Heading North and my first encounter with the Pakistani Police Force; Naran

Next stop was Northern Pakistan, this is the place that captured my eye and convinced me to tackle this country alone. It is known as the jewel of the country and is home to 9 of the tallest mountains in the world and just like everywhere in Pakistan at the moment is untouched by tourism. The journey started off as v pleasant until lunch decided to make an appearance. I was violently sick for the journey and was given complementary puke bags (thank god). I survived the 6 grueling hours and was even gifted with some trendy beat ‘like’ earphones by the kind bus man.

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A welcomed relief from the fumes of Lahore, Naran.

Whilst in Islamabad I I freaked out about being hungry in the North and did a massive food shop.  Everyone had me warned I was entering the wilderness where there would be absolutely no signal, facilities or shops (a slight exaggeration). My once light back was back to its former South American weight of 20 plus kg. I was gifted a massive rubber mattress from Shavaz which weighed a ton so added nicely to my load.

Once I crawled off the bus I tried to gather myself and figure out where the hell I was going. The town of Naran is brilliant, it is high up in the mountains and was buzzing at 7 am. There were loads of random men on the streets ironing clothes, selling (fake) honey and walnuts. A chaotic que of jeep cars were waiting to take people to the nearby lakes.

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A ridiculous amount of jeeps means this stunning lake is overly touristy (domestic) and sadly filled with rubbish

I had a successful morning where I managed to buy a new pot for my cooking sessions. I stocked up on some fruit and veg and persuaded the restaurant owner to fill up an old coke bottle with some salt. Delira with my negotiation skills I set off on an adventure.

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Walking means you capture views like this and have them completely to yourself
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View from the local huts
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Scenes on the way up I would have missed if I had of taken the jeep

So the main attraction in Naran is to go visit Lake Salif Moluk. You have the option to take a jeep for €2 up the steep incline or you can obviously hike the 10 km. I choose the later. I knew I was being stupid but I was really in the mood to exercise and needed a challenge and this certainly ticked all of the boxes. After about 5 minutes I started questioning my sanity as the jeeps frantically honked begging me to hop on board. Whenever I told people I was contemplating walking they would just look at me in dis belief and say it was not possible. This obviously made me even more stubborn and I persevered. The hike turned out to be stunning and I took regular pit stops. One of which where I met some local children who lived in the mountain and they invited me in for chai. It was incredible seeing the hut the massive family lived in. They just said stared at me in constant fits of giggles. I must have looked rough.

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The happiest little children delighted to spot a rare tourist

The most amazing thing happened as I said my good byes. One of the 10-year olds grabbed by 20 kg backpack and wouldn’t give it back to me her younger sibling then grabbed my camera bag and started to walk. I was a little confused but soon figured out they were helping me and refused to hand them over. We walk over glaciers, fields and river crossings. The two girls were as strong as oxes and put me to shame. Such incredible people looking for nothing in return.

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We spotted lots of glaciers which are sadly melting (very fast)
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Breath taking  views en route to the Lake

After about an hour the girls returned home and I wasn’t alone for long until these three random Pakistani lads offered to carry my bags (I did not refuse as I was dying at this stage).

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Good job kids literally taking all of my bags. God sents
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Legend

The only drawback  to the lake was it was flooded with Pakistani families and tourists and was way over developed for my liking with loads of food stalls, horse riding and even the chance to get your photo with an eagle. As a whole I’ve noticed Pakistanis don’t like walking so mostly everyone had reached via jeep.

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This 16 year old girl and her family rescued me from the droves

I was hounded by tourists looking for selfies. I generally don’t mind these but this was a joke. At one point I counted and there was a que of 20 people looking for their photo.  I was luckily whisked away by a 15-year-old girl who took me to meet her family and we went boating around the lake. Having dragged up my new pot, mattress and camping gear I was adamant to camp. Security informed me it was illegal.  Instead I inquired with the one and only hotel on the lake  and they greedily said it would be 5000 rupees to pitch my tent so I obviously said no to the absurd offer. A kind stranger suggested I check with the local nomads living on the side of the mountain and assured me it couldn’t be safer.

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Blessed amongst men!!! and you will find plenty of them in Pakistan

I attempted to explain to the nomads my situation by showing them a photo of a tent. They must of thought I had come straight from mars but agreed to have me nonetheless. Anyway the afternoon passed nicely with the whole family putting up my tent for me. The children were amazed and spent their time just staring. That evening I was given a cookery lesson on how to make chipati. It was authentic, humbling and a memorable experience seeing how these people survive in these isolated mountains with smiles on their faces.

From this moment on things really went downhill. I heard a scream outside and was greeted by a group of police men on horses pointing their rifles at the house. I knew instantly they were there because of me. They started screaming at me saying I was in danger and that I must leave immediately. I got the fright of my life but then was just generally confused as I couldn’t have felt safer. Completely overwhelmed I started to cry. This made the police men even angrier and they instructed me to stop. Not to be dramatic or anything but I was sobbing hysterically and there was no possibility of me stopping. I was forced to take the tent down with a police squad and about 20 nomad people staring at me in utter confusion. It was actually so difficult trying to fit my monstrosity into the bag under this type of pressure. Can’t say I’ve done it before.

I thanked the family and said sorry for all the drama in my urdu attempts. I whole heartedly knew they were good people and that police were on a power trip or they were extremely bored. Why does one peaceful lake need 7 armed police? Any way before I knew it I was mounted onto a horse while bawling my eyes  out and carried through the mountains.  At this stage I didn’t even know were they really the police. It is all a total blur right now.

I was brought to a field where the police said I could pitch my tent. Despite the trauma of it all the view was incredible. After about an hour police numero uno was back saying I was still in danger and it would be better if I slept in a room with the 7 police men!!!! (that sounded ‘really safe’). I refused instantly we all came to a compromise and agreed I would pitch my tent outside their room.

