Huangshan

In comparison to my last blog this one will be much shorter, I promise! From Shanghai , I headed to Huangshan (黄山), the Yellow Mountain. It is thought to have been named by Huangdi (黄帝), the Yellow Emperor. According to legend, Huangdi ascended to Heaven from this mountain. Huangshan is one of China’s many sacred mountains and it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From Shanghai it takes about three hours on the high speed train to get to the city of Huangshan. I wasn’t staying there but in a little town closer to the entrance of the mountain park called Tangkou (汤口). The whole place, including my hostel, was pretty quiet seeing as it’s winter and therefore the off season.

The hostel I was staying in was nice, especially the Chinese girl who checked me in. Over my time there we ended up chatting a bit for me to practise my Chinese and her to practise her English. There was only one other foreigner in the hostel, an Irish girl called Ruth, who was in the same dorm room as me. We were both planning on climbing the mountain the next day so we decided to go together.

Unfortunately there’s a reason the off season is the off season. The weather wasn’t exactly ideal for climbing a mountain. It was very overcast and damp when we set off and it didn’t get better during the day.

Just getting to the mountain involved a lift to the bus station and then an hour long bus journey to the cable car that takes you up the first part of the path. You can walk up but it more the doubles the time it takes to get to the peak and as I said, we didn’t exactly have optimum weather conditions. The cable car at least provided us with the best (and only) views of the day before we entered the clouds.

Just above the cable car is one of the most famous things to see in the mountain – the guest welcoming pine (迎客松) and is thought to be more the 1500 years old.

We continued up to the top at Bright Summit Peak (光明顶), getting slowly more sodden as we went. A couple of people wanted to take pictures with us which meant I got talking to them in Chinese but all in all it was just too wet and cold to hang around.

Once we got to the top we started going down the other side. There was another cable car going down but because we’d gotten started early it wasn’t even midday so we decided to walk down. By this point my hastily purchased rain poncho was futile and even my jacket was soaked through so what difference would another couple of hours going down make? A lot apparently. My knees were not happy by the end of it and my calf muscles are still protesting.

Huangshan is definitely somewhere I need to go back to when I might actually get to see some of it. What I did manage to glance was spectacular so I can only imagine what it’s like in the sunshine!

From Huangshan I braved a 12 hour overnight train to head to my next destination – Zhangjiajie (张家界), home of the ‘Avatar Mountains’!

Shanghai (& Hangzhou & Suzhou)

It’s taken me a little while but finally a blog on the next part of my travels, a fabulous five days spent in and around Shanghai (上海). After my wee trip up to Harbin I had one full day back in Dalian to fully pack up my stuff and then I was off to the airport, destination – China’s largest city.

Two of my Edinburgh friends live together there so I was lucky enough to be able to crash with them – thanks again to Jack and Conlan for putting up with me. The day I arrived Conlan was actually still travelling himself but got back the day after. Jack and I hung around for a few hours, catching up on what has been an eventful few months for both of us and then we headed out into the Shanghai night.

Our first stop was a bookshop that is what dreams are made of. Tucked away in a corner of Fudan university (复旦大学), it was crammed to bursting point with second hand books. Obviously the majority were in Chinese which is still a bit more aspirational than practical for me but we did find a little corner of foreign language. I succumbed to temptation and bought a bilingual English-Chinese book called ‘About Women’ (关于女人) about Bing Xin, a Chinese writer from last century who covered topics like social injustice, family conflicts and feminism.

We went just across the road for dinner to a sushi restaurant. It was something different and delicious, but let me tell you the wasabi is made of a completely different stuff to at home, it almost blew my top off!

We ended our evening in Tianzifang (田子坊) on a little bar hop. Tianzifang is a network of traditional alleyways housing charming bars, cafes and boutique shops. We started at a bar in the street where we had some very tense games of Connect-4 and mini Jenga. Next up was a Tibetan bar and finally a bar that gave me the largest mojito I’ve ever seen. I ordered a large and it was no joke as big as my head! Safe to say that was not what I was expecting, not that I wasn’t happy about it.

