Thursday, 23 October 2014

All Creatures Great and Small

Running my first half marathon in 2010
What always strikes me when I attend a race of any distance, is how it takes all shapes and sizes, creatures great and small. And I am no exception.

There are people who are young and old, of every race and religion, men in turbans, women in headscarves, topless and toned, slim and leggy, rotund and rouge red, bouncing, compact and flailing. But like all things in life, if You put your mind to goal then it doesn't matter what your genetic code you're going to do your best to complete that challenge.

I had lunch yesterday with a dear friend and we discussed how we describe our body shapes on dating websites. She is a completely different shape to me exceeding 5'11 and with a booty I think JLo would covet. I am 5'6 with all the right curves in all of their respective places (I wish I had the confidence to say all the right places!). We both described ourselves as curvy....yet she thinks I'm skinny, sporty skinny but skinny. Whilst as a girl I swooned a thanks, I am comfortable enough to know I aint a Skinny Bitch (the title of a great book not a slur).

Perfectly formed for a marthon....
with one of my running role models
But it bought me back to an uber ride with a very educated man and explaining why I know my way through The City of London I said "I run". He cocked his head at me and said "but your not a size zero". And he is absolutely right. I am a size 14. I have cellulite and boobs, that despite my best efforts I can't run off! I have Kiwi girl thighs and an hourglass waistline and (as yet tested) childbearing hips. I've had to learn how to manage with the body I have. I had thought that training for a marathon would change my body shape more than it has. I have slimmed down my waist (more bra shopping required, oh joy!) and my legs are very firm - this has a more to do with my loathing the foam roller than I should, so I assure you this is not a good thing. My upper arms are slimming and I have a sense of being more firm generally but otherwise my hips are wide and I can't fit my skinny skinny jeans but I can run 27km. And in a months time I will make it around 42.2km.

See thats the thing readers, runners or otherwise, it doesn't matter what size you are, its about how you approach life, each step at a time. Are you pushing yourself physically? Are you stretching your mind? Are you being kind? These are things that only we can answer for ourselves truly. Noone else knows our potential more than ourselves.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Running is my life (no really thats what I do at the moment!)

I've let my blog go a bit dormant over the past year. This last few months have not really been terribly travel blog worthy but more a tale of running. I entered in the Valencia Marathon back in January and 10 months later here I am a month out from the big day.

I'm not going to lie, the training has been hard. Some days are definitely worse than others and some are quite simply the best days of my life. Curiously I have just read an article on Manic Depression and I think this is how my running feels while I am on the roads/towpaths/tracks/foot tunnels to bring in the miles of training that one needs to do to prepare for a day where you run 42.2km. But there is one thing for sure, every time I climb my 3 floors to home and I gulp back water I feel better. A sense of achievement sweeps over me and I recall the grafitti ("Have a nice day" was yesterdays discovery), the smiles and raised eyebrows of acknowledgement of fellow runners, fierce geese chases, disgruntled canal cyclists and clapping supporters.

My wee patch of poppy planting
at the Tower of London
Since July and an unceremonious fall down stairs at work where I sliced open my chin and immobilised my right arm for a month and my senses for longer, I have been unemployed. I decided to leave my job because I lost any sense of purpose, a deep loathing for the management style and a hope I could earn some man money for a change. And like anyone who has had a period of unemployment this can cause you to second guess every minute detail of your life. In a recent chat to my Mum I blurted "what do I care, I can't relate to anyone at the moment, I don't have a job, I don't have a partner, I'm not planning a wedding, building a house, raising a child/ren, and as for a mortgage I don't give a shit, I'm training for a marathon and noone wants to relate to being tired, let alone what motivates me to do it to myself!'. Poor Mum didn't know where to go with this, so turned my attention to charitable work she is doing instead. Bless her. I signed up to lay poppies at the Tower of London the next day to commemorate the start of the First World War.

When I signed up for the marathon I had a few friends suggest I do the run for charity. As is commonly done here in the UK people have to do something physical to gain funds. Suggesting its really useful to focus the mind when the going gets tough. This would involve asking all my friends with the above responsibilities to give to a cause of my choosing. No, I was running this marathon for me. It is My challenge. I just didn't realise how much of a challenge it would prove to be.

In the count down to the day I plan to keep a wee note on here of my progress and the tools I use to get me across the finish line.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Citizen of the World

Its hit me like a bolt from a the blue. Something I have never really considered but just now as I take a quiet Monday evening moment, I have realised I am a citizen of the world.

I qualify for this less than legally binding membership, simply by noting I have no ONE place in the world where my friends all live. No metropolis large or small that I can call on more than one of my favourite friends (who actually know each other!). There is the one I met at work who resides in London, the one I met in a hotel lobby who resides in Barcelona, the one I met at Kindergarten who resides in my home town, the one I met over break-up tears who resides in my University city and the one who I met at a sailing regatta who resides in the big smoke. These are just an example of the many best mates I have scattered around the world....but will those centralised in the City of Sails really want to spend time with me when I get there? Will they make the time and effort of those I have in London? Will I still share things in common or has our lives diverged beyond return? I have no partner nor a child to share interests with. I have no money for a mortgage or its requisite lawn mowing weekend chores.  I don't have a power career, just a collection of scattered friends in countries I love to visit.