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This is why I love camping you  have this completely to yourself until the madness arrives. It perfectly describes the calm before the storm. This shot was taken from the police head quarters.

In the middle of the night a bird crashed into my tent and I thought it was one of the men. Not one wink of sleep was had following bird incident. Any way the next morning I was determined to carry on and go explore. There was a lake a couple of km’s away up a mountain which sounded amazing. When I told the police I was going he said it wasn’t safe as a girl because it was 6 hours of walking and that I wouldn’t be able to cope with the low oxygen levels. He then went on to say how un safe all of Pakistan was for a girl and that really I should just go to Kashmir (at that time there were horrendous and dangers floods in Kashmir so once again a great suggestion from police man). From a security point of view Pakistan feels really safe and I’ve only seen peace in the country so far. The discrimination against women is a different level and has been the most challenging aspect of travelling here.

They just cannot comprehend why any woman would travel alone, walk alone or even eat alone. They are ridiculously protective over you but not in a good or helpful way. I know there are cultural differences that I must respect but the daily struggle of phones being put in your face requesting selfies (without even talking to you), the staring, the following. It gets tiresome. As a couple or group I don’t think you would not have half of these issues (or they would be less).

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Still able to appreciate this beauty

The first thing Berlin told me when we met was the psychological damage she experienced in Pakistan. The constant disbelief from people when you tell them you are alone, the constant messages of it’s so dangerous and you can’t do that. If you were to listen to half the people you would just sit in a hotel room for the 5 weeks. As appealing as that sounds, I am taking my chances on the real world.

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Scenery surrounding Lake Safil Maluk

I told the police I would just explore a ‘little’. 6 hours later I was knee deep in insane scenery of glaciers, snow-capped mountains and lush green fields. On the way I picked up a heart broken Pakistani lad (now living in Malaysia) who just broke up with his gf. I was delira with the company as living in Malaysia for a couple of years meant that Malaysia didn’t look at me like I had three heads. Unfortunately we didn’t make the lake as I was conscious of pissing off the police and figured I should defo be back before dark.

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Malaysia contemplating life
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Just amazing

Myself and Malaysia opted to take the jeep down the mountain as it was getting dark. After about 10 minutes of stuffy hell we got stuck in a traffic jam there was a landslide on the mountain causing pure and utter chaos. I think this is a regular occurrence. The drive from Naran up to the Lake is nothing short of treacherous it can only be done on jeep and is certainly rough to put it mildly. I couldn’t hack sitting in a jeep so left ALL of my stuff with Malaysia. Whilst walking down the mountain I prayed he was trust  worthy as he now was a proud owner of my laptop, camera and passport. Turns out he was one of the good ones and I met him in the town of Naran.

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Traffic jams
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Landslides are a daily occurrence here and cause mayhem
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Waiting out the landslide in style

My plans for the north were completely up in the air. I tried to research but unsuccessfully. It was next to impossible to find any sort of transport the infrastructure just isn’t there especially for a solo traveller. The roads are in obscene condition. That is why most people wisely take a tour. I allowed myself about 3 weeks to discover this region so figured I had plenty of time to tackle it independently. This is no Patagonia and a different gig altogether. I had no idea what awaited me.

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That feeling when you eventually got off the mountain intact

Travelling solo around the North of Pakistan is a marathon challenge. Malaysia’s mates had left with his car and drove the 8 hours home (in fairness he has been MIA for about 8 hours but still very un sound from the mates.) So Malaysia was trying to convince me to take the 8 hour bus back to Islamabad and he said from there I would find some more transport links (whilst doubling the journey time). I was exhausted, overwhelmed and confused (and slightly traumatised). I will be perfectly honest on this day I hated Pakistan and wanted to be home straight away (and genuinely considered it). I felt stupid and a little bit ashamed of myself to think I could just tackle this country solo with little to no research. This works in Vietnam but Pakistan is in a league of its own. After 3 cups of sugary chai and a pack of biscuits I decided to sleep in Naran and hoped the next day I would be able to tackle Pakistan once more.

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Myself and Malaysia both defeated by Lake Salif Maluk

The next challenge was to find accommodation for that night. Guess where I ended up? At another Pakistani Police station. In fact this time they were so kind and helpful and I voluntary went to them desperately asking for help. I asked them could I camp in the station. They agreed but after lots of heated discussions they offered me my own private room (I think the room was used as storage for handcuffs, really relaxing). I was so exhausted I didn’t care. I have no idea what they do all day but at least this provided them with some drama. Throughout the evening random police officers came into the room to have a goo at the foreigner. They even made me a big bowl of byriani. The best thing they did was assure they would get me to Hunza (10 hours north).

Getting drunk on Halong bay is fun, sleeping in a Pakistani police station is not fun. Authentic yes, but not fun. I swore to myself I will eventually laugh about all of this. That night in the police I did something I would usually never do. I admitted to myself I was way too ambitious and that actually I couldn’t physically or mentally cope with 2 months in this country. I changed my flight to come home 2 weeks early. It probably helped that I was a little delirious and sleep derived at the time. Money comes and goes and in this case it was the best money I ever spent. I had a new leash of energy and finally got excited about Pakistan and braced myself for the journey of a life time.

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Despite it all, I manage to appreciate the stunning views
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Not a sinner in sight

 

My Favourite Place in Iran; Tabriz

Next on the agenda was the glorious city of Shiraz. Another night bus was unfortunately on the cards, desperate to save on time. I am overwhelmed with Iran and what it has to offer. 1 month is simply not enough. My couchsuring in Shiraz lived near the ancient city of Persepolis so I was told to get off in a random town (I didn’t read the fine print when they said they lived 60 km outside of the city centre). Getting off early on a bus always causes extreme confusion and generally results in the entire bus getting involved. They  love the drama.

