Tag: Travel

Italy bound

Italy bound

After months of procrastination and changes of plans, we found ourselves sitting on a plane from Newcastle to Rome in the last week of the school summer holidays.  Three kids 14 and under plus four adults, all set to soak in anything and everything that Italy had to throw at us.  As always, Newcastle airport was an absolute delight to pass through.  We arrived in a mini bus from the airport parking at Callerton Park and got through check in and customs with not a single problem.  The kids did ask us about why people were drinking pints of lager before the normal time for breakfast, but we explained that stag and hen parties mean that adults have different rules applied to them.

We flew with Jet2 and had the most stunning views of the Alps or Dolomites on the way over, it’s very hard to tell the difference from so high up.  Maybe there should be a project, we could crowd fund it, where huge labels can be placed at strategic points around the globe so that aeroplane passengers know exactly where they are in the world.  I know that the big planes have this on the in-flight display, but the short haul flights miss out and I would be happy to chip in a fiver to get this off the ground.  Who else is in?
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WhatsApp Image 2018-10-27 at 21.59.50We landed bang on time at Rome Fiumicino and found our first life hack of the holiday.  If you travel with under 12’s you get to skip the queue at passport control.  It almost makes travelling with kids worthwhile.  Almost.  We found out that it wasn’t always such a great idea moments later having got through passport control as we immediately lost the kids car seat that we had checked in at Newcastle airport under ‘Excess baggage’ despite it being the size of a box of cornflakes.  We were told that you had to pick it up from a certain area so wandered over and found a massive collection of, what appeared to be, abandoned car seats and pushchairs that you could pick up without any sort of checks taking place.  Life hack two of the holiday, don’t take a pushchair or child seat with you, just pick one up on arrival and run!

The seven of us, with six suitcases and a child seat in tow, looked like we were heading off from New York to join the gold rush but we were in fact heading to pick up the hire cars.  My brother and I, as designated drivers, took a ticket from the machine that, I think, they had taken from the deli counter at Asda when they remodelled in the late 80’s.  Despite our number coming up, a loud American lass that was dressed as if she was heading to a Yoga convention decided that, as she was louder than everyone else in the room, she should be seen to next.  I was happy so long as it meant I never had to see her or hear her ever again.

When we eventually got to the front of the queue, I was happy I had lost my rightful place in the queue as the lad who looked after us was absolutely spot on.  He was one of these people that, despite ‘just’ being the guy at the car hire station, he actually managed to add to the holiday by doing his job so well, with a smile on his face and a kind word and the odd joke with my little boy. As with almost everything in life these days, I got asked to do a follow up survey once we had picked the car up, I hope he got the kind words that I left for him passed on.

Having got all of the paperwork squared away and turned down 329 different types of insurance that they tried to upsell me, we headed out to pick up the cars.  I had been allocated a Jeep and my brother a hybrid Toyota Yaris.  Squeaking our way round and down the shiny floored multi story car park, I had about two minutes to get used to the car and the handling before hitting the Italian roads.  I had driven in Italy last year, but mainly on the motorway in the North of the country, but this was different!

If you haven’t driven in rush hour Rome, all be it just the outskirts, it’s pretty easy to imagine.  It’s like playing Mario Kart but instead of bananas and mushrooms the other players have a child in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. Seriously, it’s like being in a car in the UK in the 1980’s, it’s not unusual to see kids standing on the passenger seat with no seatbelt on or two kids sharing the passenger seat.  Insane.

The excitement of the crazy driving got a bit much for me.  I was so focused on blowing my horn at people and shouting Mama Mia as drivers switched lanes for fun in front of me, I forgot to follow the directions.  It took a few false starts and U-turns but we were eventually on the way and eating into the 90KM to Sermoneta, our home for the week.  It was only about an hour and a half away but that, on top of the early start, the flight time, the wait to get out of the airport and it was touch and go if the three kids would have driven each other to madness in the back seats before we arrived.

