Friday, 21 November 2008

Down Under

I figured it was about time to update this blog. Well, seeing as I'm probably going to start real work for the first time in ages, if I don't do it now I probably never will. At the moment, I'm recovering from my exertions yesterday in the Melbourne mile, as well as my extractions a couple of days ago in the dental surgery. Ah yes, my gallant tooth that's been worked on now in 3 continents finally gave up the ghost, and all I've left to show from 8 dental visits is a large hole in my mouth and a larger hole in my bank balance. Still, it was fun while it lasted. Kinda.

So what have I being doing with myself for 2 months you might ask? Well, a fair bit really. Last week was spring racing, and the Melbourne cup, a good excuse to put that suit to use, now that the interviews have (hopefully!) stopped. It was a smashing day out, helped by the mid 20s sunshine. Certainly a far cry from the Galway races, even if half the crowd (and horses) seemed to be Irish.

I've also been spending time just wandering about and becoming properly acquainted with my new home and its inhabitants. While not possessing the stunning scenery of the likes of Sydney, there's still some really pretty sights, especially along the Yarra river. Some of the best fun is exploring the smaller lanes and alleyways to find hidden gems, even in the CBD, and of course the surrounding neighbourhoods, such as Carlton and Fitzroy, are great for lazy wanderings at any time of the day or night.

Speaking of Sydney, I took a break from all the job hunting and spent a few days up there. It has to be said, the beaches are truly world class, and a nice day on Coogee is hard to beat. It was great to catch up with friends and recover from all this job searching induced stress.

I finally found a home recently, after staying a bit longer than planned with Mike and Steph. I'm sure there relieved to see the back of me, but I think little Herbie misses me, even if he's too shy to say it. It was a great few weeks though, and really helped the settling in process (esp. considering my employment status).

My new location does make it easier to take advantage of Melbourne's great bar scene, though I'm not sure that's such a good thing...
Other than boozing, I've spent a fair bit of time visiting the MCG, what with Sean and the Finnish lads over to play in an international development series, as well as the Ireland-Australia compromise rules, and witnessing Buddy's 100 goals in a season (hence the crowd invasion, pictured), I hardly every seem to be out of the place.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Talking Japanese

In some ways, Japan was just like I expected it to be. Tokyo is definitely a visual assault. The city is massive, and the 1.5 hour train trip from the airport seems to go on forever. Getting around isn't too tricky, but conversing with the locals can be, especially if your knowledge of Japanese doesn’t go past 5 words. The place seems kinda familiar, in the way that New York does to a first time visitor. The amount of people, advertising and neon everywhere can't really be captured in single shots.
It's pretty incredible

After a couple of days of jetlagged wanderings around Tokyo, it was time for the bullet train to Kyoto. In contrast, Kyoto is a relatively relaxing place, with countless peaceful Buddhist temples and Zen gardens in the areas close to town. Many of which are Unesco world heritage sites. And tonnes more that probably could be. Indeed the less visited ones are actually some of the nicest.

Apart from temples, Kyoto is also famous for it's Geisha's, though most of the Kimono clad girls you see around are just apprentices learning their trade. It's surprising to see the practise still alive and kicking in the 21st century. I did manage to see a couple of real Geishas on their way to appointments. Memories of Memoirs of a Geisha.

Then it was back to Tokyo for a couple of days before departing for Melbourne. This time I based mysjavascript:void(0)elf in the relative tranquility of Asakusa, away from Roppongi, the main areas where foreigners go, and a bit of a nightmare IMHO. A couple of almost relaxing days and it was time to validate that Ozzie visa. With all of 2 days to spare.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Home and Sweden

Well, home at last and a well deserved break from travel and all it's associated stresses. It's always great to get home after travelling, but generally speaking the initial excitement of seeing everyone starts to pale soon enough, and the latest edition of the Irish "Summer" certainly doesn’t help.

There is the odd ray of sunshine though, and a drive through Connemara in the evening light is a good way to appreciate it. Even if it looks like some of the locals don't welcome the intrusion.

After some r+r at home, its was time for another mini trip to Sweden, which almost didn’t happen for Martin who couldn’t remember the safe place he had carefully left his passport, the day of the flight. Unfortunately, the weather in Stockholm was only marginally better than that we left behind, though we did have one afternoon without rain, and despite Martin's expression, the city was an interesting place to spend a few days.