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The ancient city of Persepolis

Out of the blue I was thrown out on a motor way in the middle of the night so not great. There wasn’t a sinner in sight except one small Iranian man looking equally confused, but he had a car which was hopeful. I needed to travel a further 12 km to make it to the house and there wasn’t a sniff of a taxi. I managed to figure out that he was waiting on a bag of flour (?) and once it arrived he would happily bring me to my destination.  We exchanged some stale food with one another and he seemed more than content with the gesture. Eventually the human sized bags of flour arrived and we were en route. To my dismay after only 5 minutes I found myself once again dumped on the side of the street.  The pits….

Not  a taxi in sight so I starting hitch hiking. I am really conscious that hitchhiking isn’t exactly the done thing over here. It is also further complicated when you put out your finger. The standard hitchhiking finger in Iran actually means ‘fuck off’ so not ideal (I only found this out afterwards, hindsight is a wonderful thing). Every day I am learning new rules in this country.  Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long  until a lovely chap bundled me into his car and away we went.  I paid him with fresh dates. Google maps dropped me off at a random house and after a few wrong knock on the doors and several invitations for chai I eventually found Najme and her family home. I collapsed onto the floor and the pair of us slept for 3 blissful hours.

I was treated to a divine breakfast spread of  flat breads, cream, sesame seed puree (AMAZING),  honey and cheese. Najme’s mother and father hadn’t a word of English but I instantly liked them, sometimes you can just tell. They couldn’t have done enough for me.  Once again, I know I must sound like a broken record but the we could all learn a thing or two about Iranian hospitality. Difficult to describe the kindness of these people who are living in a county with extremely difficult circumstances. They happily welcome privileged foreign strangers into their homes.

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Cream, honey and hot flatbread= heavenly

Naijme explained that her family were extremely traditional and that their biggest hobby was eating so I was warned. This is a common theme in Iran. I am a massive foodie and can put away a serious amount of grub but even I cannot keep up with the Iranians.  The minute breakie is finished lunch prep is in full swing and they are constantly worried you are hungry.

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Rice for one

First on the itinerary was a trip to the historical place of Persepolis. The ruins are now a World Heritage Site. At one of the tombs we met a bunch of giddy Iranian men who were celebrating the first day of their holiday. They were extremely merry and I soon found out why. They were nursing a bottle of Arak. Arak is a horribly strong liquor made of aniseed and grape. It was almost at boiling point from the sun. Obviously intrigued by it and also the fact all alcohol is illegal in Iran I happily sampled the stuff. They informed me of how they sneak the drink in especially to historic sites they pretend it’s water easy! Lots of Iranians make their own alcohol it’s far cheaper than buying it on the black market.

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Stunning tombs at Perspolis
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Boozing in Perspolis; definitely wasn’t expecting this
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Pretending we were freezing in Persepolis; in fact I think this is the hottest I have ever been in my life. It was almost 50 degrees!!!!!!!

After the trip we came back to Najme’s family home for more shut eye and one of my best Iranian feeds to date. Her mother is constantly cooking with some of the dishes taking up to 5 hours to make. We were treated to the sensational salad shiraz (typical to this area), Kalam Pollo (saffron infused chicken).

Preparations were in full swing for Mai hak’s 2nd birthday (Naijme’s adorable niece). The family invited myself and another Ukrainian couch surfer, Basil to the party  which was in their holiday home near the mountains . Because bars, discos and clubs are all illegal in Iran there is a massive emphasis on family gatherings and celebrations in their homes it is one of their cultural practices that I love. This was no exception and they pulled out all of the stops.

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Cutest overload with this beautiful little girl

A hilarious Iranian tradition is where before cutting the cake the family dance Persian with the knife and the knife is passed on for ages until eventually it is cut. This hilarious ritual could go on for ages before anyone gets a sniff of cake.

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Persian Party Style
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Another legendary Iranian Family
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The benefits of only drinking chai? Non existant hangovers!

That night myself and most of the family decided to sleep outside. Their garden was also full of apricot, peach, walnut, apple, cherry and pomegranate trees.The following morning the Granny was in the height of preparing a breakfast spread on par with the dinner productions. She was adement we stay for lunch but not able to budge I declined the tempting offer and myself, Basil and Najme made our way back to Shiraz city to check it out.

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Hafed’s Tomb in Shiraz. Exploring by night to avoid the blistering heat.

The next day we camped out in Naijme’s mates house eating sugary confections and copious amounts  of tea.  During my time in Shiraz I visited the in famous Pink Mosque (Masjed-e-Nasir-al-Molk). It is one of Iran’s most iconic Mosques. It was constructed in a way that when the sun rises the entire room reflects pink through the stain glass. Unfortunately the light is at its strongest during Winter and Spring so I didn’t see it at its full potential.  It was stunning nonetheless (until the hoards of Chinese erupted with their selfie sticks).

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Catching a peaceful moment before the tours arrive
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The stunning Pink Mosque in one of the most famous in Iran
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Morning light through the stain glass
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There is a constant pink hue to the room caused by the stain glass

Next on the agenda was a much-needed cup of coffee. I be friended a Dutch tourist (generally speaking I haven’t seen any tourists). I was adopted by his couch surfer host who showed the pair of us around for the day. It’s a stunning city with an equally stunning bazaar.

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Don’t even know the name of this place but loved it
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The courtyard at the Pink Mosque
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Court yards in Shiraz
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Somewhere beautiful in Shiraz

I cooled off in the afternoon with some faloodeh shirazi. This is a much try dish while in Shiraz where it originates. I was v disappointed as it’s actually rotten but the Iranians are obsessed with it. Its noodles frozen in a sugar syrup served with lemon juice. I gave it to a homeless man.