This makes it all seem so impossible as I make up these pros and cons lists, committing to change. Begging questions like, where shall I live? how I will adapt? See with all these friends in all these places I am spoilt and like a cherubs bow will break hearts in my wake....this is by no means a romantic notion as noone likes a arrow through a vital organ but the sadness that comes with leaving friends makes my decision seem unbearable.

And then as I did do just that by ripping the band off, mentioning my thoughts of relocation hand shakes sealed deals, wine glasses were chinked and plans were hatched. If I am going to be a citizen of the world, then I am darn well going to live in it, for it and love every moment of it and meeting in the middle is definitely a mighty fun plan....

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Cigars and Sunshine - Viva la Revolution

To celebrate my return to health and with 2 months left to knock off some New Years Resolutions I got on Skyscanner and booked 2 weeks in Cuba. Now I am not your classic beach holiday kinda girl. I own a bikini but loath to don it at the best of times - let alone now I have some funky scars. Alas I know no-one in Cuba, so with hopes of experiencing life free of the trappings of Capitalism I rolled up my sleeves and set off on one of the strangest, friendliest, easiest, safest, stunning, peaceful, inspirational, theory destroying journeys.

I arrived in Havana late at night on Sunday and after delays in London and Madrid and the long queues at both Havana's customs AND bag collection, I fortuitously blagged a ride to the Hotel Nacional with a tour group of Brits. For anyone planning on going make sure you have a hotel booked and transfers sorted for your first night. I ended up in Hotel Victoria around the corner from The Nacional (Havanas crowning glory of a hotel which deserves all the accolades - except if you want dinner with your last bits of currency between 4-7pm as they don't serve food!). I was delighted with the quaintness of the hotel room with a rocking chair. I leapt at it like a small child. Only to discover now I am in a communist country, every room I was to stay in over the next two weeks offered an equally rocking chair. Oh the naive enthusiasm of it all.

In my jetlag I turned on the tele, expecting nothing less than all the Spanish language channels, only to discover a live link to Homeland (which I had to avoid for fear of getting out of order) and a fascinating documentary on Cannibas as a Medicinal resource for children with epilepsy. All in fact all in American. My ideals felt crushed. So I tossed my head out the window to admire the passing cars and general nightly bustle of a chaotic city. And ended up with a plume of exhausts up my nostrils from a passing 1950's Chevrolet.

Waking up early and enjoying breakfast in the hotel (a trap for tour holiday operators, so reliable) and learning about what a lychee looks like in the flesh. As per usual, I set out with a vague plan of events formed while I was on the plane. Seat of the pants travelling it may seem to you, but it allows me to never be disappointed. After breakfast, I walked the 8km into town along the infamous Mélacon, admiring the crumbling fascade of the majestic buildings and baffling the taxi drivers - but helping me recover from the jetlag. I stumbled on my first rations store with hoards of tourists taking photos like paparazzi outside. Dodging the crowds I wondered the streets before realising the pot holed street I was on, was infact the street I was to visit an ailing Doctor to provide him medicines given to me by my friend Federica back in London. Asking the locals if this was Doctor Jose's house I was met by the cheerful smiles of the Octogenarian (you will note my trip was dominated by 80+year olds!) and welcoming hugs for his new friend Joanne. He ceremoniously collecting the letters Fede has sent him over the past year and kissed her pictures "Mi amor". We conversed for a few minutes before I parted ways promising to return with his heart burn medicines.

Back at the hotel, erring on lunch time, I made the rash decision to ditch the city and head for the hills. My aim was a the Eco-resort town of Las Terrazas, securing a booking by phone for a room for the night, I made my way to the bus station. Alas it was not to be, there was no bus until tomorrow, so I rallied up some Irish folk and made my way with them by Taxi to the Limestone hills of Vinales.

A stunning drive, along barely populated motorways and back roads we arrived in the pretty tourist town of Vinales, nestled in the limestone hills amongst waterfalls and tobacco plantations. I stayed  with Roberto El Mucho a delightful man and his wife who revelled in feeding me monstrous portions and sharing tales of their grandchildren in Italy. This was the first of many Casa Particulares I stayed in - these are the spare rooms of family homes, where you have your own bathroom. It is very comfortable and allows you to see what family life is like for the pretty sum of 25USD a night (or Euros at Roberto's house if you run out as the town is too small for an ATM - ideal Xmas gifts for the Italian grandkids!). I took a horse out for a morning trek to a tobacco plantation in Vinales, which included Mojitos with the sweetest honey at 11am and hand rolled cigars made to fit for me. Our host was a delight and showed us the intricacies and in stunted English the process of making Cigars. Of which he smoked about 10 per day. Given they take about an hour each to smoke that is some commitment to his day! It was very wild west in Vinales and this adds to the charms along with the vibrancy of the house proud locals. At night after the tour buses from Havana had long since gone, I found myself drinking mojitos and sharing a freshly rolled cigar in a bar with a fellow backpacker, listening to my next Octogenarian with his band of son, grandson, grand daughter and grand nephew. It was magic. He lead with such pose, and whilst holding us in awe of his voice danced like a turkish dervish in the frequent instrumental sections. I knew then I loved Cuba. Not only did it have heart, it had rhythm.

