Wednesday, 10 January 2018

2017 - Dumbledore was onto something

I think we can all agree (minus Taylor) that 2017 was a pretty horrific year. Perticular personal low lights were Brexit, Trump, and so many shootings and attacks. The last one I have felt most acutely as Manchester reacted to the bombing that seemed to touch each of us personally either through knowing people that attended the concert, being involved in the emergency services response, or even just hearing the bang and the aftermath of activity as people desperately searched for safety.

Despite all this I remember Dumbledore

 So in the interests of turning on the light; here are my 5 highlights of 2017.

  • I got a new job

In last year's summary I spoke about quitting my job. It was one of those things that was simultaneously so necessary but at the same time so terrifying. Funny how things turn out that way. Why are things that are absolutely vital for life to continue very often also the things that are the hardest? This time last year I was in a temporary post rustled up for me as a stop gap. However I was desperately trying to secure something more permanent which came in the nick of time. A brief beach break later and I was in my new job and I am now coming up on my 1 year anniversary! It doesn't seem possible that just changing job can have such a profound impact on my life but it really has. It's not that I have a perfect job, I don't think that could ever exist, but more that now my job isn't sucking all my energy just to get out of bed, I have time to really get back to my life and what I enjoyed before. Turns out I like being me after-all!

  • I started teaching

On that note - my new found energy means that I can now do things in the evenings! I can now find the time to do things like cook, exercise, see friends, take personal time. It means that when an opportunity comes along I can chase after it. Initially I started by taking an exercise class nearby with a friend as a way to socialise and get back into fitness after ignoring my health for so long. In the autumn of last year the teacher couldn't commit to the sessions any more so they were looking for a new instructor..... I completed a pilates teaching course a few years ago so I reached out and now I teach a weekly women's exercise class! ( you can book here btw if you're Manchester based) and I'm looking to expand into a series of classes each week.

This is something I don't think I would have ever expected to achieve this year but its one of the things I actually have enjoyed most! I like how life can still surprise me.

  • I tried lots of new things

As well as teaching I've tried lots of other new things this year as my new found "yes" attitude expands into other things. I tried indoor skydiving this year and it was incredibly surreal! I think its something I would definitely try again but never would have thought to try myself before.

I also tried to pass the first part of my motorbike licence (CBT). Note the use of tried. I failed but that's ok. I think being able to fail now and again is a good thing more than that I actually recognised that it wasn't something I was capable of and left. My instructor laughed at me when I calmly announced "shall we call it a day?" and agreed that I wasn't going to be good enough by the end of the day. He also called me "massive" so I don't think he was particularly used to teaching women. I'll go back this year and hopefully next year's summary will have - I passed my CBT - on it. But from not being skilled enough to pass the training I had my push bike serviced and now have the option to cycle places! Mark got a bike too so now we can go out for bike rides so out of one difficulty has come something really positive!

  • I travelled 

This is a repeat from last year bus I am so glad it is. Travel is part of who I am so I have stayed on brand this year and travelled a lot. More than last year! This year I went to Tenerife in March to celebrate getting a new job and to reset on a beach before I started. I went to France in July and spent some time mucking about in Paris, I travelled from Vietnam through Cambodia to Thailand in August in one of the most varied trips I have ever been on, and finally I went to Japan to visit a friend and had the most unexpectedly fun trip! Check out the travel tab at the top to read more about each of these trips.

I hope this will appear on my 2018 summary too as last night I booked a trip to Egypt for June!!! I can't wait!

  • I cut my hair

This might not seem like a big thing to most people but I have a  suspicion that I am secretly an anime character as you can tell how my life is going from my hair. In 2016 my hair was multi-coloured and changed frequently at the same time as my life took some big changes and chopped and changed a bit. In 2017 my hair stayed blonde and got progressively more and more damaged as I failed to take care of it but still pushed it to do something it wasn't naturally. See where I'm going with this? Now in 2018 I have literally cut the dead damaged bits away and stopped trying to be something I'm not but feel it would be better if I were. Ok so the brown is a dyed brown but it is intended to fade to my natural ash and I am really enjoying the lob. My curls have come back and I can leave the house with damp hair without looking like a 5 year old's Barbie any more!