We broke up the journey with a service station stop where we loaded up with mini loafs of bread, crisps, chocolate and fizzy pop.  Classic car trip fodder.  While everyone else got the provisions I stayed in the Jeep and worked out what the dazzling array of buttons were all about.  I managed to get my phone synced up with the blue tooth so that I could play my tunes but that didn’t last for more than half a song I seem to recall.

I thought that the car was handling a little strangely and I had worked out what I thought it was.  The Jeep was fitted with lane assist and so every time you switched lanes the car tried to auto correct you and put you back.  I had a choice, I had to either fight to move in and out of traffic while overtaking or be the only person in Italy who used indicators.  I didn’t want to be the odd one out so it was a good upper body work out for the rest of the week, fighting against my AI car.

The motorway eventually turned into a main road, the main road into a minor and the minor into a single track that snaked along the flat expanse of land between the Mediterranean sea to the west and the mountains overlooking it.   As we got closer to the mountainside, we could make out a village hanging off the side of it.  We knew we were close and there wasn’t much else around and so that had to be Sermoneta.  We came to a junction and turned off up the hill.  The kids, who had just started to get a bit bored and fighty, suddenly had something else to focus on and it was starting to get exciting, trying to work out where we would be and what was going to be around us for the next seven nights.

We followed the hair pinning road up the ever steepening hill and followed the road into the town square.  It felt like we were not the first people to drive into the town square expecting to find their lodging and be surprised that it was pedestrian access only after about 500 meters.  Titchy jumped out and asked for directions and was told we had come in the wrong side of town and had to come in via the back road.  At least we think that that was said.  Either way, I had to perform a tricky U-turn in the town square watched by, what looked like, the entire village that had come out to see the foreign guy take the wrong route.

The square was full of life.  Cafes, shops and an ice cream shop jumped out to the kids and they thought it was looking good. Driving out of the town square and working our way around the back of the village, we worked our way up and around the tight single track road until we hit the car park at the end of the line.  We had arrived at our destination.

I was not able to get my mobile phone working in Italy at all for the next week and so the landlord was not able to call me to arrange access.  So we waited around for a while looking for keys, trying locks and search for clues as if we were taking part in an escape room.  Eventually, we got in and as the adults worked out who would stay in which room and began unpacking, the kids walked down the terrace to the swimming pool. They wanted in and they wanted in fast!

Inside, the house was lovely with big, comfortable rooms and a pool table, but outside was where this place came into its own.  There was a terrace with a Barbeque and a patio table and chairs from which you could look out over the winding roads that we had just come through and the sea off in the distance.  We were to spend many an hour there in the next week just watching planes taking off, farmers zig zag back and forth over their fields, cyclists making their progress and clouds forming and moving in from the sea.  It really was the most perfect view.  One section further down the terrace and you had a swimming pool and sun loungers from which you could relax and take in the same views, just this time with kids trying to drown you.

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This was going to be a good holiday, I could tell.

We were all pretty tired by the time we had unpacked and got used to the surroundings so we decided to take a little walk into the town square and pick up something to eat.  We snaked our way through the narrow, cobbled streets and headed towards where we thought the town square was that we had driven up earlier in the afternoon.  We thought we were lucky by finding it pretty much right away, it turns out that there were only about three streets that all meet at the main square so we would have done well NOT to find it.

There was a lovely atmosphere.  Old people sitting in seats just watching the world go by, families (all locals) chatting over drinks at cafes and children running around playing without a care in the world.  All dressed up and just savouring the warm evening air.  We picked a pizza shop, it wasn’t a restaurant, more like a takeaway with a few seats and a table outside on the cobble steps.  We ate lovely slices of pizza fresh from the oven and watched customer after customer walk in, chat to the owner like a long-lost friend and pick up their takeaway pizza.  It felt amazing to be let into their world, no delivery guys, and no options, just going to the one guy in town that did takeaway pizza and chatting with him. Making a connection and saying hello to neighbours and friends as they waited to be served.

As we walked back to the house, we could hear family life going on through windows above open to let a cool breeze into the rooms.  Football on the TV, children crying, singing along to radios, family life.  Old people sat outside their front doors, keeping guard and chatting excitedly as we walked past them and said our ‘goodnights’ to them.  We thought it was the perfect evening, but there was still one more treat before bedtime.