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Morning light at the Pink Mosque
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Iranian Rooftop tiles

That evening for sunset myself and Naijme went to visit lake Maharloo. This is a Pink Salt Lake. Strangely depending on when you visit it isn’t always pink but we were in luck. We practically had it to ourselves. The intensity of pink is strongest at sunrise and sunset (it’s not too dissimilar to Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia except it’s pink and empty!!).

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The amazing pink salt lake
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The stunning Naijme rocking her hijab and hairy eyes!
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This place didn’t feel real
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Lake Maharloo is only half an hour from Shiraz and well worth the detour
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Soaking up the last of the sun before heading to the airport

Naijme had enough time to get to know me and insisted on escorting me to the airport foreseeing some difficulties. She wasn’t wrong.  I ended up loosing my boarding pass in the toilet. Luckily I was the only tourist in the airport so it was quickly retraced back to me. As a tourist it’s impossible to to buy things online in Iran so my amazing CS hosts from a flight to Tehran bought for me.  I eventually negotiated my way onto the correct flight and I befriend a cute old woman on the plane. She held me hand for the entire journey it was v romantic.

I then took a night bus to Tabriz. I rocked up to Tabriz feeling relatively fresh considering the hellish journey. I instantly fell in love with the city and at last it wasn’t HOT (maybe that’s why I loved it so much).  It is also famous for having some of the countries friendliest people and I instantly knew why.

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This woman looked terrifying at first and when I asked to take her picture she just started giggling

I started my day off in one of its famous cafes for dairy. All this café serves is raw milk, cream, cheese and fresh honey comb served with barbary (a freshly baked Iranian flatbread). It was crammed with locals and I  instantly loved it. Seriously good stuff (I went 3 days in a row). Tabriz is particularly renowned for its amazing food especially dairy products.

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The only place to have breakfast in Tabriz
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Hand churned butter, honey straight from the honey comb served with warm barbary
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This gent used to sell me my walnuts

The Bazaar in Tabriz is one of the most famous in the world and is the oldest in the middle east and the largest covered bazaar in the world.  It was declared a UNESCO Heritage site. It stretches for more than 7 km. I spent the day talking to randomers (one of my favourite hobbies). Randomer one of the day was Ali who like pretty much every business man in Iran sells carpets. We sipped on chai and talked nonsense for an hour and then of course this followed with a tour of the bizarre finishing in his carpet shop for  more chai. They don’t get pissed off when you don’t buy it’s so refreshing. They are so pleasant, not pushy and generally just proud of what they do.

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Ali; drinking tea like the locals from a saucer
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This cutie almost had me convinced me to buy a Persian Rug
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Standard chill time on the rugs in Tabriz
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This lad insisted on me photographing the un known chap in the pic

Once I said  my good byes to Ali I met randomer number 2; Mohammad who invited for chai and chocolate. This was the gist of the day. I even lost my phone for a few hours I left it in a teapot shop! The kind Iranians ensured it was returned to me. V lucky.

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Dying material to make carpets.
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Typical scenes in Tabriz’s Bazaar

That evening I took the metro to go visit Park Elgoli, just on the out skirts of the city. Whilst chilling having some rose water ice cream I was almost attacked by an excited group of Iranians. Turns out they were all doing a phd in Maths and were at a conference. After our photo shoot they kidnapped me and insisted on treating me for dinner and chai.

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Getting hijacked by the friendliest Iranians
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This man insisted on having his own private photoshoot

The next day was spent negotiating the price of Iran’s tea scene. I think the bazaar in Tabriz is like nothing I have ever seen. I could have easily spent a week here and the pictures don’t even justify this place. Later in the day I got picked up by an 18 year old eager to improve his English  so we went for coffee together. He explained that his Grandfather is 80 years old and has been selling carpets all of his life and still hasn’t discovered all of the bazaar. There are over 5,500 stalls here with parts of the bizaar dedicated to certain products such as cigarettes, shisa, spices, tea the list goes on and on. It’s beautifully overwhelming.  One man in the market even presented me with a rose and a typed up letter welcoming me to Iran and his contact information in case I needed any help. Way too ott but a ridiculously nice gesture all the same. The rest of the day was spent getting free food and drink samples from every corner of the market.

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Dreamy combinations of cheese, honey and rose
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The only way to eat honey; fresh from the comb
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Dates coming out of your ears. The Iranians regularly eat these with chai

I took a day trip to  Kandovan from Tabriz. It is the most enchanting place and often compared to Cappdoccia in Turkey.  It is a tiny village with man made cliff dwellings in the shape of cones which are made out of volcanic material. This place looks like a movie set.  The only difference is the inhabitants still live here and it is not touristy.  There are still around 600 people living here. It is surrounded by gorgeous mountains. We explored and spoke to the locals living there. The conditions here in Winter are vicious.

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600 people still live in the small cliff side village
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Every house is constructed into the cliff side
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Exploring the surrounding mountains in Kandovan
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The cutest little Iranian Family
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I love the pride in his face. He specifically asked me to include his rings in the photograph
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Local child selling his families crafts

I wish I had more time in Tabriz. An FYI there are direct flights from Hamburg to Tabriz and it only takes 5 hours. Don’t hesitate just book that flight to the dreamiest place in Iran.

 

From Tallaght to Tehran

From the minute I got home from South America my feet were itchier than ever (and it wasn’t because of the athletes foot). I knew I needed another trip but Iran had never been on my radar. My mind had been obsessed with all things Pakistan and my original plan was to travel the country for 3 months.  One of my patient’s in T Town was Pakistani and kindly organised a letter of invitation into the country (mates with the chancellor!) a slight diversion from the childhood obesity problem.  This is essential to get the visa. So with visa in check I was good to go all that was missing was the flight. Needless to say I fecked this up big time and booked it for the wrong month!!!  It was going to cost me a mere €900 to change so it looked like I had a month to kill but the question was where to go…? Not a bad complaint to have I know. Trips within Europe were working out crazy expensive so I set my sights on Iran and found ridiculously cheap flights from Amsterdam.