So that was my 2017. It was a battering ram of a year but I feel so much more like myself heading into 2018 than I have in quite a long time.

Dumbledore was onto something.


Thursday, 14 December 2017

10 things you must know before you travel to Japan

One of my friends is teaching English in Japan so I was keen to take advantage of the cool travel opportunity while also spending time with her. However, even with my previous travels and my friend to guide me, things still took me by surprise while I was there!

Therefore here are my top 10 tips you must know before you travel to Japan!

Mt Fuji from the Chureito Pagoda @orange.girl.deb

1. No credit cards

Like, anywhere! Cash is still very much a thing and most places won't even have a card machine. While I was doing my travel prep shopping (hello travel mini section of boots) I exchanged a bit more than I expected to spend so that I had an emergency fund. I was super glad I did this as I didn't really believe how sparse card payments would be so I only exchanged more money begrudgingly. Most places will offer a buy back guarantee so that if you have spare at the end of your trip then you can just swap it straight back again. It did make me feel rich while I was carrying 10000 yen notes.

You also can't just hand people money either! You have to bow and put it in a little tray next to the till for them to pick up even in restaurants. I have no idea why. Sometimes they hand your change back to you (bow again and take it with both hands if you can) but sometimes that goes in the little tray too and you have to pick it up as tipping isn't a thing! The little tray clearly has more complicated rules than I understand.

2. Vending machines are awesome

I arrived at 10am having spent the previous 16 hours on a plane so I was in need of coffee. Ami instantly pointed me towards a vending machine. They are literally everywhere and each one will have about 30 things on offer some cold and some hot. I'm not talking hot drinks like a hospital waiting room coffee, but proper already sealed pre-prepared drinks which are vended at a lovely toasty temperature! Once you get over drinking a coffee from a normal bottle its actually really useful and means you can reseal a warm drink and put it in your bag rather than lose an arm all afternoon to hold your starbucks. I got quite into the lemon tea which was sold everywhere but you could also get milky tea, coffee, soup, and ramen too!

Taken from 'Cool Japan Guide' by Abby Denson which was a great book!

3. Rubbish is hard

So now I've had my toasty beverage and I want to throw away the bottle.... well there just aren't bins. You have to find another vending machine that will have a bottle recycle attached to it. Even in people's homes you have to split waste into paper, plastic, PET plastic, burnables, food waste, and goodness knows what else. I found myself contemplating "does this burn? is it paper? paper burns but it goes in paper not burnables? its got a plastic layer so is it plastic? what's PET? what am I doing with my life?!" Some places insist you put your name on your bin bag so that if it contains incorrectly sorted waste then it can be returned to you to try again!! Who knew you could be incompetent at throwing something away?

I do hope however that all this rubbish sorting is for a good amount of recycling. David Attenborough keeps telling us that we're killing the oceans with plastic and I really don't want to make David sad. On a side note how good is Blue Planet II???

4. Shoes need to be easy

This was something that completely bamboozled me at the first restaurant we went to but I quickly got good at. You have to be able to put on and take off your shoes quickly and ideally without touching them or falling over. Houses, hostels, and some restaurants will have little steps where you need to stand with your back to the step, slide your foot our of your shoe, and step backwards onto the raised platform. Outdoor shoes can NOT go beyond the little step. Slippers are a must, as are presentable socks so I made sure to pack matching pairs with no holes! I had packed tall boots and converses which hardly got worn as they both need significant touching to get on and off. Plus you need to be able to put shoes back on when your legs have gone to sleep from sitting cross legged on the floor at the diner table.

5. Prepare for rice

While I'm talking about restaurants I will talk about food. I was really impressed with how tasty the food was while I was out there. You get to have a lot of fun with your food unlike the UK. We cooked our own okonomiyaki (a kind of chunky omelette pancake thing), we ordered sushi on a conveyor belt including natto (fermented soya beans), and I ate a cartoon character (gudetama)! You can also pick crockery up to have food close to your mouth which felt excitingly naughty (I know I am very sad). Most of it was lactose free so I had no issues there and for the most part it was low fat too! The only issue was it's low everything else as well. Most meals you get:
  • soup - usually miso or a broth
  • while sticky rice
  • a protein thing - usually fish or pork but about a quarter of the portion size I would expect at home
  • pickles
  • something else - cinnamon omelette/ lemongrass tofu/ something unidentifiable but tasty
So while everything was nice I felt a little lacking in vitamins, protein and fibre. Each of which showed increasingly throughout my trip and my little sniffle turned into a large cold, my flight aches didn't heal, and well.... I was reminded why fibre is an important part of any diet.