Outside the house there must have been a dozen cats and two kittens all pottering about waiting to be fed by one of the neighbours.  Some were friendlier than others and they all looked like street cats but well fed, but the ones that were brave enough to hang around us were rewarded with cuddles and love before bed.  I think we all went to bed happy that we had picked the right place to call home, Sermoneta.

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Where has the time gone?

Where has the time gone?

Is it just me of is 2018 moving faster that you average year?

It seems like just yesterday that I was complaining about the ‘beast from the East’ and wearing two jumpers to get to work and here I am a good way through May sitting in the living room with sun pouring in through the window.

So, what have you missed out on since the last post back in March?

Well, we have booked a holiday!  Initially there were going to be six adults and four kids and so we were looking at a villa somewhere to house us all.  I have to say, it was a blooming nightmare.  We tried Air b’n’b but the process was painful and messy and so we were recommended a site called http://www.homeaway.co.uk

We had a few issues, mainly that we tried to book a place that was showing as available but when we tried to book we were told that it was unavailable.  Looking back, that sounds quite trivial, but when you spend night after night researching and filtering and negotiating with all of the people looking to travel and then you think you have found the perfect place, it was a right kick in the nuts.

In fact, it took so long to find a place that some of the party ducked out early!  So, with new filters to put in place, we found a great place in Italy in a village called Sermoneta in central Italy.

It looks to be a perfect quiet village on a hill above a swamp dating back to the 12th century.  It looks amazing and I cant wait to get out there.  It will be a great base to visit the Amalfi coast, Pompeii and, with my interest in the second world war, Anzio and Monte Casino.  I will have to see if I can get those trips past Titchy!

More then anything, I am looking forward to eating Italian food in a little old fashioned restaurant with an Italian grandma sitting in the corner laughing at us,  I want to ruin a white shirt eating by eating  pasta!

Looking into 2019, we have a family wedding to go to in Adelaide and are mixing that up with a trip to Kangaroo Island.  I can only cope with one trip at a time, but that will be the next one to think about!

Does anyone have any ideas for either trip, places that we must see or places that we must go?  I would be delighted to hear from you and even ore delighted if you have any car hire ideas!!

 

To SLR or not SLR, that is the question.

To SLR or not SLR, that is the question.

First of all, many thanks to those people who have been kind enough to get in touch and thank me for posting on this blog, it really has been quite an eye-opener that anyone is actually reading this, never mind thinking that it is any good!

I started writing this blog mainly for myself, so that I could look back in years to come and remember how I felt at the time about the trips that I take.  I just wish that I had started it years ago as I have only very distant memories of a lot of my holidays and feel like I missed huge opportunities to capture my time in Shanghai, Sydney and New York, as well as countless other less exotic trips.

I was asked by one person what camera I used to take the pictures on the blog.  The honest answer is that I can’t always remember!  I use both an SLR camera and an iPhone 6 and the mobile phone camera is so good it is often very hard to recall which I captured a particular image on.

I think that the speed at which you can whip out your phone and get a picture makes it so much more convenient and the new features such as slow motion, time lapse and Pano mean that a lot of the features that used to be SLR unique are now tucked in your pocket.

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One of my favourite pictures from my European road trip

Having said that, if you have the time to set up the SLR on a tripod and spend some time getting the settings right and taking time to frame a show, then the results can be stunning.  Let me be clear here, results that others get can be stunning, my pictures very rarely get anywhere close to being stunning and I am happy with amateur or average!

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Another of my favourite pictures, this time of the Alps.

I have added two pictures, one from each source, and wonder if you can tell the difference?

The camera that I use is a Canon EOS 500D which is the entry level camera or at least it was when I bought it probably ten years ago or more and, I am pretty sure, it cost me around £500.  I have quickly checked the interweb and it looks as if the prices have dropped a fair bit.  You can pick up the newer, fancier and more compact version for only £299 now.

When you compare that to about a grand for the new iPhone handset, then it doesn’t feel quite to expensive to buy an SLR.

