Travel Review of 2018

Puerto Tazacorte on La Palma in the Canary Islands
Puerto Tazacorte

The year wasn’t without its complications and we had some disruption to travel plans, but managed to rescue the year pretty well in the circumstances. We suffered two bereavements during the year; in June Phil’s Dad died, then at the end of November, Michaela’s Nan passed away. Both of them had helped shape our love of travel: see Michaela’s story and Phil’s story.

Despite these sad losses causing one cancellation, and one delay, of holidays, it was still a pretty spectacular year, and one which has further fuelled our appetite for retiring, giving up the day job, loading the backpacks and going off to see the world. It’s going to happen, soon.

England wise, we had stays in Thame, Oxfordshire: a terrific little town with a great selection of pubs, but a weekend spoilt by the incessant rain; two walking weekends in Phil’s Derbyshire homeland; two weekends in Padstow, and visits to London and Birmingham. Padstow is a place very close to our heart, and one we are very familiar with.

March saw a terrific break in La Palma in the Canary Islands, in a terrific little place called Puerto Tazacorte. This was a backpacking trip, something we always love, nothing booked but the flights. Puglia was booked for June but was the trip which suffered cancellation, though we have now resurrected the plan for 2019.

Next up then was a fabulous trip to Asia, taking in Kuala Lumpur, Jungle trekking in Malaysia, the paradise island of Tioman, and the thrilling experience of seeing Singapore for the first time. All of it was brilliant, but Singapore in particular is unfinished business.

Our only foreign city break this year was Geneva, in November.

We finished the year in Mexico, partly in Oaxaca and partly in Puerto Escondido, both truly wonderful destinations in their own right, but with a foodie experience well worthy of the title of our blog! Mexico overlapped into 2019, so we’re up and running.

So what’s in store in 2019 now? Well, there’s a Budapest weekend; a 10-day trip to Jordan, and the resurrected Puglia trip already on the calendar, but there’ll be plenty more, plus, all things being equal, this might just be our last year at work before that travelling dream becomes reality.

Birmingham City Gas Street Basin barges and pubs

Birmingham City
Padstow Harbour Cornwall seagulls and fishing boats
Padstow Harbour
Kuala Lumpur Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur
Tioman Island beach shack Malaysia South China Sea
Tioman Island
Oaxaca Mexico, churches & buildings
Oaxaca Mexico

Faces of the world

Seaweed farm in Zanzibar

Like we said in our last blog post, it’s uncanny how you can capture the spirit, and the memories, of a place, by simply capturing in shot, a face, or body, of someone, sometimes completely unintentionally. Sometimes it’s someone you met, more often than not, it isn’t. It’s only when you look back, you see the face, the memories flood back. One face, one image, and you are transported back into the moment.

Let’s start with the one above. We’d taken a bus across Zanzibar to a remote east coast beach at Paje, not knowing of the existence of the seaweed farm where ladies like the one above worked all day, sitting all day in the water, reaping the harvest.

The second pic, below, is on a road trip across Bengal, where these cheeky boys just wanted to be in camera shot…

Cheeky Bengal boys in photograph

We were travelling way out from Kolkata, heading for the Sunderbans mangrove swamps, when the roads ran out, and the only way on was this overloaded dugout, full of locals returning to their own mangrove island after going to market. Their faces reflect their surprise at seeing two white people on the “ferry”….

Overloaded mangrove swamp boat

The next two shots are in Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania. When the fishing boat comes in, there’s nowhere to dock, so the only way to get the fish ashore is a human chain, standing fully clothed in the water, passing the buckets of fish from man to man. From there, there is no further journey, the fish market is right on the shore, and the guy in the second shot was only too happy to stop and pose as he filleted the fresh fish….

Fishing fleet arrives in Dar Es salaam

Dar Es salaam fish market

Skoura in Morocco was a stunning destination, a small Berber village close to the awesome Dades Gorge and on the very edge of the Sahara; after Skoura there is nothing, pretty much for ever. We were lucky enough to catch market day, where this Berber was looking to sell his wares….

Berber shepherd on market day

Sometimes the fish are so plentiful that all you need to do is drag a big net through the ocean, on foot. This lady is in Bakkhali….