After a rain storm took out power in Vinales I headed by bus for 7 hours to the city of Cienfuegos on the South central coast. Meeting an Australian couple on my journey, helped sort out my accommodation. Casa Particulares in the city have 2 rooms not just one and if they don't have a spare room, then their neighbour will! Same price, same neighbourhood - and if they aren't in a guide or on tripadvisor, probably a more authentic experience.This was definitely my experience at least. And by authentic, this means more ornaments than you could imagine an adult would want to dust in their right mind, and a few glamour shots to boot!.

Cienfuegos is a revolutionist city with some of the best Art Deco architecture, which in my years could only be compared to Napier, New Zealand. UNESCO has recently claimed the inner ten blocks of town as a world heritage site so the paint is finally being splashed about. However the most beautiful building I found was a crumbling monastry which fell outside the UNESCO limits. Cienfuegos gave me the opportunity to see what a normal city was like in Cuba, few tourists stop here and its straightforwardness was charming. I met an inspirational artist by the name of Vladimir and purchased some of his work. We discussed his choice to become an artist after studying and working for the government as an Architect (Everyone works for the government in a communist society) He is able to make more from the one piece of art he sold me than he can earn in a week as an Architect (20CUC or $20US). He is seeking further education in psychology as he feels it will improve his artistic expression. But has to have permission from the Minister of Architecture to veer off the Architecture path.

I enjoyed the curiosity of the city, but wouldn't recommend it as a must see, unless you need some time to recalobrate and want to try some excellent food experience. One of which is the El Travania where we had excellent service and ate in a rail carriage and the waiters dressed like station guards and we were able to join the band. Note I said experience....the food was reliable but nothing to write home about. On the other hand the delicious Paladar Ache - one of the best Paladars I graced in Cuba, offered brilliant food for a very hungangry crowd with grace and good service....and excellent English and even some Italian. Visiting this Paladar was probably the closest I got to Cuban food and in particular the dessert which was a strong cheddar cheese served with sweetened coconut. It could literally burn holes in fillings but was a delicious contrast to seemingly familiar French flans.

Along with my new Australians comrades we hired a 1952 Plymouth,  to the crowning glory of Cuba in 2013 in my opinion; Trinidad. Unlike the car - which had lost all its shocks and springs including in the seats we were grateful for the arrival! As the first truly hot day of my trip, I made my way down to the beach directly. Playa Alcon is about 15 mins by car from town and offers communist style accommodation for the package tourists from Germany and Russia in just 2 resorts, offering the rest of the beach to the town dwelling tourists. And what a treasure this beach was. For a few dollars we rented a beach chair for the afternoon and took dips between chapters and were offered sandwiches and refreshment from the Hotel staff (earning pocket money from this side business). The Cubans cannot be faulted for their entrepreneurial spirit that's for sure.

Trinidad is a stunning wee town of 50,000 inhabitants, which was founded by the sugar barons of Cuba in the late 19th and early 20th century. Its beauty is in its combination of beach, mountainous backdrop or the wealth of its yesteryear buildings. Culiminating in a city rich in artistic inspiration. Along with the sugar came a cocophany of immigrants from East Africa (by way of the Carribean), Spanish and Germans and the Americas. All chasing the sweet gold of Cubas rich fields, while trade around the Americas was thriving. One of the great remnants of this age is the Museo Historico Municipal in the main square. Offering views across the vast beauty of Trinidad and the surrounds and some insight into the cities history. Walking the streets  of grand homes with front rooms dedicated to galleries of the works of the family, bought you closer to understanding the crafts, painters, cartoonists and photographers. Each with their own skill and take on the Politically divisive nature of a communist society where censorship and sensitivity must be observed whilst continuing to fashion a unique style. One such artist I met was the fascinating Rameses, a cartoonist who I hunted down after discovering my Australian friends had bought the very piece I wanted! Rameses kindly joined me for a drink and gave an incredible insight into the culture of Cuba from his journalistic perspective. I would encourage anyone visiting Trinidad to track him down. Another delight of the city for any vintage lovers are the curiosity restaurants, where you eat in grand homes with the very silver and china that you can only see in museums at home (or at your favourite aunts if your lucky!). I loved drinking out of the beautiful glasses and felt like I was in a time warp eating lobster in this environment. So beautiful.