For day 2, I actually headed out of Shanghai to visit Hangzhou (杭州) for the day. I met up with a friend from Dalian who was visiting his sister who lives there. We spent most of the day wandering around the West Lake, Hangzhou’s main attraction. It was first created by the governor of the city in the 8th century and has been developed and cultivated over the years. The beauty of the lake has been inspiring Chinese poets for generations. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t amazing so I think I missed out on some of the beauty of the place.

When I got back in to Shanghai that evening I went out for some drinks with Jack and Conlan to a bar with one of the best views possible across to the the Pudong area of Shanghai, including the famous Oriental Pearl Tower, on the left of the photo.

On day 3 I met up with another friend from Edinburgh who happens to be working in Shanghai this year. Kim and I were both part of the water polo club but she graduated in the summer and has been teaching French here. We met up in Tianzifang and had lunch and then wondered around some more of the French concession area.

To finish the day, I met up worth Conlan and we went to Yuyuan Gardens (豫园). Originally built in the Ming dynasty, the gardens have been restored after sustaining damage in several 20th century conflicts. It was absolutely packed to bursting point and was the first time that I’d seen the Spring Festival crowds I’d been warned about. The year of the rat is fast approaching so there were a lot of lantern around featuring next years zodiac animals. The whole place was lit up beautifully and worth braving the crowds to see.

The following day was another day trip, this time out to Suzhou (苏州). Suzhou is is known as the ‘Venice of the East because of its many canals and is also famous for its harmonious gardens. Definitely one of the most beautiful places I’ve been so far in China, Suzhou somehow managed to be serene and tranquil even while filled with tourists. We spent the whole day visiting gardens and just walking around the old town.

My last day in Shanghai was just about filling in some gaps of things I wanted to see. I met up with Kim again at the Bund. Dominated by art deco and neoclassical buildings, the Bund housed the cities banks during the concession era. From there we walked down Nanjing Road (南京路) to People’s Park (人民公园). Finally we went for coffee in a cafe housed in a very inconspicuous office building which (if it weren’t for the fog/pollution haze) gives incredible views across Shanghai.

For my last meal Jack, Conlan and I went for hot pot which is a sensational Chinese speciality. There is no photo because I hadn’t eaten all day so fell on the food as soon as it came. For hot pot you get a big bowl of broth, usually spicy, in the middle of the table on a heater to keep it warm and then you order all the sides of meat, veggies, tofu, noodles as you want to cook in the broth. It’s both a meal and an activity and great fun.

My overall thoughts on Shanghai are overwhelmingly positive. It’s one of those cities that I wasn’t sure if I was going to like, much like New York, but then ended up loving! I had so much fun exploring and it was nice to be in a city that has a very different feel to it than Dalian, which is obviously much smaller, but also from Beijing. Where Beijing has all of its history behind it, Shanghai very much leans on its modernity. A big part of why I loved Shanghai so much was getting to meet up with and hang out with some great friends that I haven’t seen in a while. I loved my visit but it has also been great in once again reaffirming my choice of Dalian for this year – I would struggle to see myself living in Shanghai, at least while trying to study Chinese. Overall a great city, a great visit, a great time.

Harbin

I am finally, finally, finally finished with exams! That can mean only one thing – it’s time to travel! I have been waiting for this ever since I got back from Beijing in October and been planning for weeks (though admittedly not as long as I probably should have).

My first stop has been Harbin (哈尔滨). It is about 850km north of Dalian in Heilongjiang (黑龙江) province and has a strong Russian influence in its history, architecture and culture. The Russian presence first appeared towards the end of the 19th century when Russian workers arrived to build a railway line to Dalian(!). They were followed by Russian Jews and then White Russians fleeing the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Jewish community in Harbin was the largest in the Far East, numbering 20,000 in 1920. Now synagogues, temples, churches and even a mosque stand together in the city. These days Harbin is probably most famous for its Ice and Snow Festival (冰雪节 – hang around to here more about that).

I went with Wilson, one of my friends from Dalian and we met up with another friend Yerin and her friend once we were there. We got the fast train from Dalian in the morning which takes about 4.5 hours so arrived around lunchtime. We had some lunch and settled into our hostel before heading into the centre of town.

The tourism in Harbin is centred around the Daoli district (道里区), especially Zhongyang Street (中央大街), a pedestrian road with lots of shops and restaurants housed in old Russian style buildings. Our first stop was the Church of St Sofia (索菲亚教堂), a beautiful red brick Russian Orthodox Church. It is one of the main sights in Harbin and was beautifully lit up against the evening.