The ease of fishing in Bengal

There’s not many better experiences than being in a bar where you are the only travellers and nobody cares, because it’s locals night. They’ve brought the instruments, they strike up. They play, you listen. They’re not playing for you, they’re not playing for tourists, they’re playing because it’s their night. Spanish guitars, dancing ladies. This was a brilliant night….

Impromptu music in Spanish bar

We were trekking through Ait Mansour, an oasis in deepest Morocco. We thought we wouldn’t see anyone all day, then we stumbled on Omar’s commune, where a small group of travellers from around the world were helping the oasis dwellers build an irrigation system. Omar taught us how to make herbal tea….

Berber shepherd making herbal tea

Driving down from Dikili to Foca in Turkey, we took a random detour up into the mountains, with no idea of the good fortune our detour would bring. The tiny village we approached was alive with action, and to our delight we were called in to join the celebrations, which turned out to be the celebration of a young lad who had reached puberty. The party was to celebrate his impending circumcision. The villagers were as amused by our presence as we were astonished at our luck…

Circumcision celebration in Turkish village

An inevitable stop on the roads across India is the tea or chai stop. This wonderfully photogenic lady provided not just tea but tasty sugary bites on our long journey…

Roadside tea on Indian road trip

Varanasi is perhaps the most stirring, incredible place we have visited so far, every instinct and every sense is tested, your comfort zone is a distant memory. Cremations before your eyes, masses drinking filthy water from the sacred river…..and on and on. There’s a million photos we could share, but this guy’s distant look kind of sums it all up…

On the ghats at Varanasi

And to finish… We’d long since left Varanasi, been to the mangrove swamps, and ended up in the seriously unfamiliar territory of Bakkhali on the Bengal coast, where people came and touched our skin, simply because they hadn’t seen aliens like us before. There, just a hundred yards from families on the beach, one family cremated a relative, burning the body and floating her out to sea. As the “party” broke up, two ladies stopped before us. Did they want to show their mettle by posing for us? We don’t know, but this photograph, knowing what their last few moments had entailed, is awesome.

Dignity in mourning

Many things make travel wonderful. People are one major aspect…

Faces of Mexico

Mexican lady in market of Ocotlan Oaxaca Mexico

Photographs of people’s faces can be so evocative of travel; somehow you can capture the spirit and image of a place with a single shot of someone. But of course it’s not always the right thing to do, and as an independent traveller, learning how to respect the local people, and their beliefs, is an essential part of getting closer to their culture. Taking direct photographs can offend, in some parts of the world there is a genuine dislike, and in some parts of Asia in particular, there is a belief that each photograph steals a part of the soul.

Then of course there are those who want money for a photograph, and then there are those who are very happy to be captured on film.

The Oaxaca region of Mexico is so full of evocative faces. The valleys surrounding the city are home to the descendants of 16 different indigenous tribes, each with their own appearance, dialect and culture. Apparently the locals can tell at a glance which tribe someone heralds from, we didn’t quite get that far but it’s impossible to miss some of the more distinctive features. Some look very much like we imagine so called “Red Indians” to look (there’s cowboys too!); some are short and squat with wider faces; some of the older ladies, presumably from a particular tribe, keep their hair very long and plaited, and then tie the ends of the plaits together with an oversized and brightly coloured ribbon.

There is no racist element to this identification process; on the contrary, it is the immense pride in heritage that keeps the distinctive looks alive.

We managed to capture some shots of faces which we think evoke the spirit and the memories of the vibrant city of Oaxaca. Some are reproduced here.

Street hawker in Oaxaca Mexico

Local man in Ocotlan Oaxaca Mexico

In the market Oaxaca Mexico

Vegetarians look away now. Posted 6/1/19

Passila de Carnes asada Oaxaca Mexico
Passila de Carnes asada

Behind the main market in Oaxaca (Mercardo Benito Juarez) lies Mercado de 20 Noviembre, a frantically busy food market which is full of life. One narrow entrance here leads into a corridor within the market nicknamed locally “Passila de carnes asada”, which translates as “grilled meats passage”, and is a brilliant experience, though perhaps not if you’re vegetarian. It works like this.