I made myself at home in Trinidad and enjoyed sunset walks along the colourful Calle Juan Manuel overlooking the Topes de Collantes, which I later spent a day walking and swimming in Cascada El Rocío. A lovely environment to cleanse the soul and for $30 I enjoyed a tour with one other backpacker allowing us to ask all the questions you might want to know about Trinidad, life as an accountant in Cuba, what home cooked food actually is and be reassured they all eat huge portions. And that the local drink Canchanchara drink should be your only drink of choice! So delicious with its liquid honey and that infamous Barcadi. The mountains may bring crowds because Che hid there in 1958 from the CIA, but they are beautiful and the waterfalls are worth the walk. Please note any trekkers will hate how slow the pace is but its great for a natter and unless your fluent in Spanish this is a delightful exchange.

My evenings all ended at the Plaza Mayor with the Casa De la Musica, an open air venue where bands line up to entertain both locals and tourists from the early evening. Salsa is danced by all and the locals are both gracious enough to invite tourists up to share in the dancing and excellent at showing off their skills. The locals are more sensible by brining bottles of rum in to drink themselves while a bar serves all the eager tourists.

With some negotiation I was expecting to be collected at 9am for Santa Clara, but solo travellers be warned, taxi drivers want to fill the car and can make a packet out of a 3 hour journey, so you may often find them on the street, trying to find someone else to join you. Alas I had found friends and saved a few pennies in the end. On arrival to Santa Clara I discovered another mishap. The Casa Particular that was booked for me was full (my previous hosts fault) but we were kindly housed down the road at La Casona de Jovier. Now travelling with an Italian couple who were on the Che trail I joined them at the Conjunto Escuitorico Commandante Ernesto Che Guevara - a massive park and intimate museum in his honour, which houses a detailed account of his life. But notably no reference to Che's birth date or the date of his death in Bolivia. A couple of things struck me in the museum, his Argentinian rugby heritage, and the last self portrait of him was of a portly, bril creamed, man in slacks and white shirt. I couldn't quite believe Che Guevara would die looking so ordinary. But I suspect that added to the camoflauge of hiding from the CIA.

Next door was the Museoleam for the Bolivian Revolutionists and an Eternal Flame lit by Commandante Fidel. All the bodies recovered from the revolutionist fight in Bolivia at the time of Che's death are held there, bar Che's. There was a real feeling of communist pride here. As a global memorial for the cause. It was heavy stuff.

We strolled down the road to find an infamous wall with revolutionist graffiti, which was both poinent and very pointed at the neighbouring USA. Our last stop was the train stop where Che and his men attacked a military train in 1958 and is revered as the fall of the Capitalist lead Cuban Government of Batista.Cementing Che Guevara as an icon of Revolutionists the world over.

Our evening in Santa Clara had low expectations and having taken dinner in the Casa we were invited by our host to stay for his daughters 19th birthday. During the course of our meal we watched a stream of young and old friends arrive in the interior courtyard. Dutifully as the guitar came out the 19 year old daughter asked for a bottle of rum and left with her friends for a club!. Seems her Dad was hosting all his friends to congratulate his wife on surviving 19 years!!! What ensued was one of those best nights of my life which you can't script. Two guitarists and a local export singer jammed the night away. It was simply amazing.

After much internal debate I took to the road with the Italians again to the least anticipated place of my journey Veradero. Veradero is a seemingly endless strip of coast with stunning white sand and an expanse of package tour offerings. Convinced to come for one last day on the beach, I was not disappointed by its sheer beauty. And the beauty was a tonic - when we didn't sit next to a military hotel - yes they have those with casinos - and coins released every 10 minutes breaking the serenity, along with a curious chap who used the fixed binoculars to parouse the beach and beyond...for threats?!

Veradero is a typical package holiday destination...and for its part not my cup of tea. We stepped into its culture for the night to try it out. Eating at a local paladar and being given cigars for the service. Then taking a classic open top pink  Cadillac to The Beatles bar (the Beatles were banned from being played in Cuba in the 60's and 70's) where Russians and French Canadians rocked to heavy Rock and made fools of themselves and got very very drunk.

What became very obvious is the Cuban consumption of rum didn't turn them into letchy lurching embarrasments to their mother. In fact as a single female I felt much safer in the company of Cubans than in the tourist areas. So holidaymakers unless you want to drink substandard drinks and have hangovers for a week - Veredero would not be on my recommendation list....even for a base! (I only feel smug for saying this because I did try it out).

Another mis-organised taxi ride had me trudge to the Bus stop and catch a cab outside with some nieve Canadians to Havana for 20CUCpp

Returning to Havana I was rested and ready. I had heard tales of scams and nuisances. I had met enough interesting folks to not need to pay for drinks and meals from "well meaning locals", and when two girls asked me the time as I was walking to the Revolutionists Musuem tried helpfully to tell me because it was the National Day of Salsa all Museums were shut. Thanks for your help ladies, but I was in luck, I enjoyed perusing your national history for a good few hours!