From there we strolled down Zhongyang Street doing our best against the cold. We knew Harbin was going to be colder than anything we’ve had in Dalian but even so it took me by surprise. For the few days we were there, the temperature hovered a couple of degrees above or below -20°, a.k.a. the coldest I’ve ever experienced! Taking in too deep a breath made me cough and walking around for too long would lead to my legs burning from the cold, despite wearing multiple layers!

We met up with Yerin and her friend to head out to the star of the show – Harbin Ice and Snow Festival. It is the largest festival of its kind in the world. It has been going since 1963 and while it mostly attracted Chinese tourists to start with it is now very much an international event that saw 18 million visitors in 2018.

It was truly spectacular and had me marvelling at the size of the structures and wondering how long it took to build them. There was lots to see but because of the cold we probably didn’t see all of it. We did our best, ducking into a cafe and a restaurant at various points seeking some warmth.

Day two brought the same bitter cold, but thankfully Harbin’s temperature doesn’t seem to come with a wind which I think would have made it unbearable. The four of us met up again for lunch and then headed to the cable car that traverses the Songhua river (松花江) which freezes over completely from November to April. The beautiful vistas and Wilson’s very nervous face were definitely worth it.

Wilson, Yerin, her friend and I on the cable car

We wandered back towards the Main Street via an old abandoned mosque and Harbin Main Synagogue (now a concert hall). Last up, once it got dark, was Zhaolin Park (兆麟公园), where there were some more ice lanterns on display.

We finished the day with a great big meal of various North-Eastern dishes (东北菜), including di san xian (地三鲜, fried potato, aubergine and green pepper), lazi ji (辣子鸡, crispy fried chicken pieces and dried chillies), and a pork, Chinese cabbage and vermicelli noodle stew that is very representative of Harbin style food, thick and hearty. Some other food that I enjoyed while here was lunch on day one which was spring pancakes (春饼) with scrambled egg, bean sprouts and a few types of meat to fill it with. The main tourist street is also filled with stalls touting sausages on a stick as well as all types of other meats, seafood and even insects! Those with a sweet tooth can enjoy the selection of fruits covered in hardened sugar or the yoghurt popsicles that are popular there, despite the temperature!

Two nights in Harbin was probably just the right amount of time for me. There were a few more things we could have done if we were around for a few more days including seeing the Siberian tiger breeding centre or the Japanese Germ Warfare Experimental Base Museum but honestly, I think I’m good on both of those fronts. Plus the cold, while an interesting thing to experience, meant that the idea of just wandering around to see the city was less than appealing.

National Week (Part 2)

We’re back for round 2! After a more chilled day, hiding from the National Day madness, I threw myself back in. On Wednesday I headed over to Tianjin (天津) for the day, a city about 80 miles east of Beijing. I was going to Tianjin because in a serendipitous series of events one of my friends from high school has also ended up in China this year, for her second year in a row. And as my mum pointed out to me Andy Murray was also in Beijing at that time so that makes as least three Dunblane folk in China! There’s no stopping us…

Kayleigh and I!

Kayleigh was acting as my tour guide for the day so I had left the itinerary to her. Our first stop was Ancient Culture Street (古文化街), a wonderful assault on the senses. It was packed full of lots of people, delicious smells and even more people! While we were there I tried jianbing guozi (煎饼果子), a Tianjin specialty. It’s a wrap with egg cooked into the outside and filled with what is essentially a thick poppadom (or at least that’s the only way I can think to describe it) and various sauces.

Ancient Culture Street (古文化街)

Next up we headed over to see where Kayleigh studies, at Tianjin Normal University (天津师范大学) to see where she lives. We also got mala tang (麻辣烫), a kind of build your own soup to have for dinner. Our final stop was Minyuan Stadium (民园广场) which was originally built by the Scottish athlete Eric Liddell who was actually born in Tianjin and returned there after his sporting career. The original stadium was torn down in 2012 and redone so that it is more of a public square but the running track remains.

It was a fantastic day and so nice to catch up with Kayleigh – it had been a while!