Narrow passage, rammed with people walking each way. Butchers line both sides, strange cuts of raw meat hang from rails and sit on counters. Between each butcher there’s hot coals, roasting meat to order. A handful of tables are wedged between some grills, at right angles to the alley, so diners have to move to let you in. You order your meat from a butcher’s runner, who shouts instruction to the women fanning the coals and to the butcher himself. Separate vendors patrol the corridor, trays balanced on their heads; one selling veg and moles, the other tortillas. They are independent vendors needing to be paid separately, but their wares are essential for your meal.

Noise and smoke fill the air. Manic activity surrounds you. Your platter arrives. You indulge.

Fantastic.

Passila de Carnes asada Oaxaca Mexico

Passila de Carnes asada

Oaxaca city guide – Part 2

Oaxaca Mexico street
Oaxaca

Please re-read our last post, the 2-minute guide to Oaxaca; we accidentally posted the unfinished version, it now reads as it was meant to! How much do you love unravelling the challenge of using public transport in an unfamiliar place!? It’s not only a stimulating part of settling in, but it’s also one of those things which brings you closer to the local culture. We had a good fix of it today – it’s on Day 21 of Mexico, which you’ll find in The Americas section.

Guide to Puerto Escondido’s beaches

Pelican fishing Pacific Ocean Puerto Escondido Oaxaca Mexico
Beach life

One of the joys of this lovely place is that each of the beaches has a very distinct character, meaning in reality that there is a beach here for everyone. Here’s a brief guide to them all, starting at the western end and moving through the town to the eastern tip. Some things in this list are relative; for instance, the seas are powerful everywhere, so if we say it’s calmer, it’s still a very strong current. Most have a steep shelf fairly early, so waters become deep, close to the shore. Expect large numbers of hawkers and vendors: the busier the beach, the more there are. Sands throughout are soft, fine and golden. In brief then:-

Playa Bacocho. This is where to go for peace and privacy. An amazing huge stretch of soft sand mixed with coral shards, backed by lines of palm trees. A few miles out of town, and therefore quieter than the town beaches, with masses of space given its size. No facilities other than by paying to enter a private beach club; not even a drinks bar. Huge waves; powerful seas, but not surfing territory due to the last minute breaking of the waves. Seas too strong for swimming but OK for “surf play” as long as you’re fit and can cope with the power. Bacocho is home to the turtle project (see Day 13). Accessible by car.

Bacocho beach Pacific Ocean Puerto Escondido Oaxaca Mexico
Bacocho beach

Playa Coral. Small cove separated from Bacocho by rocks. We didn’t actually visit Coral but viewed it from Bacocho and it appears to be a scaled down version with similar characteristics, and no facilities other than a club with a fee. Accessible by car.

Playa Carrizalillo. Without doubt the most picturesque of them all, set in a gorgeous cove, cliffs above, palm trees at beach level backed by deciduous hillside behind and above. Quieter than the town beaches but can still get busy. Accessible only by 160-odd steep steps down the cliff which is probably why it’s quieter. The tight cove makes for a calmer sea and swimming is good, rocks at the sides make for outstanding snorkelling. A handful of beach bars (palapas), including one with a chilled drinks platform upstairs.

Playa Carrizalillo

Puerto Angelito. Small cove beach but much loved by Mexican families so gets utterly rammed. Don’t let that put you off; watching the fun had by these colourful and entertaining people makes a visit here worthwhile, regardless. Seas are calm, swimming easy and snorkelling good. A mass of palapas cover over half of the sand bringing noise, colour and pizazz to this beach. Home to many boat trips so there is constant coming and going of small boats, making boat trips easy but dirtying the water a bit. Accessible by car.

Playa Angelito Pacific Ocean beach Puerto Escondido Oaxaca Mexico
Playa Angelito

Playa Manzanillo. Separated from Angelito only by a short path across rocks, yet that seems enough to deter many families and consequently is quite a bit quieter than its noisy neighbour. Same sea condition as Angelito but without the boat trips. Smaller number of palapas but still plenty of nice shady bars. Is accessible by car in its own right so it’s strange that it’s quieter, but good that it’s different.

Playa Manzanillo beach Pacific Ocean Puerto Escondido Oaxaca Mexico
Playa Manzanillo

Bahia Playa Principal. The main town beach and home to the fishing fleet, flocks of pelicans, and sun seekers galore. Seas are calm enough for children to be safe if accompanied, and the beach is alive with hawkers, vendors, food offers and pretty much all of human life. Many of the bars have a double frontage on to both beach and street and therefore feel a bit more like a restaurant than a palapa, unless you take a beach table. Amazing to watch the sheer volume of fish being caught, by fishermen, kids with basic lines, pelicans, gulls and even herons. Is right in town so is easily accessible by any means.