One of the other questions that I was asked about the European road trip that I recently completed was “What would you do differently?” If you recall, one of the main reasons that I went on the trip was to drive over mountain passes and take in the stunning views while zigzagging up a mountain road.

I just wish that I had some decent footage of that as recording it on my phone while it was clipped to a phone holder on the windscreen gave some pretty poor pictures!  I hadn’t realised how cheap it was to get your hands on these fancy dash cams.  For £35.99 I would have snapped your hand off for this before I left!

https://www.ashappyas.com/spend/7726-top-spec-car-dvr-dash-cam-35-99-full-hd-recording-60fps-165-degree-wide

That’s enough from me now, thanks for reading and thanks so much for your comments and questions.

PS – Just in case you were wondering, the picture of the Alps is SLR, the picture of the church at Bourg-en-Bresse is taken on a iPhone 6

 

 

Day 7 – Saturday, Champion!

Day 7 – Saturday, Champion!

I woke up all excited. Today was the day that I was going to drive over the Alps.  It was a bright but crisp morning and I enjoyed the red hot shower and a breakfast of nuts and coffee.  The tent was packed up in no time at all and I was back on the road, deliberately looking left all the way so that I wouldn’t realise that I was driving PAST a theme park at 9.30 on a Saturday morning.

The sun quickly burnt through the clouds and it turned into a glorious morning as I passed through little German villages, each of them looking more idyllic than the next.  It was Saturday morning and everywhere I passed through, people were heading to their local butchers, bakers and, probably, candlestick makers.  There were very few major supermarkets, it all seemed very old fashioned but beautiful to see.  Parents with kids on the back of bikes, or older kids on their little bikes peddling away like mad to keep up, but all on very safe and very well respected cycle lanes at the side of the road.

I say well respected.  I stopped at a little supermarket to pick up some bread, more nuts and some jam for lunch but as I pulled out of the car park my warning lights started flashing on the dashboard as my boot was still open.

I quickly pulled across to the side of the road as I was convinced that my tent and the rest of my gear was going to fly out across the street.   I pulled right in front of a guy on a bike that was, understandably, furious with me for pulling such a stupid manoeuvre and his mood wasn’t improved as, not realising at that point what I had done, I opened my door and nearly wiped him out a second time.

I learned a few new words in German, none of which I would like to try and repeat in polite company.  Poor fella.

I had passed through Mindenheim, Mindelweg, Kaufbeuren, Marktoberdorf and a town called Roßhaupten when I started to feel a bit peckish as it crept towards lunchtime.  I turned the corner and a beautiful scene unfolded in front of me.  Lake Forggensee looked like it was the equivalent of the Lake District as there were lots of walkers, cyclist and day trippers floating around and loads of water sports taking place on the lake. It turns out that it was manmade, formed by damming the River Lech to better control the melt water coming off the Alps, but it was a beautiful spot.

IMG_9330It looked very much as if the flat lands were now over and I was about to start my trip up into the Alps.  As the scenery panned out in front of me it looked like I was travelling from the centre of a very large plate pie and I was just coming up to the built up crust round the edges, all jagged and angry.

The backdrop was stunning and I was very excited as I ate my bread and jam and let the warm sun kiss my face.  I was surrounded by maybe 50 people sunbathing and playing around in the water and it all felt very out of place seeing this with snow and mountains in the background.

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This is not my Picture, it’s from Google, but its a good one!

I set off again, full and happy, and headed towards what I had been looking forward to for longer than I could remember.  My trip over the Alps; winding roads and stunning views.  This was it!

Maybe I was tired, maybe I was over excited, it’s hard to say, but the next few hours were really disappointing.  Rather than the tight hairpins and fantastic scenery I had in my mind’s eye, I sat on a motorway through mountains with high barriers and pretty dull views.  I made my way through Austria and stopped for petrol at a place called Fernpasse Rast.  It looked like a Bavarian hostel and all the staff were wearing traditional dress.  Again, maybe it was just my mood but it felt like hell.  There were about half a dozen trip buses, and about 250 Chinese and Indian tourists dismounted, each with a selfie stick in one hand and some seriously strong cigarettes in the other, and filled the toilets and shops with stink and excited chatter.