Due to some unforeseen issues with my phone over the next few days my exploring was more limited but I did manage to get over to see the Drum Tower (鼓楼) and Bell Tower (钟楼) in the centre of Beijing. The Drum Tower was originally built for musical purposes and then became a way of marking time for the residents of the city. They stand at opposites ends of a courtyard and on a clear day give you an excellent panoramic view of the city (or so I’ve heard, my day wasn’t particularly clear as you can see from the photos I got).

Looking over to the Drum Tower from the top of the Bell Tower

The Drum and Bell Towers are situated in an area of Beijing that is still dominated by hutongs (胡同), narrow alleyways that used to make up the majority of Beijing. They are characterised by their one storey buildings that form courtyard residences. Many hutongs were demolished starting from the middle of the 20th century to make way for the development and modernisation of the city. Many of the remaining hutongs now have protected status to preserve this chance to look in on the city’s past. I took the chance while I was in the area to have a stroll around.

The Bell Tower

And then all of a sudden it was my last day! I had been trying to get out to the Temple of Heaven (天坛) before I started having phone problems because so many people had told me that it’s their favourite place to go in Beijing. I finally got there on my last day and it just so happened to be blue skies and sunshine too! The Temple of Heaven is located in the south of Beijing and is actually a large park that was used by the emperor for various kinds of ceremonies and rites in imperial times. It has been open to the public since 1918 and is one of Beijing’s 8 UNESCO Heritage Sights.

The main event is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (祈年殿), the largest building in the park. This is the first time I can say I really noticed the immense number of tourists that were in Beijing this week. It was packed around all of the main buildings with queues to even get in to some buildings! However the park covers over 2.5 square kilometres so it’s easy enough to find a quiet spot around the edges or in the forest areas. That was actually my favourite part, just wandering around the gardens enjoying the nice weather. It was a really nice way to spend my last day in Beijing.

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests

It was interesting to be back in Beijing for a bit longer than I was last time. It gave me a chance to get more of a feel for the city as well as be shown around by some people who know it better than me. I got the chance to think back on my first impressions and see if any had changed.

The public transport system is definitely easy to use – I used the subway a lot to get around which was super easy to navigate, I attempted the bus while accompanied by responsible adults (aka Beijing students who knew what they were doing) and I also learnt about the public bike system which, while I couldn’t use it because I didn’t have the app, is a cheap and super convenient way to get around Beijing as it’s as flat as a pancake.

The food is definitely great just like I thought. I already mentioned the mouth numbingly spicy and delicious Sichuan food but a special mention also has to go to the cheese tea I tried (definitely not as disgusting it sounds), biangbiang noodles, which use the most complicated character I’ve ever seen to the point that it’s not even used in menus and my computer’s Chinese character keyboard doesn’t have it, as well as the delicious food I tried in Tianjin.

Mid way through my 煎饼果子!

I knew two days wasn’t enough, especially jetlagged, but even a week wasn’t long enough! You’ll probably have noticed that I didn’t get out to the Great Wall – I had planned to go but the weather turned and it was windy, cold and raining that day. There’s lots more I still want to do, I haven’t been to the Forbidden City at Tiananmen or seen Beihai Park so I guess I’ll just have to go back!

National Day (Part 1)

It’s been a while since my last post, both due to very poor internet connection and being away for the week, both of which were as a result of the National Day holiday (国庆节). I had decided to take advantage of what will be my last bit of time off until January(!!!) and go back to Beijing to explore a bit more. I had a great time and crammed as much in as I could so I have a lot to write about! Because of this I’ve decided to split the blog in two so you don’t need a whole week to read about it. I also took many, many photos so there will be lots of those in here too!

I left pretty early on Saturday and got a D train from Dalian to Bejiing which, even though it only takes 6 hours to cover almost 600km, is considered the slow train! There is another which only takes 4-5 hours. It was a very comfortable ride, lots of leg room and remarkably smooth considering we were travelling at upwards of 185 miles per hour! Once I got to Beijing I had secured luxury accommodation for myself – a sofa in some of the other Edinburgh students’ flat. A big thank you to them! They live in a pretty studenty area in the northwest of Beijing called Wudaokou (五道口), near to Peking University (北京大学) where they study.