I wanted to see a Baseball game at Estasio Latinoamericano and after a failed attempt in the evening (misinformation from several people sadly) I secured a ticket for 3CUC at the gate, at 10am. Escourted to the tourist section I was joined by my Australian friends over some popcorn. The game was confusing but it allowed us to have a first hand experience of the national sport, see the players lodging across the street (remember they are all paid by the government on the standard $20pw wage- regardless of their skillset - unsurprisingly most of them head to USA to play for multi- millions and are never to return home). It was a treat to observe the men doing the speed tests of each pitch. The mechanics were interesting. Not least the Cuban flag wearing spectator who undertook the role of motivational cheerleader. I understand at the end of the innings Industriales beat Isla

Having located myself in Habana Central with Dr Jose's daughter I was within easy walking distance of all the main sites. By staying at the disintegrating end of town I was able to see life on the street a little out of the sanitised Tourist streets.

On the evening after failing to find baseball I asked the Taxi driver to take me to a famous place in town...were I can drink. He dutifully dropped me outside Floridita, reknowned as the home of the Daiquiri and a Hemingway hangout. I found a spot at the bar and proceeded to drink happily for a few hours, enjoying the band playing classics like Chan Chan, Guantanamero and Commondante Che Guevara which became the theme tune to my trip. A young German at the bar invited me to join him at La Bodequita del Medio close by. Famed as the home of Mojito I felt like my night was a cocktail success, when we arrived to the 8x8 foot bar bustling with a band crammed in the corner, salsa dancing and just enough space for us both at the bar to order some the imfamous drop.

Another best night of my life clocked...twice in a week, Cuba was really holding its own for me as one of the best experiences I have had travelling solo! Especially in the after hours category. I cannot emphasis enough how safe I felt in Havana. This may have been more luck than good management but honestly with a skinful I was really only ever walking directly places in the well lit central city and had no hassle.

Some other notable treats around Havana included in no particular order; Museo del Chocolat - tasty and reminiscent of Mexico. Cafe Paris - great Music - dive bar style and very friendly. La Factoria in Plaza Vieja - pina colada's served in Pineapples for a bit of cheesieness and ideal people watching. Dona Eutima - best  food in Cuba hands down. I ate here by recommendation of friends 3 times. Booking in advance, such was the popularity. The neighbouring Printing Press Gallery was a hive of hungry patrons waiting for their table...Stephanie I have a 1952 Chevrolet door for your collection to (Surprise!)

Havana sites I think is worth a mention;
Museo de la Reveolucion - last ticket sold at 4pm - former presidents palace - styled by Tiffanys of New York - one room even resembles Versailles. Its a really great example of propoganda and you can imagine school groups being swayed by the Castro ideals here. Those on the Che tour can see the boat (Granma) that the revolutionists arrived in from Mexico, and another eternal flame for the fallen revolutionists, all under constant guard (I'm not really sure why).
Museo Nacional de Bella Artes - excellent modern art...infact exceptional given the isolation of Cuba. The building is behind the Museo Revolucion
Capiltalio Nacional - under construction but pretty - old cars can be hired outside or the owners are just as delighted to have their pictures taken.
Calle Obispo - great shopping, bars, money exchange
Plaza Vieja - people watching and buildings - mix of periods from Art Noveau  to Baroque. There is a really popular cofee shop there too if you are on the hunt.
Plaza Cathedral - an example of baroque period and a great spot to wait for a seat at Dona Eutima Paladar!

My time in Havana was capped off by taking sunset at the Hotel Nacional. I had hoped to have a meal here as I mentioned, but with no food on the menu, I took to consuming my last convertables on Mojito and enjoying the company of an Argentinian Writer/Director. The Cuban Film festival was due to start the next day but with flags at half mast around the city and a national decree that there should be no activity to commemorate the passing of  Nelson Mandela, he was anxious his work would not be seen. I had learnt of Mr Mandela's passing at the baseball, so detached from technology (I haven't mentioned there is no or VERY limited internet outside of Havana and no international mobile signal). I was devastated by the news having seen Mr Mandela in London for his 90th birthday in Hyde Park.

Alas I departed Cuba (and its long queues at the airport) tipsy and fulfilled. I have seen Cuba as it stood proud in 2013. Lead by Octogenarian Rual Castro. Where rumours that Fidel was still alive were rife and recognition that if one of the Castro children were to take power that this would form a Monarchy of power.  Where communism is the way of life with rations and censorship, but a clear undercurrent of black market seemingly fuelled solely by the tourist trade helps keep progress in the national consciousness. So valued is our money and trade tourists are respected (that's not to say you don't get whistled at and ripped off but they do it consistently). I observed the poverty of a life on rations but the resourcefulness that comes hand in hand with this, that sadly the capitalist world has lost in the comparative 50 years of change. I also took note of the curiosity of the tourists at this time, experiencing life in a frozen in time environment, and all of the remarkably beautiful made items of yesteryear. I advised those locals I met not to be seduced by the foreign offers for payment of furniture and homewares in years to come, as I see these everyday items as a way to differentiate themselves as a place of historical importance. And I learnt first hand that to buy a pizza for 10CUC is not the same as 10National (equivalent of $10 v 20c)....cheeky bugger.