At all the convenience stores (called Kombinis) you can buy a plethora of tiny bottles of supplement drinks to offset these dietary deficiencies. I didn't see any protein ones but certainly vitamin and fibre drinks were widely available. What was also on offer were a range of drinking aid supplements which apparently help your body cope with alcohol. We got some prior to a night out and I deliberately drank it before I googled to see what was in it -  beef liver and turmeric if you're interested but how they managed to make it taste like orange soda I will never know. I have no idea it it made any difference at all but even a placebo effect is useful!

6. Look up

I haven't even got through the first day and I'm already on #6 of things you need to know! It really is a different world in so many ways but, to my surprise, it wasn't alienating. My first day passed in a surreal combination of over stimulation, confusion, laughing, and jet lag! 

We headed into Tokyo city for dinner. We stepped into a building and Ami instantly headed for he lift. I was confused but she explained that different floors had different things on them and we were headed to a restaurant that occupied the entire 8th floor! It seemed such a strange thing for restaurants and shops to be up in the air without it being a shopping centre or a place of work. 

So for the rest of my trip I was constantly looking up to see what was on each level of the buildings. There didn't seem to be any theme to buildings either - a building could be a pet shop on the ground, clothes shops next, and then restaurants and bars too! 

7. You're now a Gaijin 

In Yoyogi Park @orange.girl.deb
Gaijin literally means "outside person" and anyone who isn't Japanese will fit into this box. Initially I assumed it just applied to westerners or Caucasian people but on closer inspection there don't seem to be any people of colour in Japan! Or at least very few. Being a gaijin means people stare at you. I never felt uncomfortable with the stares and they felt more out of curiosity than hostility. Even while walking through some touristy areas or right in the city centre where you'd think that seeing a white woman wouldn't be that unusual, eyes looked at me.

On my second day there we got all the stares by renting kimono in Harajuku (an area of Tokyo) and going for a walk to a large city temple - the Meiji shrine in Yoyogi Park. Some people stopped us and asked for photos which was fun, and some people took our photos from afar which seemed rude to be honest. A couple of times older ladies approached us and told us we looked nice so overall the reaction seemed positive! I was unsure about renting kimono as it is literally cultural appropriation for a pair of white women to wear traditional Japanese dress for fun - cultures are NOT costumes. But I was assured from multiple sources that the Japanese encourage tourists to experience their culture including the clothing.

That being said, you can never stop being a gaijin it seems. Even if you spent 60 years in Japan or were born there - if you have international features you will never be Japanese and accepted fully into a community. This seems sad from a British point of view and I guess another thing I didn't understand while I was there.

8. Do you know where your towel is?

Sadly this doesn't mean that the Japanese are all Douglas Adams fans but it genuinely means that most people carry a little towel with them wherever they go. Ami gave me one when I arrived and it has Mt Fuji on it - super cute. But this is actually something really useful... I'll explain. 

Toilets are everywhere in Japan - it's wonderful! They're all free and clean and always have loo roll! The Japanese must not know the struggle that is struggling to find 30p to visit the loo at Euston station while desperately trying not to wet yourself or be trampled on by the huge queue backing up behind the turnstile. There are loos in kombini, in train stations, by the side of the road, on trains,everywhere! Its a glorious buffet of commodes. However what nearly none of the loos had was a way to dry your hands! Hence the little towel. 

What was more worrying though was that a lot of them didn't have soap either so may people simply don't bother to wash their hands,.... gross. It now makes a lot more sense why so many people wear face masks as genuinely the lack of hygiene combined with how expensive non-prescription medications are means that it must be super germy everywhere. I kept my towel and wished I had brought hand gel.

9. It's beautiful 

This one struck me time and time again no matter where I was. The country genuinely is beautiful. The countryside was beautiful with its autumnal foliage, the mountains were beautiful with their snow capped peaks, the cities were beautiful with not a 70s concrete monstrosity in sight, and even the suburbs were beautiful with little winding streets and a peaceful stillness that I've only ever felt before on a mountain top in Brazil. Design seems to have been considered a lot and even when an environment hasn't been artificially designed it seems to have developed organically to be in balance. I wish I had more skill with a camera as some of the views were stunning.  