Beijing Railway Station (北京站)

For my first day in Beijing, after a travel induced lie-in, I decided to head to the Summer Palace (颐和园) as it is one of the sights closest to where I was staying. The Summer Palace is a large park based around Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake that dates back to 1153, although it was massively enlarged in the 18th century by Emperor Qianlong. Kunming Lake is entirely man made and the excavated earth was used to construct Longevity Hill. Because of these feats of landscaping and engineering, the Summer Palace was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.

I entered from the north gate and splurged for the all access ticket (a whole 60 yuan/£7, hey big spender) so that I could hit all the added bonus buildings, museums and gardens inside. I went in by the north gate so started with Suzhou street which has cute walkways along the river and is supposed to look like the famous canal town, Jiangsu (江苏).

A teahouse (茶馆) on Suzhou Street

Then I had to climb up to the top of Longevity Hill and wandered through the Buddhist Temple of the Sea of Wisdom, the Buddhist Fragrance Pavilion and the Cloud Dispelling Hall before coming across the most beautiful view of Kunming lake, dotted with little boats and glittering in the sunshine. I wandered along the Long Corridor down the side of the lake and finished my day at the 17 arch bridge.

For day 2 I headed to the opposite side of Beijing to the Lama Temple (雍和宫), also known as the Palace of Peace and Harmony. The temple used to be the royal residence of Emperor Yong Zheng but was converted to a lamasery in 1744. It survived both being the site of an uprising against the Nationalist government in 1929 and also the tumultuous period of the Cultural Revolution, completely intact. 

It is actually still a functioning temple and also a wildly popular tourist attraction. Because of this, some visitors are actually there for religious purposes and work their way around the five main courtyards, burning incense and praying. I really enjoyed walking around the temple. It was very relaxing and absolutely beautiful, with its mix of Han and Tibetan styles, strong colours and intricate designs.

My favourite, and most unexpected part was the massive, 18m high Buddha statue! It was carved out of one block of sandalwood, each toe is the size of a pillow and it even has a plaque of recognition from the Guinness book of records! It was a gift from the seventh Dalai Lama to Emperor Qianlong and it took three years to transport from Tibet.

Tuesday 1st October was the day the whole country had been waiting for. National Day marks the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China by the Communist party on 1st October 1949. It is one of three Golden Weeks in China, along with the Lunar New Year Week in January or February and the Labour Day Week in May. These weeks are hotspots for domestic tourism which is a burgeoning industry while also allowing people to make long distance trips to visit family, the idea being to improve everyone’s standard of living. For the important anniversaries, like the 70th anniversary this year, there are huge military parades around Tiananmen Square. Internet connection also becomes slightly more limited and VPNs are also cracked down upon so sorry if I left anyone waiting for a reply last week!

I had a pretty quiet National Day because a lot of transport and shops were closed so I just hung out with friends. Another advantage of staying with friends, other than saving some money, was that in the days I could do all the touristy stuff and then the evenings were spent hanging out, eating amazing food and having a few drinks. I was introduced to the spicy wonders of Sichuan food and took part in my first ever karaoke performance, a group rendition of 500 Miles (what else were a group of Scottish uni students going to choose?). A big thank you again to Tom, Ruby, Cameron and Thomas for putting up with me on their sofa all week!

That’s it for now! I’ll fill you in on the rest of week soon.

Guat’s Up Belize

I know I’ve been a bit quiet over the past month but that’s because the last month has been a bit quiet too. Saying that there have been a few interesting things. 

A few weeks after my birthday we went to Santa Rosa with a small group of other volunteers for some celebrations followed the next weekend by a trip to Gracias. This one was quite interesting because we were trying to get back to Candelaria the same day as the primary elections. This meant there were less buses running or in the case of Candelaria, none.

Happy birthday to me!

Seeing as we couldn’t get back on Sunday we decided to take an impromptu trip back to Yamaranguila with Grace and Hannah (free accommodation, what can I say?) and because our bus to Candelaria from La Esperanza wasn’t until 12 on Monday, we got to visit their school.

Abundant Life Christian School is a big contrast to Escuela Urbana Mixta de José Cecilio del Valle. It’s a bilingual school which we hadn’t actually seen before and blew us away. The school is also in a beautiful location surrounded by mountains and pine trees and in cool air. 

