“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men often go awry”

With only one month to go, our trip is seeming a lot more real today. Below is a map of our route that should see us arriving in Guatemala around April next year. The green lines indicate flights and are pretty much set in stone.

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After flying to Cancún in mid-December we really do hope to hang up our wings and travel by land leaving the whole experience much more open to wandering. Yet so much could happen along those little blue lines.

The permaculture design certificate course in France should introduce a new perspective on the natural world and how we interact with it. Once in Canada, we’re hoping to do a little work on an organic farm in Nelson, B.C. before heading up through Calgary to our friend’s wedding in Edmonton, A.B.

Then we meander down through the Rockies and onto Vancouver Island where we could have the privilege of helping out on a therapeutic farm for homeless people. Our flight takes us to Cancún before Christmas, perhaps helping out in an eco-hostel on the beach 😀 After that Belize and Guatemala, then it’s Southbound to God knows where.

Yet with all these ideas, we cannot plan everything. Nor would we wish to. The unpredictability and openness to diverge seems to offer more in terms of opportunities for growth and a building of trust in the world.

Martin & Olga

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Ubicación del subcontinente centroamericano en...

Ubicación del subcontinente centroamericano en el mundo. Location of the Central American subcontinent in the world. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Back to Basics in Nepal’s Bardia National Park.

97After the high octane maneuvering through India’s intensely overpopulated Golden Triangle we headed north to Nepal in the hope of getting some respite before returning to the madness. Thankfully, this is exactly what we got. The instant we strolled under the arch in the town of Nepalgunj crossing the border, auto-rickshaws seemed to magically transform into bicycle tuk-tuks and the incessant beeping faded into the distance behind us.

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Just a word of caution to any travellers planning this route: We arrived at the immigration office expecting to pay Nepalese rupees. Alas, this wasn’t the case. We offered Indian rupees, euros and even British pounds but only US dollars were acceptable. As it was the weekend, all banks were closed and they told us we could exchange money in a hotel one kilometre away. However, they required our passports as insurance so that we wouldn’t run off into the Himalayas. Of course the hotel only had a hundred dollar bill when all we needed was forty. Upon our return, the officials informed us that they didn’t have change either. The paranoid part of me suspected a scam but in that moment, the slow pace of the main road was enough to put us off any idea of returning over the Indian border and so we took the financial hit.

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Apart from that occasion however, our experience of this region of Nepal was quite blissful. Nature seemed abundant in this monsoon season and we could have strolled all day were it not for the humidity. Instead we took short walks before returning to our accommodation in Bardia National Park. On our trips we found all sorts of creatures from monkeys to dragonflies the size of my hand.

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Flowers were in bloom everywhere and we sampled local fruits that dangled from trees at the side of the roads. This natural landscape was something to both admire and respect. At one point the local leeches took even advantage of Olga’s short trousers and sampled her leg. While on our self-led tours we acquired a canine companion named ‘Girl Dog’ who followed us around all day. When we retreated to our cabin to relax she would follow us back and sit with us as we all panted to say cool. During midday, hours were spent just sitting on the porch sweating, drinking water, staring out over the rice fields and listening to the buzz of the rainforest.

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On what I now consider to be one of our busier days there, we rented a couple of bicycles and cycled to a nearby elephant sanctuary where we were given the chance to make up rice pellets wrapped in grass and feed them to these magnificent mammals. It was incredible to be so close to such large living beings, to feel the fear that they had the strength to stamp your life out but be comforted by the calmness and serenity in their eyes.

121The remainder of our time was spent exploring the countryside, chatting with local children and watching the farmers riding their ox-drawn carts through the village. Life seemed very simple there. Homes were built of mud, electricity was barely used and there seemed to be little in terms of material possessions. Yet, people seemed content, and focused completely on whatever task they were engaged in. The Westerners seem so torn by the endless possibilities we have in our lives, so many options. It almost seems as much our curse than it is our gift.

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Nepal recharged us and we returned to India a little more tolerant and calm, yet able to hold our boundaries, not letting the exterior intensity invade our personal space as much by calling upon mental images of those tranquil fields at the foot of the Himalayas.

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Incredible India? The Golden Triangle

All the tell tale signs were there before we ever left home; the population figures, the overbearing service in Indian restaurants in Dublin, the harsh reality depicted in the movie Slumdog Millionaire with it’s romantic plot making it more digestible to the Westerner. But no… we were suckered in by the Incredible India ad campaign portraying the country to be what it simply is not.

As the plane embraced the New Delhi runway, we peered out of the tiny window and for a second saw a train passing with possibly more people on top than inside. We had finally arrived in India.

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Nothing could have prepared us for what we encountered throughout our time there. As we strolled out of the cool air-conditioned arrivals door the combination of people asking us all sorts of questions and the Delhi sun hit us like a tonne of bricks. We were quickly ushered to a auto rickshaw and bundled in. We gave the address of our couchsurfing host and although he’d never heard of it, our driver accepted the challenge.

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When we arrived, our host was out of town but we were welcomed in to our accommodation for the night by a lovely man who taught us about the presence and role of Sikhs in India. The building was an orphanage school in the middle of the slums. Poverty was everywhere, but our minds were too focused on our own survival to empathise. After a few moments in our room, we managed to acclimatize both to the humidity and the culture.