I pushed on to the Brenner pass and jumped over the border into Italy.  This part of the trip wasn’t what I had hoped for and I was starting to feel glum and then I remembered that it was Saturday.    Champions League final Saturday!

I quickly tried to recall who was playing and remembered that it was Juventus playing Real Madrid.  I would be able to watch an Italian team in the Champions League final in their home country.  Suddenly, my zest was back.  I parked up and had a quick review of the maps and realised that I could probably make Milan in time to get showered, booted and suited in time for the game.  Maybe wear a crisp white shirt and have some pasta made by a 95-year-old grandma that would welcome me into her kitchen to watch the game with her family?

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I felt like I had passed over an imaginary line from Northern to Southern Europe.  Suddenly, the clean perfection of Germany and Austria was replaced by scatty looking buildings, graffiti all over and a general feel of everything being half finished, or maybe half started.  Everything looked grim including the vehicles around me.

It felt like every 20 minutes I passed a pay station for the motorway.  I don’t even know how much I was charged at each station as the shame of having to get out of my car, run around to the passenger side to pay and then run back to jump in before the barrier came down was too much for me! It blows my mind that the rest of Europe still drive on the wrong side of the road 🙂

Lots of angry drivers and 4 hours later, I was near Milan.  I was tired, it was raining and I felt miserable.  I felt as if I had made the wrong choice and should have headed any other direction except Italy.  I didn’t want to fight my way into the centre of a town, never mind a city the size of Milan.  The driving was crazy and aggressive on the motorways and the city would have been a million times worse.  I felt like I wanted out of Italy and wanted to be close to the way out when I set off.

I pulled off the motorway and pulled up at a motel AS Cambiago.  I could pretty much park my car inside the bedside table and was happy to be in a bad and limitless hot shower.  I was washed and refreshed and my towel was on the bathroom drier faster than you could say ‘Forza Juve’.

I walked down to the bar, was served an ice cold Peroni and picked my seat for the match just as the teams were lining up for the anthems.  Perfect timing.  I exchanged nods and tuts with an Italian chap who was clearly a huge Juve fan and watched the first half happy that I was getting in the vibe with the locals.

Ronaldo scored on 20 minutes and it looked like it was going to be a horrible night but then Mandzukic scored an unbelievable goal to level it up and set up the second half to be a real spectacle.  I asked my new friend, let’s call him Mario, if he wanted a beer and he happily nodded his agreement.  I then spent the entire half time break and the first five minutes of the second half waiting to get served.

Let me be clear, there was just me stood at the bar.  There was no crowd and no fight to get to the front of a queue, just me, standing there with a 20 Euro note wafting it to show I intended to spend it.  The barman filled up peanut bowls, he wiped glasses clean, he moved papers around, he did anything he could find other than to serve the only customer he had.

I was starting to fall out of love with Italy.

Eventually I was served, gave Mario his beer but he was too engrossed in the football to thank me I think.  As Real Madrid slotted in a second, third and fourth goal without response in the second half I think Mario also forgot how to get the rounds in and say goodbye to me as he just got up and walked off never to be seen again.

Maybe he wasn’t a true friend after all?  That’s why I don’t feel too bad about naming him Mario.

 

 

Back on the road again

It must have been around 3 years ago now that I, Itchy Feet, started my first blog and the first post that I made on there I wrote down my bucket list.  The reason that I started the blog was so that I could have that bucket list written down and be held to account if I didn’t get off my arse and do any of them.  I don’t recall all of the items, but 2-3 of them I recall with absolute clarity.

1) To drive through the alps and go on a camping tour.
2) To visit Colditz castle
3) To visit Green Lake in Tragoess, Austria (http://uk.businessinsider.com/austrian-green-lake-grner-see-is-a-lake-only-half-the-year-2015-7)
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After too many months of making excuses and finding reasons why I couldn’t go I got on with it and, yesterday, I booked the ferry and the road trip is on!