Classrooms at Vida Abundante
Nivelación class – an intense English course for the kids starting in August

We did eventually get ourselves back to Candelaria and in the next two weeks we finally started some adult classes with a small group including our host mum Saida, celebrated World Water Day with a parade through Candelaria, were laid up in bed for a week (that one’s just me); and had our visit from Vegas and Fra. 

Vegas is our in country rep who lives on Roatán and visited us back in October to see how we were settling in and Fra is our country coordinator from Coll. Thankfully I was just about better from my bout of sickness in time for their arrival, after having been floored with the flu and/or dehydration the last time Vegas visited us. We had lunch together and Fra came to see us teach in the colegio in the afternoon and then we had a meeting with the people involved in our project in the evening. 

Parading for World Water Day

Amy and I plus the girls from Tomalá and the 6 month project San Francisco have just gotten back from Belize where we have been to renew our visa. We stopped for a few nights on the way in Livingston in Guatemala. Livingston is only accessible by boat but it’s the same boat that takes it across to Belize so it was kind of perfect. 

We stayed in Casa de la Iguana, a hostel highly recommended by Calum and Tom who have stayed here before, and used our few days to do a few boat tours in the area, one of which was to Rio Dulce where part of Jurassic Park was filmed and another where we had dolphins swimming around our boat! 

Livingston was covered in gorgeous street art
With our man Edmar on a river tour

We moved on to Hopkins in Belize because as nice as it is, Guatemala does nothing for our visa. I’m not sure if I’ve explained this before but it’s because there’s something called the C4 in place here. It basically means a 90 day tourist visa is valid for Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua so a visa run involves a quick hop into Belize or going all the way to Mexico or Costa Rica in order to renew it.

Hopkins is one of the most chilled places we’ve been. That’s maybe because most of our time was split between the beach and the hammocks in our hostel, The Funky Dodo (what a name, I know!). 

Just what we needed!

We wrapped up our visa run by heading back to San Pedro Sula to pick up our families at the airport! I now have my dad and Kirsty visiting for the next two weeks which should be interesting! 

(Also I apologise for the title to those people who find puns offensive but I really just can’t help myself, there’s just too many good ones!)

Survival Guide: Travelling

It’s that time again. Another big milestone has passed and we now have as much time left in Honduras as we have spent here. That sparks a whole range of feeling, from anticipation for what’s still to come to excitement at going home and sadness at the thought of leaving a place that has become home too.

I’m trying not think about that yet so in the meantime, to mark this anniversary I am continuing what I started three months ago. I have gathered all the lessons I’ve learned from a hard three months on the road, ready to help any more intrepid adventurers on their way.

Survival Guide: Travelling

  • Cheap food, street food, never gonna eat food – the mantra of a traveller on a budget. Whatever is cheapest, that’s what you’re eating, street food is a necessary but also delicious risk that must be taken and when times are tough, two meals a day will have to do.
  •  Take free water wherever you can – the bane of my existence was having to buy water everywhere we went (apart from Costa Rica where tap water is safe), especially when the rest of Central America doesn’t sell bags of water as widely as Honduras does.
  • You can’t beat a chicken bus – don’t be enticed by the offer of a direct shuttle even if it has air conditioning. A/C’s not all its cracked up to be and you’ll have to pay an arm and a leg for it.
  •  Missing your bus is not the end of the world – there’s always another or at least another option and worst comes to the worst you spend one more night where you are. No use getting your panties in a twist, as I’ve learned.
  • Approach borders with care – don’t make any sudden movements and never show any signs of fear.
  • A portable charger is mans best friend, not your dog – a seven hour bus ride is a lonely thing with a dead phone. 
  •  Nothing is truly your own – when travelling in group all resources are communal. This ranges from food to headphones to socks. Be prepared to share.
  • Pack your bag and then take out a third of the clothes you have – I can promise your shoulders and your wallet will thank you when you neither have to carry it all or wash it all. 
  • 1 bag, I repeat, 1 bag – 4 bags is never a good idea no matter how essential they seem before you leave. 2 bags at most BUT NEVER 4 (not looking at anyone in particular, Lynch).
  • No daredevil stunts without medical insurance – that is unless you’ve got your own private plane to fly you to the nearest hospital.
  • The unexpected adventures are sometimes the best – case in point, we had a hitchhiking competition to a cheese factory in Costa Rica because we’re lazy and it ended up being one of my favourite things we did. 
  • Say yes to everything – ok, maybe not everything because that’s how you end up taking part in a Mayan human sacrifice ritual but in general good things happen when you take a chance. 
  •  Use whatever Spanish you have whenever you can – people will be pleased and possibly surprised but also much more likely to be friendly and help you out, even if you’re butchering their language.  
  • Talk to people – whether that be locals to make sure you’re not being ripped off when you go to buy your traditional Guatemalan poncho, the people who work in your hostel who might be able to help you with the next step of your trip or other travellers to share war stories. Remember, it’s the people that make the place.
  •  Be ready for the time of your life – I couldn’t have imagined how much I would love travelling when we started. I had hopes but thought they were almost too good to be true. And I never knew how much it would change me. I get less stressed, am more likely to go with the flow, say yes to the chances I get given, I’m more outgoing, more social, more adventurous. I mean, I got a tattoo, old Sara would never have done that but I have no regrets, about anything. I will always remember the amazing, crazy, surprising, unbelievable three months I spent backpacking around Central America.