I am pleased to have experienced it in a time when restaurants were starting to boom and before mass tourism takes over. It is beautiful, and well worthy your airmiles to visit.

Before I sign off I have two confessions, I have turned on Buena Vista Social Club to write this post, because it is the backbone of the covers played by the many bands, and simply gets a girl moving. And secondly because of Cubas communist backbone, I somehow thought it would be more militaristic like Myanmar, Vietnam or even Cambodia; where  there is almost a national uniform. Cubans on the other hand, proudly wear the shortest school uniforms I have ever seen and the washing lines are always full of the brightest colours.

Top Tips

  • View The Lonely Planet with caution. Many people I spoke to were able to put lines through places that are no longer open and towns inaccessible 
  • Carry Cash - ATM's are in short supply. I would advise even bringing plenty of GBP/EUR to exchange in main cities. USD is not welcomed - but can be used in Havana in the street markets
  • Get your hands on the local currency - you'll save a fortune!
  • Pay the artists. We are their lifeblood. And they really do leave you with the soundtrack to a holiday more than any playlist will and their art can be enjoyed for years to come.
  • Go to Trinidad. It has everything - City, Architecture, food, beach, mountains, new, old and definitely quant. 
  • If you have ever wanted to travel by bicycle this would be a fantastic place to do it. I met a couple doing the entire country (excessive!) but the roads are near empty and if there are problems the only people who can get through are cyclists!
  • Smoke the cigars. They are both delicious and organic. I was given them in restaurants, smoked the authentic ones you buy in humidified rooms in London and the hand made ones rolled especially for me. I hate cigarettes but these are something else. 
  • Drink like you have never drunk before. The mojitos or daiquiri wont help with any diet, but screw it these are the best cocktails you will ever drink in ever back alley and government Restaurant going. 
  • Take Cabs, bargain and buddy up
  • If you want to see Guantanemo which I hear is beautiful make sure you organise internal flights before you leave home or Havana - its a full 28 hours from the South to Havana I was told. 
  • Read up on Revolutionists before you leave home. It'll help understand the fabric of this place. 
  • Every taxi you will take in Havana will cost 5CUC - feel free to bargain an there is a fixed price to and from the airport.
  • Its a pretty easy place to bdget as accomodation costs 25CUC a night and meals around 15-20CUC depending on your mojito and cigar consumption. 
  • you could eat Lobster every night for around 8CUC if you so desire. 
  • Bring all your left over cosmetics and medicines for your hosts at the Casa Particulars.People will stop you on the street and ask for soap so feel free to take the daily ration from your hotel room. What seems silly to you, really really helps them out. And the appreciation is very rewarding. If you track down a Dr, Nurse or Dentist they could give the meds you have to appropriate patients. They don't even have basic medicines here despite having the greatest number of Doctors per capita and trading them as a resource with other countries!
  • Brush up on your'll help no end. I was very naughty and enjoyed the benefit of others language skills. 

Sunday, 26 January 2014

We saved both your ovaries!

For completeness of the story I thought I would add a wee update to the Endometriosis story of September 2013.

I went in for surgery on October 3rd. I should have seen it as an ominous event as when I was on the phone booking the appointment whilst sitting on the Cornish coast the man next to me had a seagull steal his Cornish Pasty! It was a swift and frighteningly successful attack, that left the nice Welshman beside me without lunch.

I didn't eat for 12 hours and reported for duty at 1pm. Not to be seen by a Consultant til after 2pm. We had people coming into the day surgery looking for relatives with packed lunches which I thought was a brave move. Just so you know in future the people in day surgery have not been allowed water or food since the day before....this generally means they are cranky so eating in plain site is probably best avoided if you want to keep the NHS focused on keeping people healthy and the surgery lists on schedule.

I was confused by the Consultant who was the first person I saw. He asked me if I would like a coil. Something no one has ever asked me before. And left me baffled. I didn't even know what one after a bit of googling and bad #endosister reports I opted out. I had a friendly Irish anaesthetist  who put me at ease and friendly nurses who couldn't do enough for me. As I was taken into surgery I was given the goods at 3,2,1 15:00 (I thought as I watched the clock in front of me, at least I know what they will call my time of death from if it gets truly freaky down there!).

so eager to get The Mother Trucker
out of my insides
Surgery should have been simple. Keyhole in and out in as little as half an hour. Alas I was out for 90 minutes and they had to remove a great deal of clearly identifiable chocolate brown endometriotic tissue from my uterus. This included removing tissue from my right ovary that was lodged both inside it and outside meaning the surgeon had to reconstruct my ovary (which she later had great joy in sharing with me as if it was a new scientific discovery).