I will have an overnight stop just south of London and then head over on the DFDS ferry from Dover to Dunkirk for 10 nights of camping and following the front of my car, whichever way I choose to point it.  I bought a tent, I have a converter in my car so that I can charge up my camera, I have downloaded offline maps to my iPhone and I will pack my running and hiking kit.  The rest, well that’s just an adventure waiting to be written.

I chatted with a friend of mine that loves his motorcycles and I half remembered him telling me he had undertaken European adventures in his youth.  He suggested that rather than setting a route before I go and following it religiously, that I should head to a campsite, chat with the folks there, and then follow their lead to where I should go next and see where it takes me.

I can’t wait.

If anyone has any suggestions of what I just can’t miss, then I would love to hear for you!
One night in heaven (with a mosquito)

One night in heaven (with a mosquito)

In my last entry, I left you at Barragona beach, enjoying life and the paradise that I found myself in.

Over dinner one evening I was talking with one of my new work mates about his home country, Costa Rica.  He informed me that it is the safest and most developed in Central America as many of the other countries, such as Mexico, Honduras and Nicaragua  are ravaged by gang warfare, chiefly around the drugs trade.  Costa Rica on the other hand is relatively gang free.  I have to say that in the two weeks I have been in the country, I have never once felt unsafe.  When I asked why that was, he explained that the country had abolished its army in 1948 and instead, focused the funding on education.   This has resulted in a very skilled and motivated workforce and has seen huge multinationals such as P&G, HP, Intel and Oracle set up in the country?.  With an educated population and good career prospects there is not the pull of gangs for desperate kids and so it hasn’t faced the problems of the rest of the region.

They found it very hard to understand that the United Kingdom, with its overseas dependencies such as Gibraltar and The Falklands, couldn’t go without an army but the idea is an interesting one.  How much more developed would the world be without conflict I wonder?  Or, maybe the question should be, how much less developed would it be?

Our host was keen to show us a hidden beach at Samara and, after driving over a bridge that he told us had crocodiles under it, we found the dirt path down to a beach, It didn’t look too hidden to me, but then we had to follow him around the corner of the bay on the volcanic rocks.  Unfortunately the tide was already in, and coming in even further and fast, but it looked amazing.  We were told that when the tide was out, the volcanic rocks became a natural swimming pool above the sea, but a very calm and tranquil one with an infinity pool feel about it.  It was stunningly beautiful as it was, but we only had a few minutes to enjoy it for risk of being cut off by the tide.  On the way back, literally my last step before being back safe on the beach, I lost my footing and ripped a hole in the bottom of my foot on the sharp rocks.

I didn’t cry, I’m a bit tough like that, but was a bit worried that the scent of my blood would bring sharks to the bay so I made a quick exit back to the car.  On the drive back to the main beach in Samara, my driver did something that was typical of the Costa Rican way of life.  He stopped his car in the middle of the main street, wound down his window and started chatting with his friend that was working in one of the bars.  He was holding up traffic but having a good old chat then a guy in the car behind peeped his horn at him.  The look of shock on his face was priceless.  He looked at me and said with shock and surprise  “This guy must be from out of town, what the hell does he want me to do?”  I didn’t have the heart to respond “move out of the way?” it just didn’t seem like the right thing to do!

The main beach, unsurprisingly, was beautiful and I ate nachos and supped a cool beer while watching the sun gently slide below the horizon.  The surf board gangs were slowly giving up and walking home; each of them looking like underwear models and putting me to shame with their bronzed and toned bodies.  I bet they can’t handle a spreadsheet like me though, so think about that and cry yourself to sleep boys!  The whole place was relaxed with the whiff of magic smoke in the air adding to that relaxation. It really didn’t need it.

The only problem, if you can call it that, was sleeping out

in the open air.  I was going to say that the local mosquitos really enjoyed eating me, particularly around my joints, but I prefer to think of it as one very satisfied mosquito that couldn’t get enough of me.