Life’s a Beach

As I write, there is officially less than 24 hours until travelling is over, Amy and I are back in Candelaria and life returns not to normal but as close as it gets.

Our last week has been spent resting up before getting back to work. From Lake Atitlan we returned to Antigua for one night before getting a 2am shuttle down to El Tunco in El Salvador. El Salvador wasn’t on our original plans but we decided to skip Semuc Champey in Guatemala (a controversial decision among other travellers) to give us time to tick off another country. It was only the four girls that headed down to Honduras’ neighbour as the boys decided they wanted to visit some of the other projects in Honduras before returing home instead.

We arrived in the lazy, two street beach town of El Tunco at 8am and began as we meant to go on. It was a gruelling three days of sleeping, reading and not much else, either by the pool or on the beach. 

Amy and I did manage to pull ourselves off the sun loungers one morning to get a surf lesson though I might have been better staying where I was. With one previous two hour lesson under my belt from Costa Rica last year, I thought it would all come back to me. I was wrong. Along with lacking the natural rhythm to be a salsa dancer, I do not possess the balance to be a surfer. Amy however was a natural!

Look at us go! (This lasted about 0.25 seconds)
That’s more like it

We were sent off with one of the best sunsets we’ve seen as we prepared to leave at 4am the next day. Our aim was to get all the way from El Tunco on the Pacific coast of El Salvador to Tela on the Caribbean coast of Honduras. It was a long day that lasted 17 hours and took 5 buses and a border crossing but we did it. 

There was a massive meet up planned for 15 out of our now 21 volunteers (our 8 month volunteers arrived last week and made the trek over to Tela) for Saturday night. As it was Tomalá and Candelaria’s first time in Tela we got to experience the gorgeous beach and interesting nightlife of Tela while being amazed at how Eilidh and Sophie get anything done here in the heat! Thanks to Amy we even had a bit of excitement when we got back in the early hours of the morning when the kitchen tap/pipe that sticks out of the wall came off and we had to deal with a rapidly flooding house! 

And then it was over. Amy and I travelled back to San Pedro on Sunday with Jesse and Lucy as well as our 8 monthers, Norome and Eva whose project is on our side of the country, close to Tomala. Our last night is being spent back in Gracias, our home away from home, relaxing and getting ready to return to Candelaria tomorrow. 

It has been the perfect way to end our travels, relaxing and easing ourselves back into Honduras so we can go back with lots of energy to throw into our work. And we hope to have lots of it when we return!

Since When Was 18°C Cold?

Stepping out of the bus into the city of Antigua, we experienced something we haven’t really felt for the past five and a half months – cold (even though it was 18°C!). Jumpers went on, shorts were regretted and we marveled at how good it felt. 

To be fair it was still early in the morning, and as we would learn over the three days that we stayed in Antigua, the middle of the day could actually get quite warm. Nights were colder than we are used to which lead to a welcome discovery in our hostel. They actually give you duvets! It’s the little things. 