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A farewell before the escapades!

Myself, Una and Dom managed the squeeze in a few days in Amsterdam before the big trip. We had a rocky start with the aggressive Amsterdam biking scene but we all survived and had a ball. We even made an embarrassing/awkward appearance at Nils’s low-key  soccer game. We were the only supporters……

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This pair! High on nothing more than life
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I couldn’t help myself the Diva himself; AmsterDOM

En route to Iran things were off to a flying start when I befriended a chap called Ali on the plane. He was a professional basketball player in the Netherlands for 15 years. He had just retired and was coming home for good to live in Iran. He gave me loads of tips and got me seriously excited for what was ahead. My first stop was Tehran, the capital of Iran and I had organized couch surfing with a couple; Sarah and Ali. The Iranians are known for their hospitality and this couple took it to the next level. I was given keys to the apartment as they were working for the day and Sarah had prepared the most stunning Persian breakfast. Couch surfing is massive over here despite it being illegal everyone manages to bypass this. I was offered accommodation, advice and help by 400 different Iranians when I posted onto the CS site. Absolutely incredible albeit it slightly overwhelming hospitality.

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Sarah and Ali; Tehran’s biggest legends

Day 1, I decided to go explore a little beefed from the flight I kept it local. For some reason I was wearing Ali, the man’s shoes and managed to lock myself out of their apartment. I’ve never had a great track record with keys. I had to wait awkwardly outside their apartment until they got home from work for him to see a stranger wearing his shoes. Anyway  after a couple of glasses of vino that night Ali soon realized what he was dealing with and all was forgiven. Yes I said vino was forbidden, all alcohol is illegal in Iran. It is not sold or served anywhere. I had totally psyched myself up for a month off the booze. Instead Iranian’s drink buckets of chai (tea) which is nice but not exactly the same gig (at least they avoid the vicious hangovers). There was no fear of a detox happening because Ali and Sarah have come up with an easy solution to the problem they make their own wine and its bleeding gorgeous.

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When tea looks this pretty its no wonder that’s all they drink

I was introduced to the wonderful world of Iranian cuisine which completely exceeded my expectations. First up was fesenjan , a delicious sauce made out of only walnuts and pomegranates mixed with lamb. Pomegranate is the most symbolic fruit of Iran. Unfortunately, it is not the season yet. Sarah served this with Iranian flat bread called Barbari, crisp and salted and covered in seasame seeds. Iranians are rice obsessed and mountains are served with basically every meal .The best touch is the golden saffron oil drizzled on top. Saffron is found absolutely everywhere here and like everything else is dirt cheap. Next on the list was ghormeh sabzi; a concoction of lamb, beans in a herby/citrus sauce with buckets of spices that’s cooked for hours. Sarah is a genius in the kitchen and all of the guidebooks tell you to experience the best of Iranian cuisine you need to eat with a family. Restaurant’s foods are not comparable.

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Ghormeh sabzi served with salad shiraz, saffron rice, mixed leaves friend rice.

From the get go I was having awful trouble with the hijab. Before coming I didn’t know what to expect and was pleasantly surprised when Sarah told me they only wear the hijab outside (this completely depends on the house your in). I was freaking out on the plane and had my head covered from the minute I left Amsterdam (I know overkill but I was adement I wasn’t going to have any disasters this time). This is another one of Iran’s strict rules; the hijab must be worn by women at all times outdoors, your bum and chest must be covered and you must dress modestly (even when you’re in the car, the police will check!). In 30 plus degrees this is a toture!

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Day 1 and already having some hijab hiccups

I successfully negotiated an Iranian metro and arrived at stop one the Golestan Palace. This place couldn’t have  been more excessive and was the best introduction into the insane talents of Iranian artwork.

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The front building of the Golestan Palace.
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One of the many intricate walls of the Golestan Palace.
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Wall of mirrors, Golestan Palace.
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Standard sitting room inside the palace

Afterwards I tackled the famous grand bizarre. Bizarre’s are a big affair in Iran and are crammed with tiles, carpets, spices, copper and jewelry. Tourism has definitely not kicked off in Iran yet and I was faced with lots of looks of confusion, intrigue but mainly smiles. A man from a carpet shop escorted me around the market for the day v ideal the as the place runs for km’s and its v easy to get lost. Previously tourism had been a lot better in the country but since conflicts it has significantly declined. Iranians are clearly trying so hard to change the perception of Iran and are constantly thanking you for visiting and and are just so curious as to why Iran?

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Fresh rose petals are found everywhere. Used for tea, drinks and desserts

I spent the afternoon in an artsy park that displayed Iranian arts and crafts. The coffee shop wouldn’t let me pay for my chai and instead stuffed my pockets with some juicy dates. The shopkeeper even gave me a Farsi (Iranian lesson) this is next level difficult but kinda of essential when travelling alone as not many of them speak English. They have their own writing/ numerical system and write in the opposite direction to us.

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Standard street tiles in Tehran

Iran is probably the biggest culture shock I have had to date. Sites like Couch surfing, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are all illegal. You need special software on your phone if you want to use them. There are so mainly seemingly ridiculous rules that the Mullahs enforce in this country. Whether or not these rules are enforced in households depends on the families religious faith. It also didn’t help that I was visiting during Ramadan. It is absolutely forbidden to eat/drink during daylight and virtually everywhere was closed. Obviously not everyone complies but if caught in public there is a risk of being arrested.

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Beautiful looking street food; these are filled with honey and nuts and then fired.