One evening, our host had paid some of the local lads to arrange a fire on the beach for us. It was made of three tree trunks, maybe 6 feet in length, arranged into, what looked like, a funeral pyre.  The area Inside the three trunks was filled will smaller logs and branches and, the most flammable item in the world, dried palm leaves.  As a special treat the lads has also put a few coconuts in there too, just for devilment.  Once they heated up they exploded like hand grenades.  All good fun.  Someone had brought down a bluetooth speaker and there were mystical tunes being played and  a lot of mystic dancing going on around the fire.  Not by me though.

I just stood and watched and wished I had some marshmallows.

Pura Vida

Pura Vida

What do you do in Panama City Airport for two hours twenty?  Very little to be honest.    I didn’t leave Newcastle dressed in full winter wear on the assumption that it was going to be pretty warm.  My stunning intelligence and vision paid off.  It was 5pm when I landed and even at that time of day the close, humid air was a warning for what things were going to be like for the next two weeks.

As a terribly nervous traveller, I always like to walk straight to my departure gate as soon as I can so that I can get used to the area and know where I need to be.  I have a morbid fear of being late. I know it’s not healthy but I can’t change!  By the time I walked to the gate, maybe a 15 minute walk, I realised that I had walked from one end of the airport, through the busy section, and out to the other side.  The idea of walking all the way back to the heart of the airport just filled me with sadness.

I sat at the gate, well next to it at least as there was nowhere near enough seating, and abused the free Wi-Fi.  Eventually, the time came to board and the second I sat down, I was asleep.  I missed two things as a result:

1) The inflight meal
2) The chance of seeing the Panama canal (all be it in the black dark)

Maybe it was the long flight and the fact I was so tired but it really did upset me more than I thought it would.  I hate missing out on free food.

Once we landed in San Jose, after what felt like 5 minutes due to my sleep, it was time for customs.  It was all going so well, no other flight arriving and so straight to the front of the queue. Then the customs guy asked me where I was staying that night.  I had no idea!  My new boss and his wife were picking me up from the airport and I was staying with them at their home but where that home was, I had no single clue!

I sent massages to my boss, thanks to the free Wi-Fi, but he wasn’t responding as he was parking the car. Eventually, I was the last guy in the security area.  Border control guys were getting tired and they wanted to go home and so they called me back to the desk asking me what the problem was.  “Your colleague told me that I can’t get into the country until I can confirm where I am staying.  I am just waiting for him to call me back” I explained.

“Who is this guy?” they demanded.  I showed them my bosses profile picture on Facebook so that they knew that I was talking to a ‘local’ and they said, “Ah, fine, that will do”.  They didn’t need an address as in a postcode or house number, they just needed a region.  Well, by that time of night they did anyway when they wanted to go home!

My boss and his wife were waiting for me when I walked into the airport and it was great to be with friends again.  Twenty minutes later I was in the house and freshening up ready to go back out again.  A whole hour after clearing customs, there I was sat in an independent brewery in the hipster area of San Jose eating a burger and a bloody good burger at that! I had a quick beer and then we headed home, by this point it was maybe midnight local time.  As soon as I got in the car it hit me like a wet fish over the face, I was instantly the most tired man on the planet.

Once back to base, I climbed into bed and that was me out like a light, ready for my 8am wake up call for a 8.30 departure to be at the office for 9.

The next morning, I got my first understanding of the Costa Rican idea of time keeping.  The 8am wake up call never came but I was already awake due to outside noises, chiefly dogs barking.  I was all set and ready to go at 8.30 and sat, and sat and sat.  At 9.30 we left the house and got to the office at 10.30….I immediately began to panic about the time keeping for my return home flight!


The next morning, literally as I was getting into the back of the car to be driven to the office, I was told that I was going the beach for a team building day and so to make sure that I was packed.  I quickly ran back to the house to pack a bag with my shorts, t-shirt and beach towel.  As I threw it in the back of the car, my boss called me a light packer.  I asked what he meant and he said that it wasn’t much for 2 days staying over. Balls!  So I grabbed two more t-shirts and another pair of shorts and off we went to work.

The office was cool and I met more of my colleagues and, two hours after starting my day at work, off we went for lunch.  We walked over to a ’Soda’ which is what they call a greasy spoon cafe.  The food was typical, rice and beans with a sort of Caribbean hot sauce.  When we came out, we jumped straight into a little 4×4 and I left my boss behind and travelled to the beach with two of my new workmates.