Antigua is such a lovely city that we were quite happy spending our time wondering around and taking it all in. Antigua is filled with cobblestone streets and even more colourful buildings and is filled with the perfect balance of tourists and travellers and the people that actually live there. It’s not a city made especially for tourists but it welcomes them with open arms. Antigua is also ringed by mountains and a few volcanoes, some of which are active, and this just adds to the charm. 

We didn’t really get up to much here other than enjoying the town itself. I did manage a walk up to a cross on a hillside that overlooks Antigua and gives you the most incredible views and also took part in a free salsa class. Let’s just say that my parents gifted me neither the natural rhythm or the coordination of limbs to allow me to take it to a professional level. 

After Antigua we had a bit of a split. Five of us left for Lake Atitlán while Amy left for Guatemala City to retake the chemistry exam she needs to get into her uni course for next year. I think I suffered from more separation anxiety during those few days than I ever have with twin Amy! It’s going to be a long month of waiting for the results but everyone keep your fingers and toes crossed! 

Atitlán is a lake with multiple personalities. For example, there’s Panajachel, the tourist town, where coaches unload their passengers to buy souvenirs by the armful; San Marcos, the hippie town, with yoga retreats and spiritual workshops galore; and San Pedro, the backpackers town, split pretty much in half and shared between locals and travellers. 

Our relaxed approach (or laziness depending on your viewpoint) continued into our stay at Atitlán. Our first day solely consisted of looking around the little town we had chosen to stay in, San Pedro de la Laguna. We ventured across the lake to visit Panajachel too, with plans to kayak but we backed out because Atitlan, being a mile high lake was even colder than Antigua. 

I really enjoyed the time we spent in both of these places and even though it sounds like we didn’t do much (which we didn’t) it was just what we felt like. We have been travelling for almost three months now and going from place to place every couple of days takes its toll so that by now, sometimes all we want to do is nothing. And our next stop would cater to this perfectly…

Flores Tikal-ed My Fancy

It seems like every blog post I write starts in the same way – with a long bus journey – and this one is no different. To get from Mexico to Guatemala, our last country before returning home to Honduras, we had to cross back into Belize first and change buses twice despite having paid for a direct shuttle. Apart from that, and the surprise exit fee from Mexico that left us penniless, the journey actually went quite smoothly and we arrived in Flores in the early evening.

Flores is a little island in Lake Petén Itza in the Petén region of Guatemala which was celebrating it’s anniversary while we were there meaning there was a feria on during our stay that involved a lot of parties, presentations and pageants. Flores is the most common base for tourists and travellers that want to go and visit the Mayan site of Tikal, which was on our agenda for our stay.

We decided to save Tikal for our second day and took the first day on Flores easy. The town is very cute, full of cobblestoned streets and colourful facades. In the afternoon we grabbed one of the local boats and got it to take us across the lake to a rope swing. It was the perfect way to spend the afternoon, with a cold beer and a pack of cards, and provided a good deal of embarrassing moments to as we overestimated our strength and elegance! The view of the sunset was unparalleled too.

Looking about 100x more graceful than I actually was!

Day 2 meant off to Tikal. Tikal is famed for it’s sunrise tours but being 18 and lazy none of us really fancied getting up at 3am to get there in time so we opted for the less popular, much quieter sunset tour. The transport we bought from our hostel included a guide so we were led around the many impressive temples of Tikal before arriving in the Central Plaza in time to watch the sun set… behind a tree.

Despite the slightly disappointing end to the tour, Tikal was definitely my favourite of the ruins we have visited so far. With many of the buildings still standing and in good condition, and with a defined Central Plaza, it’s easy to imagine Tikal as the bustling city it was until it’s decline in the 9th Century. Tikal was a major economic and political centre during the Mayan era and features the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas, Temple IV.

To break what is becoming a habit, I’ll finish this post with a bus so I can dive right into the next one. Our next destination was supposed to be Semuc Champey but after some discussion we decided to skip it to give us the chance to fit in one more country – El Salvador! We were warned that to get from Flores to Antigua, where we decided to go next, night buses were the fastest options but having not been prepared for this, it meant a day hanging around in our hostel before embarking on the single most uncomfortable bus journey we’ve had. And before anyone says anything it wasn’t even a chicken bus! Anyway we eventually got to Guatemala City where it was a quick ride over to Antigua, getting us there bright and early to find breakfast and explore the city before we could crash out and catch up on some sleep.