Another thing making travelling here even more challenging is you cannot use your debit card. The only way to get Iranian money is by doing cash exchange. The currency here is either rial or tomen (I have no idea of the differences despite numerous explanations) and nothing will prepare you for this. You are dealing with the millions.  I was told not to change my money in the airport because of the low dollar rate that day (it changes daily).  This is a massive issue for Iranians at the moment but as a westerner visiting everything appears to be v cheap. Day 1 I got totally ripped off doing this exchange as per usual I trusted the cute old man. I fall for it every time. It wouldn’t be travelling if you didn’t get ripped off at least once or in my case multiple times. You win some you loose many.

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Imam Khomeini Mosque, Tehran
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Obsessed with the stunning hand painted tiles

I happened to be in Iran for a national holiday where they were celebrating the anniversary of the death of the King. This could only mean one thing an Iranian road trip to the west of Iran, yet to be touched by tourism.  Sarah and Ali kindly invited me to tag along on their trip so I jumped on the bandwagon. We set off for a place called  Kermanshah very close the Iraq border (a 7 hour drive from Tehran).

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Road tripping with these legends

The Iranians’ are absolute lunatics on the roads so this was an exhilarating  journey. This place suffered brutally during the Iraq-Iran war. We all went couch surfing together to an eco-tomato farm. When we arrived we met another group of Iranians also couch surfing (some were volunteering with the tomatoes). We immediately hit it off despite my lack of Farsi. Back to square one with the hand communication, pain in the arse but it gets the job done. Instead of sleeping in the room with 8 Iranian men I opted to pitch my tent beside the tomatoes with a stunning view of the nearby rocky mountains. Ta Dom for the deadly treat of a brand new tent let’s hope it has more success than the previous one.

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Pretending I can speak Farsi

The farm was stunning and also grew walnuts and rose plants. It had bee hives and also farmed chickens are quail. The rose plant is extremely popular in Iran found mostly in deserts and drinks. Home for the next few days was looking pretty idyllic.

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Locals outside the Tomato Farm in Kermanshah

Hard to believe only a few days ago I was cycling around Amsterdam and now I’m wearing a hijab and speaking Farsi!

A final fact that I still can’t get my head around Iranians’s weekend is thursday and Friday so Saturday marks the start of the working week. Mind blowing stuff!

A Photographic Memory

It has taken me almost six months to be able to write this, partly because I cannot physically put into words what the trip meant to me and in a way writing this officially ends the best year of my life (I am also guilty of being v lazy). But here I want to reflect  on what I learnt from travelling solo for one year and a few of my favourite photographic memories and maybe even inspire one or two of you to book that scary one way flight into the unknown!

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The last day!!!! Starting my journey home to Dublin leaving dreamy Isla Mujeurs in Mexico 😦

Trying to settle back into ‘normal life’ after 12 months on the road has been challenging to say the least. Living in a travel bubble for one year completely separated from reality changes your priorities and your entire perspective on life. This bubble is both uncomfortable, scary, exciting and dangerously addictive. Travelling solo as a female around Latin America is definitely a challenge but is one of the most liberating  and exhilarating things I have ever done. Anyone nervous especially girls just do it. I think everyone should experience solo travel at least once in their life.

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Another benefit of solo travel. You can puke all over rainbow mountain and no one needs to know about it. I had violent altitude sickness that day but managed a fake smile.

I have gotten better at embracing the here and now even if it is a two hour commute on a bicycle to Tallaght. I am a sucker for a challenge. This commute often feels like backpacking (or cycling Bolivia’s death road aka the Greenhills road in Walksintown)!

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Bolivia’s death road V my commute to work (similar gig)

Since starting I have had 4 punctures, been hit by a car (luckily I was okay the woman thought I was a wheely bin), ended up hitch hiking to a presentation (that’s a v long story), cried for an entire hour en route home pretty convinced I had frost bite (I did not!!), almost got blown away during multiple storms. Admittedly it is usually quite bleak but there is the rare day where the wind is behind my back, sun is shining and I am listening to the Beach Boys and I feel invincible. The quick morale of the story, cycling in Dublin is a joke but better than public transport!! Our bodies can do so much more than we give them credit for.

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Cycling in Amsterdam on the other hand…….

During my trip someone once told me I was a magnet for problems and disasters. Maybe that is true these disasters have subsequently followed me to Dublin and most likely will follow me wherever I end up next. Only last week I set my hair on fire in a restaurant in Berlin while roller blading a Half Marathon!!!!! Sometimes you might feel like crying  and whenever you do try your best to laugh! No joke, literally everyday of the trip there was some kind of a disaster in store both major and minor. I look back now and can honestly smile about them all.

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This is me on cloud 9 having completed my first half marathon on blades.  This is also before my hair caught on fire (most likely caused by my recent dodgy highlights which were particularly flammable).

I find it difficult to describe how I feel after the year away but it is without a doubt an emotional roller coaster consisting of indescribable joy, loneliness, guilt, sadness, isolation and fear.  A year of camping, hitchhiking, sleeping on mountains, caves and couchsurfing went by in the flash of an eye. I was broke, homeless, lost, robbed, held up at knife point and violently sick (on numerous occasions). You do stupid things and all rationale goes out the window. A perfect example of this is me buying a motorbike in Brazil with the plan of biking through the Amazon into Colombia?! In my defense I had been on a bus for almost 3 days so I was little delirious (as opposed to normal!). It is still there in case anyone reading this in headed to Brazil!?

