fancy options because none of them are made in my size. So I got some flat t-straps and also some brogues. I’ve not been able to wear either of these yet, so I really don’t know how well they’ll hold up or how comfortable they are. But even if they only last a year, they cost less than cheap shoes most normal-size-footed people would buy on the high street, and they’re probably much better quality. So I’m happy with them in that respect.
I had to try these shoes on with one swollen, non-functioning foot though, so that was a bit of an issue. The ladies in the shop were laughing at me because I kept doing swivels and half-assed (PAINFUL) suzie-qs across the floor to see if the shoes would be comfortable to move in and if the soles could take it.
When I wasn’t in the tailor or shoe shop getting things adjusted, I was eating. Eating eating eating so much. Or drinking iced coffee. But mostly eating.
I went to Anthony Bourdain’s favourite Banh Mi shop about ten billion times (…ok 3). I had Com Ga (chicken rice), Cao Lau (Pork noodles in strong broth), Banh Xeo (rice pancake), spring rolls, fish, papaya salad, and a banana pancake nearly EVERY morning at the hostel because the ladies there made them so well that I couldn’t bring myself to order anything else.
I also drank a lot of cocktails and beer and more Bia Hoy. And met some fun people in my hostel who hung out with me even though I slowed them down a bit with my hobbling. One of the girls, Lisa, was from Luleå, Sweden, and I was like, ‘I know where that is because one of my favourite bands is from there!’ She had never met anyone outside Sweden who even knew who Movits! were, and I’ve never really met anyone but my friends Duncan and Dan who know who they are, so that was kind of cool.
Hoi An by night
The famous lantern market
Going over the bridge
Streets all lanterned up
I managed to meet Wayne AND Emma of New Year Train fame because they both happened to come into town from different directions while I was there. I met Wayne in Dive Bar one night (so called because it’s the home of the local dive centre), which had outstanding cocktails. I had the first Negroni I’ve had since summer and it was The. Best. They also had live music on from this French girl who was playing various covers and amazing gypsy jazz. Then I met Emma on my last day before I had to leave at night for the train. We had drinks and lunch and rode bikes out to the beach for yet another cocktail and it was lovely.
Farms on the ride out to An Bang beach
Obligatory beach selfie
I actually went to the beach 3 days in a row, basically as soon as my foot felt like it could take a small walk. The first day was cloudy and the water was so rough they had ‘no swimming’ signs up and the lifeguards were there simply to keep people out of the water. But I had a nice walk and a lounge and a pina colada. It seemed walking in the wet sand was actually good for strengthening my foot back up, so I went again the next day. It was sunny, but the water still wasn’t swimmable. The third day swimming was allowed but I was with Emma and I had no bathing suit with me so I just figured I’d wait til Cambodia. But this beach was much better than what I had been looking forward to in Cambodia (which you’ll hear about later) so it’s a shame I didn’t just stay even longer.
I hopped on a late shuttle bus back to Danang to catch the night train to Saigon, and driving through Danang at night was crazy. It was lit up like Vegas. I don’t really know what the place is like, although Eddy, my Couchsurfing dinner host in Hanoi, did tell me it was his favourite place in Vietnam. The beaches did look good and it also looke dlike there was some cool stuff along the river. All the more reason to come back for VLX I suppose.
The last train?
View from my compartment.
Anyway, that train was probably my last train of the trip (unless I decide to take the one from the Thai border into Bangkok), which I guess was a little like closing the book on one big part of the whole thing. It was so anti-climactic though. Everyone else in my compartment again got off fairly early in the morning, and the rest of the trip was during the day so I was not surprised that no one paid for a soft sleeper for that portion of the trip. there was no one to share the final moments with, so I napped and drank overpriced coffee from a vendor who hopped on at Nha Trang and stared out the window at some incredible landscapes chugging by one last time.
PS: As I write this, roughly 3 weeks later, my foot is at about 85%. Not perfect, but the alarming-looking bruising has gone away and I can more or less walk normally. More on how that progressed in following posts. I’m a week away from the first chance for social dancing in Bangkok, and two weeks from 3 straight days of dancing, so I’m hopeful that it won’t be too big of an issue.