Walking up to Chureito Pagoda @orange.girl.deb

10. It's weird but safe - go with it

My last and final thing you must know before you travel to Japan is probably the one I would recommend most - its weird but don't worry just go with it! I am good at watching my back while away and keeping myself safe but none of my danger spidey senses kicked in at all this trip! Well actually no, a guy approached me at a club purely because I was white which made me uncomfortable but he left once I found my friend and even then you get creepy dudes in the UK so I wouldn't count that as a unique experience to Japan. 

Other than that, the trip was a brilliantly surreal experience without any hint of a dangerous situation. And when I say weird I do mean weird. Literally everything we did has something that was at the least slightly comical/strange. I saw an indoor carnival with giant robots, I went to a real pokemon centre, I visited a giant statue of a rabbit setting a raccoon on fire, I met Nathan Fillion (!), I ate at a restaurant based on a sad egg, and I observed some of the most weird and wonderful social etiquette just to name a few! But if I had been somewhere else I might have worried about safety and I might not have had such a rich experience. 


My Week in Japan:

Day 1 - Tokyo
Visited: Royal palace, robot restaurant
Ate: ominomiyaki
Highlight: meeting Nathan Fillion

Day 2 - Tokyo
Visited: harajuku, Meiji shrine, Club Camelot
Wore: kimono
Highlight: being dressed in a kimono and 7-Eleven karaage chicken (not simultaneous) 

Day 3 - Tokyo
Travelled: Shinkansen (bullet train)
Felt: hungover 
Ate/Highlight: The best ramen ever

Day 4 - Komoro 
Visited: shopping mall
Ate: natto sushi at sushiro
Highlight: buying all the things at Daiso (100 yen/66p shop)

Day 5 - Komoro
Visited: Nowhere I was ill
Felt: Ill
Highlight: Nothing I was ill

Day 6 - Tokyo
Visited: Pokemon Centre, Gudetama cafe
Ate: giant apple, gudetama, matcha tea, pork and sake
Highlight: the restaurant host having an Arsenal shirt above the bar!

Day 7 - Mt. Fuji
Visited: Lake Kawaguchi, Kachi Kachi Ropeway
Ate: gross rice stodge on a stick and then Japanese Curry and beer
Highlight: autumnal colours round the lake

Day 8 - Mt Fuji
Visited: Chureito Pagoda
Ate: matcha kitkat
Highlight: Waiting for Mt Fuji to peep out through the clouds

Monday, 23 October 2017

Paris: Swinging Belleville rendez-vous

Forever ago I went to Paris. Ok not actually forever but like a few months.... July. Wow how far away is July?!

Originally, Sam and I were going to go for a yoga break in Portugal, when that was a bit pricey we rearranged to a weekend in Rome but by the time we went to book flights they were too expensive so we ended up in Paris. I've never been so I was actually thrilled with the turn of events that took us there.

I do believe we had the most cliché time in Paris.... and it was excellent!

We had croissant and espresso for breakfast in a quiet cafe watching the downpore and somehow the Parisian streets looked even more romantic for the rain. Manchester in the rain looks like an ashtray when someone's spilt their pint in it but Paris was effortlessly picturesque for the inclemency. The rain continued as we stood in a queue for the Louvre and it got really un-romantic really quickly. The Louvre reminded me of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in the way its sheer size is intimidating. I was also annoyed that I was a few months too old for a free ticket (26 and under) however Sam was delighted. We spent the morning soaking up as much culture and history (and rain) as possible and I felt drastically under dressed next to Parisians. How do they manage to make jeans look so stylish?

Continuing the tourist theme we went on an open top boat tour of the city and now know far too much about the bridges of Paris. I was also thrilled to note our guide had a copy of The Great Gatsby in her pocket which when combined with her fringe, round glasses and red lipstick made her the epitome of how I imagined she would be.