Just a few of my photographic highlights

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Fresh off the plane. Day 1 of the trip and I am straight to the fish market in Santiago, Chile.
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Valparaiso, Chile stole my heart. I spent my first 3 weeks here (originally supposed to be 3 days).  Week one consisted  of getting  held up at knife point by two Chilains, I was attacked in my sleep by a drug dealer and lost my only debit card. This was not enough to deter me from the most enchanting  place, the people, the music and especially the street art. I rarely cry but I cried leaving Valpo. Maka thanks for the pepper spray it was literally life saving.
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My first day hitchhiking in Patagonia! A scary yet exhilarating experience. Hitch hiking was never something I planned on doing but fellow travelers easily convinced me. Little did I know it was the beginning of  a whole new level of adventure. The simplicity of this photo makes me smile and I remember how proud I was to make it to Cerro Castillo after hitchhiking with four different men. The mountain in the background is where I ended up sleeping that same night (without a tent/sleeping bag). I was luckily oblivious to the disaster that awaited me.
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Me at the top of Cerro Castillo, Patagonia. I had been trekking for 10 hours carrying my entire life (literally); laptop, wine, beer, clothes etc etc. I was covered in blood, melted butter and yogurt and was stung to death by bees. Unforgettable for all the right reasons. Patagonian scenery is so stunning it messes up with logical thinking despite everyone urging me to turn back and give up I persevered. Sleeping alone on a Patagonian glacier was yes, crazy. This was the most physical challenging thing I have ever done (2nd place is the Paris Marathon which was also hellish but at least it was only 4 hours of hell). I learnt that I am pretty hardcore, ridiculously stubborn and arguably stupid.
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Marble Caves, El Rio, Patagonia, Chile. Patagonia These caves are entirely made out of marble.
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I love the simplicity of this picture. I took this on the Carratera Austral a road in Patagonia extending  1,240km long.  This road is famous for it’s lack of transport, shops, petrol stations but more importantly for its stunning scenery of fjords, glaciers, steep mountains and lakes. Hitch hiking is a must here.
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Trekking  through  Patagonia’s Glacier Exploradores. I hadn’t slept in 48 hours  yet I didn’t feel tired at all! This was an amazing day and the scenery was just jaw dropping.
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A shell of myself at the end of the W trek (a solo 4 day mountain trek in Patagonia). I was freezing, starving and exhausted but my main memory still remains the mountains. Such a surreal place.
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Perito Moreno, Argentina. I vomited continuously at this glacier but gathered enough energy to take a few pics of this ridiculously pretty place. This day marked the beginning of my 6 week illness where I contracted a virus from drinking water from a river (in fairness I was asking for it).
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Cordero: Patagonia’s signature dish of barbecued lamb. This was a new’s years day feast where the lamb was covered in beer and barbecued for 6 hours. Without a doubt my foodie highlight of South America. This was like silk in your mouth I became quite barbaric eating this but it was a truly sensational. This was a perfect day eating cordero, drinking buckets of red wine and sunning ourselves in Ushuaia where it was surprisingly warm!
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Worth the continuous vomit inducing up hill climb for this rainbow sunrise.  I do remember thinking will I ever get better or maybe this is the new reality for me. Vomiting while camping in Patagonia is a different level of rough. For 5 minutes I completely forgot about vomit and was blown away by a double rainbow and burnt orange sunrise.
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Motorbiking from Salta to Cafayate (well not quite…sitting on the back taking photos!). This photo reminds me of two amazing things I got to do; experience couchsurfing and secondly get to motorbike around Northern Argentina (gracias Mati). I since became  a little bit obsessed with motorbikes and am now a proud owner of a Honda which is sitting in a random village in Brazil. Just another one of Ró’s genius travel decisions.
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A harrowing experience exploring the mines in Bolivia’s Potosi.
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Waiting for sunrise at Salar de Uyuni. Special special place.
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Úna!! When your Mam travels solo to Bolivia and treats you like a queen. Memories of a lifetime.
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This photo always makes me smile. I motorbiked to a peach festival in Cochabamba, Bolivia with a group of complete strangers.
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Camping in Toro Toro’s National Park in Bolivia; home to thousands of dinosaur footprints. So cool!
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Salkantay Trek; en route to see the main man: Machu Picchu
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Gocta waterfall, the third highest in the world. It has been known to the locals for centuries but it was only in 2002 it was discovered by a German who noticed it on google maps . Crazy how many un discovered beauties are potentially still out there. This was definitely one of my Peruvian highlights and better still no body else was there! 
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Successfully completing the Santa Cruz trek in Huarez in Peru.  Again from a very un-reliable source I was told this was a walk in the park and I would be fine solo. I was not……and spent the 3 day trek stranded on the Cordillera Blanca.  That being said this is home to the Paramount picture mountain so it had to be included as a highlight!
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I will never forget snorkeling in the Galapogos Islands in Ecuador. Just incredible.  Everything about the Galapagos is a highlight.
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Wild Galapagos Tortoise. Obsessed with these guys.
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Seals doing what they do best; chilling. Isabella, the Galapagos.
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Celebrating Colombia’s world cup with the locals. I made it onto Colombian radio for correctly predicting the match result (3-0 to Colombia V Poland). It insured free drink for myself and Nils for the  rest of the day!
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Typical lunch scenes in Cartagena, Colombia
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Picking up a hot German in an airport in Ecuador has definitely got to be a highlight! This is Nils, we met going to the Galapagos Islands and initially I hung out of him for his very efficient and organised travel itinerary. We shared left over lobster on our first date (the couple next to us where sending it back so I  controversially asked the waiter would he mind if we ate their left-overs). An uncomfortable yet perfect experience. I soon found out he was also pretty sound and we spent an amazing 8 weeks travelling around Colombia together.
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Getting to play 5 aside football against the locals in El Rio, Colombia. The pitch was in the middle of the jungle doesn’t get more authentic than that.
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Communa 13, Medellin, Colombia. Previously known as one of the most dangerous districts in the world.  It has since reformed itself  through art and music and stole my heart.
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When you friends travel across the world to see you (and of course Colombia). For the first time in 9 months I was given new clothes, hair and make up and made feel female again!
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The trip around the San Blas was incredible from the people, the culture and the food. I have never seen or experienced beaches like this. I doubt anything will ever compare. LOVED it.
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Guanjuato’s (Mexico) local market. I creeped on this man for ages he seemed so content selling his tomatoes. I was always at my happiest when surrounded by food.
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Cipriano; Serving the people of Real de Catorce (Mexico) with menudo. It is a horrendous concoction of sheep intestine and chilis. A must try while in Mexico. I spent the afternoon chatting to the 83-year-old who had never once left his home town and he couldn’t’ have been happier.
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Camping in Real de Catorce, a small village built-in the middle of a desert. I befriended two dogs here Cookie and Cracker who I will never forget. The only way to access the village is through a 3 km tunnel. Cracker was hit by a motorbike as I was leaving the village trying to follow me. The loyalties of dogs is an amazing thing.
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Cascada Tamul in Huasteca Potasina, Mexico. I hitch hiked to this place with a group of roudy retired Mexicans after a night camping in a random man’s house. My whole week in Huasteca Potasina  was a series of very dodgy (and exciting) adventures ( I won’t elaborate….).
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Barancas de Cobre: Mexico’s hidden gem. I zip lined through the whole canyon. Myself  and Tim a man I picked up on the bus had the place to ourselves. Pictures will never justify this place. Without a doubt scenery wise, my favourite place in Mexico (and 3 times as large as the grand canyon!)
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This picture speaks for itself. I love and relate to it.
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One of the best things I ate in Mexico was this home made tortilla.  The woman grew her own corn, milled it and made fresh tortillas everyday.
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Waking up to sunrise at Hierve del Agua in Mexico. I was told I was crazy to camp here alone…well I wasn’t alone, the restaurant lady lent me her three dogs who minded me for the night. The next morning I got to explore for hours before the tour buses came in their droves.  Skinny dipping beside a petrified waterfall without costing a penny has got to be a Mexican highlight.
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El Chepe: One of the world’s most stunning train journeys located in Northern Mexico. Northern Mexico is known as being really dangerous so very few tourists come here and I was also advised against it. It was here where I left my passport in the fruit/veg aisle in a small supermarket. It was returned 24 hours later. Never judge a place based on other people’s opinions go and see for yourself.
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Northern Mexico getting another shout out.  Myself and an Israeli chap motorbiked to Creel. Trying to to take this photo was extremely dodgy but totally worth it!
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This is Rosa pre booze, a lovely lady from Creel, Northern Mexico.  This woman pestered me for ages begging for money to buy water. Obviously no one is going to deny an elderly woman water so I gave in. Moments later Rosa emerges with a bottle of tequila which she shared with me! (and yes tequila and water are the same price in Mexico).
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Rosa post booze. Rosa is now perched in our bathroom and every time I pee I am reminded of the day I went boozing with one of the Northern Mexico’s biggest legends. Her face tells a thousand stories.