Playa Principal beach  Pacific Ocean Puerto Escondido Oaxaca Mexico
Playa Principal

Playa Marinero. The scarcely definable stretch which separates Principal from Zicatela and home to the set of rocks which give the beach its name (Marinero means sailors, and the locals say the rocks resemble the wizened faces of old sailors). For fun in the sea, the perfect blend, in between the calmer waters of Principal and the Pipeline rollers of Zicatela, Marinero has powerful waves which can knock you off your feet but surf which can carry you in at speed even without a board. Large expanse of sand, quieter than Principal and with very pleasant palapas along the back. A 5-10 minute walk along the sand from town.

Playa Marinero beach Pacific Ocean Puerto Escondido Oaxaca Mexico
Playa Marinero

Playa Zicatela. Home of the colossal Pipeline surfing waves. Swimming is barred as currents are far too strong, but well worth a visit to watch the world class surfers perform amazing twists and somersaults inside the tube of crashing surf. Large expanse of sand but largely empty due to the strong waters. 150 metres back from the beach is the Zicatela strip, a street lined with bars, restaurants, cocktail joints, hotels, night clubs. At night, music is everywhere and the quasi Bohemian atmosphere of the surfing fraternity holds sway. It’s the closest you get to a resort feel, but is never tacky – in fact, the area has a certain laid back quality vibe and you would have to be a proper misery to not feel good sipping a £3 cocktail to a soundtrack of lounge music and crashing surf. Easily accessible from the strip.

Playa Zicatela

Punta Zicatela. Final easternmost point, beyond surfing and into backpacking territory. Actually is still good surfing but not quite Pipeline. Has cheap accommodation and backpackers’ hostels. Is a couple of miles out of town but is accessible by road beyond the Zicatela strip.

Sunset Pacific Ocean shore at Zicatela Puerto Escondido Oaxaca Mexico
Another glorious sunset

Mezcal y moles: Oaxacan cuisine 22/12/18

Moles in Puerto Escondido market Oaxaca Mexico
Moles in the market

Both the city and state of Oaxaca are considered culinary destinations even within Mexico, having a reputation for its own twist on Mexican cuisine. Oaxaca food is a series of specialities in its own right, but two of its biggest sources of pride are mezcal and moles – that’s mole pronounced not as in the small mammal, but as the “mole” in “guacamole”.

Mezcal is a strong shot drink, in the same ballpark as tequila but with a distinct flavour, and is distilled from the agave plant. It is clear in colour and served in a tubular shot glass, usually in quite a large quantity for a strong shot. The flavour of the agave within the spirit is a little unusual, and Michaela in particular finds it a challenge; the afterburn is not too ferocious. Now, the way to drink mezcal is to first put a powder on the tongue, in the same way as you take salt with tequila, except this powder is ground dried chilli and ground moth caterpillar. We’ve done it, and assume that the powder we’ve been given is that one as described, and were excited to try it. It’s rather unpleasant though, and has almost a disinfectant type taste which we don’t find palatable in the slightest.

So, on to the “moles”. Moles are the sauces which throughout Oaxaca state are added to, or available with, virtually every dish, as the different flavours of the moles compliment different dishes. They are mostly hot in terms of chilli flavour (piquante is the right word) but are quite different in character. Basically they are…

Mole negro – deep brown, almost black, contains chilli, spices and chocolate, but is savoury

Mole amarillo – yellow in colour, tomatillos and spices

Mole verde – green; corn, pumpkin seeds, nuts, spices

Mole colorado – brown; chillis and cinnamon

Mole coloradito or mole rojo – red; tomatoes and chillis

Mole manteles – red; the chilli sauce served over pineapples etc

Chichilo negro – three types of chilli plus avocado leaves and tomato, the least common mole.

You can’t help but enjoy moles whilst in Oaxaca, to Oaxacans, these sauces are what defines the meal. For us visitors, part of the delight is that the recipes vary from restaurant to restaurant, meaning no two moles are ever identical. All part of Oaxaca’s stimulating cuisine.