Even if we didn't do much more than eat, drink and be merry. The old town area was especially pretty. And the locals were generally pretty friendly, especially when accosted and plied with food at 5am, and their English was quite amazing, some even having completely Irish accents to boot. Still, I can't help feeling on the whole that the Baltics offer a better deal for an extended break than Scandinavia. So after a brief stopover to catch up with Mr Dave and friends in Glasgow, it was back home and preparing to board the coffin ship. Sorry, Qantas plane.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

A bit Baltic

Apologies for the tardiness of these posts...
Anyway, several months back I had planned to visit the Baltics on a trip with Martin. I expected to be back from Central America in loads of time, but as it was I ended up being in Ireland less than a day before jumping on a plane to Vilnius.
Lithuania’s capital was a lot prettier than I would have imagined.

Some of the architecture was pretty stunning, and the weather nice and balmy. Although not on my original itinerary (I'm meeting Martin in Latvia) I was glad I came. The bars and restaurants evoke a feeling closer to Mediterranean Europe than old soviet block states, and despite basic English, the locals are pretty friendly. The town is a delight to wander, and is also delightfully missing the riff raff that have descended into some of eastern Europe's nicer cities due to the likes of urine air and sleazy jet offering too cheap flights.

After Vilnius I hoped on the bus north to Riga, famed stag party capital of Latvia.
After meeting up with Martin, we hit the town, only to find that we had arrived at the one time of the year (midsummer) where it's dead quiet. Still, Riga is another beautiful Baltic capital.

And there are a few folk around, probably mostly tourists unaware of the nature of the festival. Martin was pretty adapt at herding them out. He knows every inch of Riga's lanes and alleyways at this stage.
We did happen to be here for the Russian football match, which, given that Latvia is almost 50% Russian, was a pretty big occasion.

Next stop , was Tallin, Estonia, but only for a brief stopover as we were on our way to Helsinki for a couple of days. The weather was still mostly behaving itslef, and the shortish crossing over the gulf of Finland was very pleasant.
We met up with Sean and as usual he was a great host, its great to have the local knowledge of where to go.

So after a couple of nights it was back over in force to Tallinn. Again, it's a lovely city, with cute squares and alleys and lanes winding through the old part of town. Possibly the prettiest of all the Baltic cities. Though, it has to be said, pretty chocca with tourists.

It's also got very lively nightlife, with a variety of bars and clubs keeping things going well past dawn. After 10 days in the Baltics, I think I need a serious detox.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008


Well, after 3 1/2 months in Latin America, I'm back in the garden state with Mandy, Eddie and Ally. Its weird to be back, in some ways, it almost feels like I never left.

The weather here is a tad warmer than the snow and ice that I left a while back. I insisted on breaking out the pool, and used Ally as an excuse. She seemed to like it almost as much as me. I've also been gorging myself on all things American, to fatten myself up for my time in the Baltics. And I've been replacing my well worn clothes and footwear, its actually quite nice not to have to wear the same stuff for a change. And have a pair of sunglasses that don't break in 2 days.

Apart from eating and shopping, I managed to get in a bit of drinking. Including a night out in New York, which was fun. Even if my lack of a collared shirt meant we ended up in some of the more divey bars, instead of hob knobbing it with the celebs. Like I'm used to.

Before leaving Nicaragua, I spent a day at the beautiful Laguna apoyo. Its a crater lake formed from a volcano caldera, close to Granada. It's a very relaxing place, nice water for swimming and a little kayaking in the warm sunshine. A lovely way to spend my last day in Nicaragua.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Ticas, Nicas and Matthew McConaughey

My original plan (well, as of a few weeks ago) was to fly back to the states via Costa Rica, but I decided instead to see a little of Nicaragua and fly from Managua. It meant a longish trip from Boquete. After feeding the new baby parrot, Neimis kindly drove me to the border, where I made by way by taxi and local bus as far as San Insidro, only to find out that the road to San Jose was blocked by mudslides. Plan B saw me head via the coast, and the backside breaking road from Dominical to Quepos, to sleep for the night, then up to catch the 4am bus north to Punta Arenas, another bus to Liberia, and a final bus to the border of PeƱas blancas, leaving the Ticas behind.

The queues at the border were possibly the worst I´ve seen anywhere, but luckily most of the people were Nicas trying to go the other way. I met an English couple and after the heat and dust of the border, decided to share a taxi to San Juan del sur, getting there in time for sunset.

San Juan is mainly a surf town, with good beaches close by. I spent a couple of days mostly trying to get out the back, as the waves were pretty strong. I definitely need to move to a small board. Sharing the waves was Matthew McConaughey, on a boys break from his pregnant brazilian girlfriend. We met him in the pub later, and while I admit to having had a few, he was way more pissed. Quite amusing.