Some parting advice;

Don’t always take the easy option get on that bike, book that flight, step into the unknown and who knows what might happen you may even be lucky enough to pick up a hot German in the airport.  Life can pass us by in the blink of an eye so speak to that stranger, be open-minded and curious. Everyone has an untold story waiting to be heard.

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Biking/Camping  through Northern Argentina

I completely get that hitchhiking, couch surfing and sleeping in tents isn’t everyone’s gig but it’s always good to put yourself out of your comfort zone every now and again (no need to be as extreme as me aka 8 weeks straight in a tent). The experiences you will have will be authentic, exciting and unforgettable. You think you can’t do it but you absolutely can!

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Just maybe invest in a better tent than mine 😉 This was taken in Palenque in Mexico during a thunder storm (the sunglasses are just because of sleep deprivation). My Christmas present to myself was a tent and I it was the best thing I have ever bought even though we both looked constantly disheveled.

Money seriously comes and goes and ultimately can be replaced. Some of my happiest memories are when I didn’t have any. Material things are so un-important but memories will last forever. I know its v cheesy but it’s true. I became so much better at accpeting at dealing with things that got lost, broken and robbed and believe me there were a record amount of things.

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Broke times while living in Cusco. I managed to be-friend a smelly hippy called Ekkie who taught me how to busk using a tambourine. Earned enough to buy an ice cream=success

The best thing I did on the trip? becoming fluent in Spanish. I will never forget Christmas was spent with a group of Chilanos who hadn’t a word of English and after everyone pissing themselves at my Spanish attempts I persevered and months later I landed myself a job in a hostel in Cusco and was able to lap away to every randomer who came through the doors in Spanish. Progress!! It’s hard work at the beginning but just power through it is so so worth it. The whole point about travelling is obviously seeing amazing places but for me it is more about connecting with the people. Doing both is a glorious combo.

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Getting to talk to cute locals like this in spanish is really special

Life is a series of peaks and valleys and just like traveling  it is not always going to be Instagram perfect  but wherever you are living learn to live in the moment is the best thing we can do. No matter how grim, how cold, how tired or how fed up you are there is always a solution, put a smile on your face and power through. Even a 25 hour bus can have its up sides!  Some of my most challenging moments of the trip are now my best stories and fondest memories but at the time I clearly remember thinking I had hit rock bottom (sleeping in a cave alone is perfect example of this).

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Low times in Santa Cruz. Getting stranded in the Andes in Peru is no laughing matter. Sleeping alone in a cave with a bunch of cow’s sounds worse than it actually was. As good as you would get in the Westbury.

A final thank you to all of the amazing people I met on the trip, the strangers who took me in, fed me, the couch surfing community and those who picked me up off the sides of the street. I am also so grateful to everyone who spared the time to read about some of my trip.Your comments and messages meant the world to me.

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A huge apology for the stress I caused. Dom and Una; two saints who put up with my  loose travels.

This quote perfectly summarises  what travelling means to me

”Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” Anthony Bourdain

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‘We all have a little spark of madness we mustn’t loose it ‘ Robin Williams. Me, Magda, Iv and Sheldon Manuel in Merida Mexico. The most legendary couch surfing hosts.