I just assumed that San Jose was on the beach, just from the way that the guys had been talking.  When the lad that was driving set off his sat nav, it was four and a half hours ETA!  San Jose is, I later found out, right in the middle of Central America.  Instead of heading east to the Caribbean coast, which is where I assumed we were really close to, we were heading west to the Pacific coast.  I know that I am totally ignorant, judge away, but I never even thought of a west coast!

We were on the road for two hours when we got to a bridge in an area called Guanacaste.  The lad driving told us that it was known officially as the Taiwan Friendship Bridge but is known locally as the “Back Stab Bridge”.  It turns out that having completed the bridge in 2003, thus connecting the major west coast deep sea port and the capital city, the president of the time turned his back on Taiwan in favour of Taiwan’s hated neighbour, China.  He then went on to have the Chinese build the national sports stadium. What a bad ass!

As we got closer to our destination the sun had gone down and the roads got worse and so the car got slower.  It was hot and dusty sat in the back of a small 4×4 and I was getting tired.  Eventually, after fracturing at least half of my vertebrae by hitting pot holes at speed, we ended up at the co workers house near the beach in Nicoya.   I say house, it didn’t have walls or, in most places, a roof.  It was more like a travellers hostel with open bedrooms, a shared kitchen and a single toilet/shower that had never been cleaned.  Ever.

I sat on the balcony, just watching the moon rise from behind the mountain and listen to the sea that was clearly close, but how close I couldn’t at that point tell.  I was offered a double airbed and settled down to sleep with no blanket, no pillow and no bedtime story.  I was out like a light though, only to wake at 2 am feeling deflated.  Well, the bed was anyway.  It looked like I was the tasty filling in an airbed themed taco.  So I got up and moved onto the hammock instead and had the worst night’s sleep I had ever had.  No more than 30 minutes sleep at a time.  I gave up and instead watched the sun rise over the palm trees that only just hid the gentle waves of the Pacific onto the golden beach which couldn’t have been more than 500 meters away.

When the rest of the gang woke up, we wandered down the dusty track to the local Soda where we had, you guessed it, rice and beans.  Washed down by a cup of coffee, we were ready for the day.  We jumped into the four by fours, and set off for the beach armed with meat and a BBQ made out of an old car wheel.

We were told that the beach was on land owned by Mel Gibson.  He had tried to close it to the public but Costa Rican law states that every beach in the country belongs to the people and so he couldn’t have his way.  Nice idea I think.  The road to it was amazingly bumpy and needed 4×4’s to access it, not least for the river that had to be forded to get there.  Apparently local councils offer to make good on these dirt tracks to make access easier but the locals demand that they stay as they are, preferring to deter tourists from the quiet beach and feeling that the challenge of getting to the beach is part of the fun of being there.

Barrigona beach, the beach in question, means ‘Big Belly Beach’ which is weird as there was no one there with a big belly and not one single ice cream or fish and chip stall.  Instead, you had maybe two miles of golden sand, perfect blue skies and powerful waves breaking on the crescent bay.  I am not a good enough wordsmith to even begin to do justice to the beauty of the place. I hope that the pictures above go some way to help.

I actually fell asleep against a palm tree, I shit you not, and woke to see one of the guys excitedly waving his arms and pointing.  An animal, that I later learned was called a Pizote, was scurrying around the camp looking to pick through the bags of food. A cute little devil, looking like a raccoon but with a nose extension made out of cork, he spent maybe 4 hours probing at the camp.  In the end, he caught us all looking at the sunset and found a way in to take the coconut husk that had been holding up the BBQ.  Despite the fact that it was smoking and glowing red, he was trying to tear it apart with his little paws, burning them and his snout in quite a carefree manner.

There was an old tree trunk on the beach proudly displaying a very amateur slogan, “Pura Vida”. I asked about this and was told that it meant “Pure Life”. It is more than a phrase, more a mantra by which they live their lives and I am very thankful that they do.

No fuss, no stress, no worries (until you’re trying to catch a plane home!).