Enough gringofication, time to head north to Granada, the pride of Nicaragua. I have to say I'm a tad disappointed with it. It's a pretty town, for sure, but it doesn't have the wow factor I expected. Perhaps Colombia has spoiled me. Still, it has some nice restuarants and pretty churches scattered around, and the main square is very pleasant.

Theres plenty of natural beauty nearby, several lakes and volcanoes, including Nicaragua's most active, so I decided to visit it at night to see the glowing lava. It wasnt quite as dramatic as the brochures would lead you to believe, indeed the local fire dancers probably made a more impressive display.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Towards Panama

Leaving San Gil behind, eventually, I headed south towards the big bad capital of Bogota. To break up the journey a bit, I stopped off at another cute colonial town called Villa de Leyva. Up till now Id had great weather, but rain greeted me on my late arrival, so I didn't get to see the town at its best initially. Luckily next day was a good deal brighter. Its a pretty town of cobbled streets and lots of nice restaurants. A bit more touristy though than Barichara, but quaint nonetheless.

Bogota was similarly drizzly when I got there, and I also arrived at the end of a long weekend, so the place was a veritable ghost town, not the most pleasant for strolling around. Next day was a different story, the streets around the Candelaria area in the old town were full of people, and the place had an altogether much more pleasant vibe. Feeling like I needed to be more of a tourist, I made my way to the police museum, where the guide was amazingly helpful and pleasant. A lot of the stuff on display related to Pablo Escobar and his entourage, and made for a very pleasant couple of hours. I met up with Randy again, and he had enlisted the help of some locals to cook us some good Colombian food.

Well after almost a month it was time to leave Colombia, definitely a major highlight. A short plane ride and a longer bus ride and I was back in Boquete, Panama, to spend a bit more time there. A seriously heavy tropical storm was passing through the area, so Neimis and I headed east towards Santa Fe for a bit, and then south to the surf village of San Cristobal, where we had blue skies. Its a tiny place, hard to imagine it holds international surf contests. But the surf was about the best I've seen in Central America, clean, nice forgiving sets for a change. And the cerveza Panama was the perfect aperitif.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Me gusta Colombia

Its so nice to be back in Colombia! Crossing the border, I felt an immediate sense of relief. I was back with nice, friendly people, in a pretty safe environment. Well, apart from the odd earthquake, and Farc leaders dying...but nowhere is perfect.
I dont want to keep going on about it, but the hotel guy the last night in Venezuela was hilariously rude and nasty, Basil Fawlty would have nothing on him.
After a longish 2 days travelling, Randy and I arrived in the pretty little town of Barichara, a lovely example of Colombian colonial architecture.

Next we headed to San Gil, a bit of a Colombian adventure center, and a pretty nice smallish town. I´d half been thinking of doing a para gliding course, but decided instead on a tandem flight, which was really nice and relaxing, rather than any way scary. The farmland around made for pretty vistas and the weather was just about perfect too.

There's some serious rafting around San Gil, but the biggest river is actually unraftable right now, but we some fun on the little grade 3 running through town. We got to swim through some of the smaller rapids to spice it up a bit, and all and all it was a great way to spend 8 euro.

Feeling a bit spatially challenged on the Latin American dance floors, a few of us in the Macondo hostal in San Gil decide on a bit of Salsa dancing. I have to admit I wasn't expecting a full aerobic workout, but that is what we got, plus some pretty good moves, if I can only remember them. I think I might have to go back a few more times though before I'm on strictly come dancing. I also brushed up a bit on my Spanish for a bit, it's definitely easier to understand Colombian Spanish than Panamanian.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Slight detour

Venezuela was definitely not on my travel plans, so it's a bit of a surprise to find myself in the university city of Merida. It certainly comes as a pleasant change after by brief but too long stay in Maracaibo. Seldom have I taken such an instant dislike to a city (and i guess, by association, a country) as I did when reaching there from Colombia. I dunno if it was the endless litter trail on the way there, the rip off antics of the taxi drivers, or the rudeness of the food servers at the bus station, who looked like they would much rather sever your throat than serve you the sandwich you wanted, but I was very pleased to get out of there ASAP. Merida, thankfully, is a lot different. Nice people, cool weather, good nightlife and the longest and highest cable car in the world.

Before crossing over the border, I spent a few days more on the Colombian coast. First up was Tayrona, a pretty national park where you can sleep in hammocks ( again :( ) and enjoy the beaches in relative solitude. Apart from the mossies. It was a bit overpriced and the over-zealous inspection by the corrupt Army dude on the entrance took the shine off a bit, but it was still well worth seing.