I woke in recovery sometime later to the site of the Consultant and his two grads looking like scrub adorned angels on his wings and he said
"it went well, we were able to save both your ovaries".
 "WHAT????!" I responded
look of shock and confusion across three very misty faces (I didn't have my glasses on) "Oh dear she didn't know"
to which I fell back into a slumber, to wake as I was being wheeled to the womans ward.

When I woke around 8pm, I got up, burped an almighty burp - all that gas that had inflated my belly had to come out - and was able to walk to the toilet. I was quiet surprised at how quick I was back on my feet. Afterall none of the nurses could tell me if my surgery had gone well and if that just because I had my two ovaries this was a good thing. Unfortunately I did not have any means of contacting my family to say where I was and my poor flatmate who was meant to pick me up was still awaiting a call from the hospital as all my belongings were locked up in the day surgery ward. At around 1am I had the sense to call my sister in NZ and leave a message on her answer phone. I was lucky to have my glasses with me I suppose. But my logic was a little impaired and heaven knows what I said on the phone!

The next morning included a conveyor belt of pharmacists, nurses and doctors all calling in to see me. Assure me the surgery went well and apologise for the third scar on my hip bone because two incisions weren't enough to support the work required on my very scarred innards. But they were confident they had removed all the tissue.

Frankly the relief was palpable. It wasn't all in my head. I really did have something inside me that needed to get out. I had a disease and for now it was out of my system. I didn't want to focus on how long that might be. But for now I could get on with the recovery.

After a rather stressful discharge by a very argumentative nurse (complaint laid), I was sent home with little more than paracetamol and ibuprofen. My flatmate kindly escourted me home and the previsions I had made the previous week kept me fed for the next 2 weeks.

I felt amazing in the couple of days after. Tired but mentally like a weight had been wrenched from my shoulders with Herculean aplomb. I felt light and the scars were remarkable. Some ugly bruising but mostly remarkable. I wasn't sliced in half. And The Seagull aka The Surgeon had been so wonderful in telling me that I could (if I wanted to) have children. Many of you reading this will have never contemplated this as something that I would be worried about. So single and free. But having that right taken from me, would just send me straight back to the Doctor to insist on a removal of all my lady parts. If I have suffered so much with these things I want them to work for good not all this evil.

Of course with everything there are backward steps and I guess my first was when I went back to The Seagull  to check the bruising at her walk in clinic. When I asked if she could help with my baby making plans (given it was her suggestion I hurry up about it) and line up all her Doctor friends for me, she replied
"I'm sorry, they are all females. But if that's what your into..."
"eer Dear Doctor of Medicine aren't you missing the point of how a baby is made"
"Oh of course....perhaps after shift finishes at the Blind Beggar (pub) you might have more luck".

The month following surgery was a real roller coaster. Some days bed ridden, some days waiting to be bed ridden, so used to the routine of it all. Ultimately setting my mind adrift with where in the world I should be. Like many people that have been house bound it makes you realise the support networks you have and the people you can rely on. And without the constant messages from my family in New Zealand I am not sure I would have been so positive about the entire thing.

As I return to real life I have begun to recognise that one never knows what's going in anyone elses life healthwise so being kind is always the best approach. And I learnt how much your stomach gets poked, prodded and pushed in an overcrowded city.

I celebrated my new found health by booking flights to Cuba. Seems only fair that I can get back to being myself again now I have got rid of the Mother Trucking beast within.

Is the affair over?

We started out in August 2005, me young, free and happy, you so experienced, vibrant and offering so much. We had a great start when I was on the bones of my bum, living in huge flat shares and eating tomato soup for months on end. We had a break in 2007 when I wanted to have my Spanish adventure, and you waited for me. We saw the highs of 2008 with flaming bottles of champagne and sports cars, abundance was embraced. We had such fun. I suppose we'll refer to that as our Heyday. Then on my birthday in 2009 things changed. You seemed to contract a little. Things got a little scary there, as we questioned our role in the world, would we ever recover from this recession, would we keep our jobs; you as the best of the best, me in the world of Finance. And will we be able to come through it together?

I really tried, I got into running for you. Its something I'll always appreciate you for. We both really showed each other the town during that time. Fresh starts didn't come better than our time at Victoria Park on a sunny morning. Frankly we just bunkered down and got on with it…its hardly surprising that those war slogans came back into fashion ….that felt like us until 2011 if we are both honest. 