In the evening, yes I am still talking about the same day, we booked tickets to go to to a La Nouvelle Eve Cabaret! I'd never been to a cabaret before and was excited to be all dressed up. Unfortunately our performance was also attended by about 100 Contiki people so I felt a little sorry for the performers who clearly worked very hard to perform to an audience who were only just conscious. Sam and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves among the feathers, rhinestones, and boobs - what more could you want?! There was also a hilarious clown, a spooky mime, and a kind of robot who worked with lasers that I couldn't for the life of me work out how he did it!

Body Goals
For the rest of our trip the rain cleared so we explored the city. We conveniently timed a packed cheese baguette with seeing the Eifel tower and disregarded the no drinking rule and opened a bottle of red to boot! We made sure to see the Arc de Triomphe, visit a boulangerie, drop in on Notre Dame, visit a museum (slightly unintentionally), and eat at a michelin star restaurant. All interspersed with copious amounts of coffee. Come to think of it, most of what we did was eat and drink in various iconic locations!

What struck me was how different everyday life seemed to be for the Parisians. We went to a fresh food market and marvelled at the range available and how many people seemed to be doing a genuine grocery shop. It made my weekly tesco order seem very impersonal since I don't even go to the supermarket but here were people talking to butchers, bakers, and probably candlestick makers. Likewise the bars were just as full as they are in England but everyone seemed to be deep in meaningful conversations with their peers not drinking hard or trying to pull...

Perhaps everything just sounds more sophisticated in French?


Sunday, 15 October 2017

Indochinese Peninsula - a new series begins

Welcome to another travel post. I feel there will be a few of these coming over the next few weeks as we launch into another series on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, in addition to some time in Paris, a new exercise kick, and a slight change in work! See I've been busy.

It began, as many of my adventures do, on a whim. There was a January sale and I sat down with Mark to pick a holiday. We didn't have anywhere in mind so set rough dates and price bracket and saw what looked good! Mark hasn't done much travelling but after dipping his toe in last year with a motorbike tour to Italy he had the travel bug and was keen to do more. That isn't really fair is it? Motorbiking half way across a continent is more than dipping a toe - I'd argue that was more like wading away from the shallows? Look, I've got myself all confused in a metaphor and I haven't even got to the plane yet. Anyway, as a relative travel novice Mark was bamboozled with the imposing cost that adventure holidays take. The initial package then long haul flights all add up but thankfully I wore him down and we booked onto something called the Cambodian Traveller. Flights soon followed and then we forgot about it to be honest. Booking for August in January means there's a long time to wait.

We did some initial shopping to get Mark kitted out with some of the travel basics like walking boots and a big backpack. We even tested the boots out on a walk in the lake district which was honestly one of the most unpleasant experiences I have the misfortune to remember (despite efforts to drink a whole bar afterwards). It took blood sweat and tears to get me up and down that sodding mountain but the boots were golden.

If you don't take a photo of your plane wing do you even fly?


August rolled round and soon we were all packed up and ready to go. I was surprised at how comfortable I felt packing my pack again. I hadn't used it since Morocco so it was like seeing an old friend again. I'm not quite as attached to my pack as Johnny from Hotel Transylvania, but its up there. Mark got hung up on how to split his cash and were to store it in his luggage (inside a sock) but other than that it was non-eventful. The flight took forever. By the end I was so claustrophobic and achy, I forget how bad it is each time I fly long haul. Minor perk - lactose free meals looked a lot better than the regular ones and came early so that's something.


We arrived into Ho Chi Minh late on Saturday, having left early on Friday, and were bundled into a car and taken somewhere. I'm always amazed at how much you just have to trust people when you're away. This man could have been anyone, he didn't have our names just a sign with the travel company on. We got into an unmarked ute and drove. Could have been anywhere but fortunately we were dropped off with all our luggage (and fingers and toes) at a rather nice hotel. After being ripped off by the hotel exchange rates we found a spectacularly average Chinese restaurant, had something even the menu described as mystery meat, and then fell into a bed big enough for 4.

View from the Hotel roof
Sunday breakfast was surreal as there were clearly a lot of travellers at the hotel but with no way of knowing who was with what tour we helped ourselves to breakfast and got on with our curry..... yes our breakfast curry. Even after our whole trip I couldn't quite understand breakfast curry. We took a bus early that morning and having spent many hours to get to Vietnam, we promptly drove out of it and into Cambodia. 6 hours and two boarder checks later (out of Vietnam and into Cambodia are separate and a little drive apart from each other) we arrived into sunny Phnom Penh!