I also went to the fishing village of Taganga, know for its good and (relatively) cheap diving. The diving wasn't half bad - loads of sea horses, lobsters and morays. But the highlight was the gigantic schools of sardines being hearded into bunches by attacking tuna. Amazing.
I almost loved Taganga, but its been ¨discovered¨ by a spring break and pseudo hippie combination that tries your patience after a while. Shame really, cause it has a lovely village feel in parts, and the locals are typically welcoming. A fact thats highlighted after spending a few hours in Maracaibo. Did I mention I didn't like it there?

Monday, 12 May 2008

Lost City

I hadn't really planed on any trekking on this trip, what with my dislocated knee and lack of hiking boots, but when I arrived in Santa Marta I decided to sign up for the 6 day round trip to the Ciudad Perdida. The trek isn't especially difficult, but the rain on the first day made parts really slippy, and I was glad of my investment in a pair of wellies.

We passed through various types of forest, inhabited by indifferent indigenous peoples and very friendly soldiers. Evenings were mostly spent sculpting wax models from burning candles (there wanst much in the way of entertainment provided!). I have to admit that the idea of sleeping in a hammock is much nicer than the reality. It is fun, bu the the relative lack of sleep and the resulting back pain makes it something to try sparingly.

Although the ruins themselves aren't overly dramatic, the sheer scale of the place, coupled with the jungle setting, makes for a very memorable trip. Walking up the 2000 odd steps into the lost city was especially moving, particularly for my calves. The guides were really good, and provided us with great food and typical Colombian hospitality. Although I hate backtracking, the return trip was actually pretty nice, as we had great weather, which made the views beautiful and the swimming holes particularly inviting.

Santa Marta itself was nothing special, though now a bad place. It certainly didnt give the impression that its the oldest settlement in Colombia. Cartagena (pictured) is a few years newer, but a world apart when it comes to the the preservation and renovation of its colonial part. Next up is some beach time and maybe a little diving.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Shakira Shakira

Well, after 7 weeks I finally managed to leave Panama. An overnight bus from David and a short prop plane flight later I´m in Cartagena, Colombia. I'm pretty excited to be on the move again.

Cartagena is a beautiful city. It's possibly the best preserved Spanish city in Latin America, with lovely old buildings both restored and slightly crumbling, complete with abundant colourful plants and equally colourful locals. The streets were pretty quiet when I arrived as it was a holiday, but today there packed with people, as they were last night. Dining out al fresco in the lovely Spanish square of Santa Domingo with great food and a background of local performers was a great experience.

Before leaving Panama, I made a couple of visits. I felt bad having been in the center of Panama´s coffee production and never having seen a plantation, so Neimis took me along to one of the local fincas to see the scenery and sample the produce, which is very good. Its nice to get into the hills around boquete, it still feels like it must have before it became a Mecca for gringo retirees.

We also visited Boca brava, as yet a relatively un-touristed spot on the pacific coast. There´s only one hotel on the island, and you wake up to the sound of waves and wild howler monkeys in the forest. On the way back we called into some friends of Paradise Garden to check out their place, the views are almost reminiscent of Africa, especially as sun sets and the howlers start.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Still in Panama

I'm still in Panama. So I've pretty much deviated off any plan I had with respect to where I'm going and how long I´ll spend everywhere. Currently I'm looking at going to Colombia in a few days and spending a few weeks there before heading home via the states. The rest of Central America can wait for another time.

I´m back in Boquete, having returned from San Blas via the lovely little town of Santa Fe. There's not much to it, but its got a great location in the mountains, which lots of friendly locals on horseback and little or no tourists.
The plan was to head via Costa Rica to Nicaragua, but I got wrapped up in the daily events of Boquete and Paradise Garden, so that never quite materialised. And anyway, I hate rushing around too much. It all blurs into one after a while.

Since returning, Macie has been moved close to the wild howler monkeys, and has already met some of them, and will be fully released soon. We also got rid of Heney, the biting Capuchin, who seems to have attached himself to the wild howlers rather than his own species. He was always a bit odd. We've got a new Caracara with a broken leg, and briefly had a wounded Anteater which we took to the vet, but who died later, probably from smoke inhalation rather than his machete wound. And it looks like were going to have an injured female ocelot joining in a few days. And the puppies now have electric dog collars, after their repeated escapes. It´s all go.

For a bit of R&R, I headed with Greg (and his recently broken arm) to Bocas del Toro, the main party islands in Panama. It seems like everyone I ever met in Panama was there, and it's definitely a great place for a pissup. Though there are just too many gringos there for my liking. Despite the hordes it can still be a really nice place to visit. But a couple of nights there were enough for my liver. Off soon for a delicious red snapper dinner courtesy of Michael and Donna, who we know from Paradise Garden. Its going to be hard to leave all behind here, but Shakira´s birthplace beckons...