While I was away all my friends kept sending photos of you, showing me how happy you were. You really were bouncing back and I know your efforts were so focused on the Olympics, which I am so proud of you for.
When I came back 2 days before the Olympics, I could feel your excitement. It was electric to be with you again. Its like you had planned the entire spectacle all for me, just to show me what you can offer me. It was the perfect proposal. And can I say all that hard work paid off, you looked sooooo good! Especially when I saw you in East London. Seriously wow!
Then I decided to be frivolous and selfish and go travelling. I knew you would wait for me, its part of your charm. I guess I take you for granted like that. Always knowing your reliable. So in July 2011 I left for a year. I didn't even support you in the Rugby World Cup. I guess that should mean something. I did come back to you for a weekend but mostly it was full of tears. I didn't want to leave you, not really. But if I didn't go I really didn't know if I could live with you much longer. I really did leave for the benefit of our relationship.

Then there was the dark days of unemployment and you really did your best in making me comfortable, offering me distractions from my own frustrations. I can't fault you, you did your best.

Its been over 8 years now and we have been through so much. Working nine to five, we've seen so many friends come and go, jobs change, health highs and lows, personal achievements and my regular travels.
Truth be told you have held your end of the bargain. You never cease to amaze me with your proud, rich cultural heritage, your enthusiasm for innovation, love of the arts and your black coats. You know how to pull a crowd as well and whilst I find it endearing, and I know its essential to your survival, it can be overwhelming.

On my walk to work this morning, I got to thinking, we have got comfortable with each other. I feel like I know you so well I don't need to ask for direction. We need to shake it up somehow. Peel back another layer because my darling London, the green green grass of home is looking very inviting. And this time I mean it.

Your Dearest Kiwi.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

oh, what's that?

Catching up with friends, and sharing my health situation with them (again didn't think I would be writing this on my mostly travel blog but you know, it is my story) and many have looked at me quizzically and say "oh, what's that then?".

So for the purposes of clarity I thought I would help educate my readers on Endometriosis. (Feel free to revert to Everest, The Royal Wedding or the perils of travelling solo here if you prefer my usual subject matter) something that I have discovered is widespread issue for women and goes massively undiagnosed.

According to Endometriosis UK it is "a gynaecological condition where tissue similar to the lining of the womb, grows in other areas of the body, most commonly in the pelvic region. This tissue responds to hormones in the same way as the lining of the womb but with no outlet it can cause inflammation, scarring and adhesion's, leading to severe pain and many other symptoms."

And when they say pain, despite medication, I spend hours in what can only be described as agony. My tummy literally feels like I am carrying a fighting child who likes to unceremoniously pinch and punch my innards and isolate nerves in my legs, cause me to have nausea and plays havoc with my digestive system. And yet like the other 1.5m women in the UK alone that suffer from this condition I have to go to work, like to see my friends and family and even fancy a run from time to time when I get a break or grow too bored of my pain and fancy a fight with my body.

Now when you think of period pain you can usually plan your diary around a 28 day cycle, but with this Mother Trucker of an infliction, it can strike at any given moment of the hour/day/week/year. With little regard to where I am (Walking to Everest Base Camp) or what I am doing (a half Marathon in St Albans) or taking my coins to the bank (and discovering they are a cashless bank!) and literally strike you down mid-course to remind you that your body is king no matter how much your mind begs to differ.

Over these years I have discovered a few things about my body - I tune really (really) easily to girls. Its totally true what they say. Whither its the dominant females at work or my flatmate my body with swing into the sound of their beating drum just to screw with me a little more. And that dairy is not good for me (more cramps), and stopping really is not a bad idea. My (Nurse) Mum was advocate of the no sick day policy, so I'm finally over being a good little girl. Taking time to breath can really focus the mind and body to work better (this has taken me years to figure out!).

The treatment  has been 16 years on Naproxen (a pain medication) and only once at aged 17 being put on the pill to help stabilise my hormones. I found the prospect of being on hormone treatment long term frightfully annoying. After constantly changing meds (the Pill) just to get one that gave me any relief (and no ghastly side effects) seemed fruitless I gave up.

I am now awaiting Keyhole surgery. This should take away the tissue in my pelvis but not the cyst that has also cropped up to join the pity party. This is to burst naturally to cause less scar tissue. And according to my Surgeon "wont hurt more than normal", hoorah! My recovery from the surgery is billed to take at least 2 weeks, where I have been told there will be little bending and stairs are out of the question - awesome on my 3rd floor, with no lift flat.

Many of my girlfriends, family and colleagues, I have now discovered have undergone this treatment. Like a silent witness in all our lives this is not something people feel comfortable talking about. Its not a condition that I have caused myself, but because its in my lady parts I get the sense people don't want to talk about it. But hells bells, I can't wait for treatment. I'm hoping its the miracle everyone says it can be. I can't begin to tell you how excited I am with the prospect of not having to cancel on friends, not waking up in the night with pain, not having to worry about being late for work cos I can't feel my legs to get off the bus or actually being able to train consistently for a running event. And as it comes closer to my surgery date do anything other than getting to and from work and my weekly supermarket shop.

Roll on October 3rd for my day surgery.