After a quick freshen up we bundled into some tuctucs and set out on a tour of the city. Phnom means a mound and Penh was a kick ass woman who defended the city from a flood a long time ago. She also built a beautiful temple on top of the hill therefore it's called Wat Phnom (temple on the hill). We also saw the Independence monument, a statue to the old King, and some markets. All the while in our tour, our guide was explaining the tip of what we would learn was a very turbulent and harrowing past the country has had in very recent history.

Our tour family in front of Wat Phnom

Would you?

We went to dinner in outreach restaurant where they employed parents of underprivileged children so they could go to school. This was our first real taste of Khmer (Cambodian) food so we dived right in and ordered the tarantula. Mark ate one but there is something so inherently repellent about large spiders that even with the full knowledge that they were dead and suitable for eating, I couldn't bring myself to touch one. I ate a leg.... that counts right? The rest of the group were equally horrified but a couple of brave souls helped us finish the 3 we were served.

A couple of drinks later we headed back to the hotel for a well deserved sleep in preparation of what was to come tomorrow....


Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Stovepipe - the hidden hat hostelry

I needed coffee. So many of my adventures start with that simple sentence that my caffeine addiction really should replace "Once upon a time" or at least be an addition. This is one of them. There are more caffeine fuelled exploits here and here and if you're feeling particularly retro (I mention using msn non-ironically) here.

Once upon a time, I needed coffee. I ducked out of the arndale and was heading into the northern quarter when my partner asked me where I would like to go. "What about here?" I asked as we walked past the window. "Has this always been here?" And like the room of requirement, Stovepipe revealed itself. I don't mean that the place is literally hidden but it looks so incredibly at home nestled into the high street between a red brick pub and a music trade shop - how much more Mancunian can you get? I was entirely surprised to hear the bar had opened only a few days before!

Inside it looks like a bachelor's living room with dark chesterfield sofas, upcycled wooden shelves, and industrial columns. Of course the expected stovepipe hat is pride of place amongst other knickknacks and books, but there are elements of whimsy scattered about. The whole effect creates a grown-up but relaxed comfy feel, devoid of gimmicks or themes that are prevalent in attention hungry NQ establishments.

I settled down in a particularly cosy sofa with a soy flat white and tried to forget the din of the arndale. I spotted they stocked Manchester's zymurgorium gins and a couple of marmalade G&Ts later we were enticed by the board games. An hour further on (and still no closer to understanding how to play the Hobbit board game) we left, but only to return a few Saturdays later with some visiting friends.

Six of us settled down to lunch. The restaurant is running a reduced menu pre-official launch (I'll get to that later) but there was still a mix of cooked breakfasts, sandwiches and salads on offer all of which arrived promptly and were very tasty! However, the eggs benedict, although came as described on the menu, is served with spinach not bacon which makes it eggs florentine in my book. The sandwiches are mighty especially the club, the salads are fresh and well balanced, but by far and away the stovepipe brekkie is the most impressive. The photo below doesn't do it justice.

Stovepipe Brekkie, Beetroot and Walnut Salad, Eggs Benedict

After lunch we settled into that common post meal activity; a game of Zombies - another one of their board games. Again this had complicated rules which were confounded by trying some of hand made cocktails. The menu was enticing enough for the men to abandon any attempts at outdated masculinity so had pornstar martinis and raspberry prosecco 1897s both of which they said were delicious. I particularly enjoyed the espresso martini (see caffeine addiction earlier) and the stovepipe own larger was pretty good! The result of all this is their games need a maximum drinks suggestion on the box. There also may be some zombies that fell through the floorboards...

All in all I suspect I will be returning to Stovepipe. There's good food, a fabulously stocked bar, and staff that are always happy for a chat and a giggle. They're having an official launch this Thursday (15th June) with free drinks so you can go and see for yourself. Its RSVP so drop them a line on their facebook or instagram.


Full disclosure: Stovepipe approached me about writing a review after I first visited for a coffee by chance. I was not (and am not, nor will be) paid for this post however I received free round of cocktails when I returned. Stovepipe had no input into this post. All opinions are my own.