We were quickly introduced to the children and thrown into helping out in homework club. We had to laugh at how all our preparations for staying hygienic went out the window when these affectionately filthy street kids climbed on our laps and proceeded to sneeze, fart and pick their noses.  From that point on our concerns decreased. That is of course until we got to Jaipur for the bout of vomitting/diarrhea which I’ve decided to call “The Rumble in Rajasthan”.

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One thing that tested the very boundaries of my tolerance for other cultures was seeing the (so called sacred) cattle resorting to grazing in the many mountains of garbage that blocked the streets and alleys. Once, I saw a cow eating from a used nappy. I am both a vegetarian and the son of a beef cattle farmer and for the first time I realised that although far less that good enough, at least cows in Ireland are treated to fresh air and grass throughout their shortened lives.

One reason for travelling to India was to experience a more simplistic way of life, rich in spiritual and psychological exploration and an appreciation for nature. This couldn’t have been further from the truth. What we got was a constant stream of pestering by too many people intent on either selling us something or killing us with their eagerness to help us find  food, accommodation or transport.

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India seemed to consist of little moments… pockets of space and time to rest and take in what’s happening while instincts for self-preservation can relax for a second. The moments spent alone in the sanctuary and tranquility of the occasional decent toilet cubicle was like reaching enlightenment. Then it was back out to avoiding high-speed rickshaws and listening to the endless honking of horns.

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Much like a computer game, the famous Monkey temple in Jaipur consisted of various levels. Once we passed the pushy street vendors, we climbed through the chubby-faced children begging for money (I’ve worked with children as a therapist for quite some time and know that these are not the most impoverished in India. The real priority cases are hidden behind closed doors, down alleyways, dying and unable to afford medical care). Upwards through the aggressive monkeys who like to bite tourists and finally we reached the top of the hill with it’s beautiful sunset and moment of blissful silence.

iAfter being completely ripped off, we entered the Taj Mahal in Agra – another oasis of calm in a city full of chaos. Behind the temple gates, we could hear ourselves think and make decisions more effectively. We treasured these moments and could take in the beauty of India such as the colourful dresses worn by the Indian women.

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We see more clearly now, how our expectations led to disappointment, how we despise the tourist trails and how as predominately introverted, the in-your-face attitude of the Indian people was always going to cause us stress. After Agra, we headed north into Nepal and found exactly what we had been looking for. But that’s another story.

I have heard so many people say so many wonderful things about India that I feel I owe it to the country to give it a second chance at some stage. Perhaps I will, but not for a while. And not as a tourist.   

Click Map: http://goo.gl/maps/P6aMk

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The Overview Effect

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I find that moment in the sixties when the camera turns and shows humanity their home to be hugely significant, in particular, the words of the co-founder of the Overview Institute, David Beaver, who suggests that we were not actually trying to see the moon but ourselves. Narcissism seems to be something we can all confess to at times but this seems to transcend mere navel gazing. The philosopher, David Loy, sees this moment as the birth of a new type of self-awareness. For me, it seems to represent seeing ourselves as part of as opposed to central to something far bigger.

 Earth-From-Space_www.FullHDWpp.com_I’m often comparing the collective human development to that of the individual life-cycle and would like to believe that our level of self-awareness is growing. The earth has been around some four and a half billion years and the sun is expected to burn for another 6 billion. This puts us somewhere in our early adulthood I guess.  In some respects, Neanderthals could be seen as young children, blissfully ignorant of their own existence and yet innocently and playfully connected to their environment.

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Having persevered through the dark ages of humanity’s adolescence, we are now at what Erickson called the young adult stage where we are faced with the conflict between isolation and intimacy. Our disconnection from our environment and the rage with which we bombard it is reaching boiling point. Do we engage with the task of improving our relationships with others through reflecting on our most protected vulnerabilities, or do we commit suicide or self-medicate like so many people in their early twenties?

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The answer… who knows? Optimists will tell one tale while prophets from the Church of Half Empty Glasses will describe another. I would consider myself to be relatively environmentally responsible but must admit, I do get comfort from the fact that humanity is just one part of the much larger puzzle and as destructive as we are, it can all be repaired and restored by nature, perhaps by destroying us, perhaps not. Either way, it’s not over. As Einstein said, energy can not be created or destroyed, just changed. With this in mind, the end of humanity cannot be seen as positive or negative – just a sort of neutral alchemy.

I’m not suggesting we all burn our compost bins and smash our solar panels… not at all. But this perspective does take this edge of guilt out of the equation freeing us up to become creative in our response to climate change, to enjoy nurturing the environment as opposed to ticking off a to do list so we’ll sleep better at night. As Geoff Lawton, one of the founders of permaculture said, we have the ability not just to protect our environment, but to profoundly enhance it. What a legacy that would be.

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Life is Easy?

Here’s another inspirational video from a man who seems to possess some real intelligence – a  knowledge of what’s really important in life. Jon Jandai founded PunPun, the centre for self-reliance http://www.punpunthailand.org/?page_id=34 near Chiang Mai in Thailand. He is a farmer, natural home builder and one of an increasing number of people who are turning away from the rat-race that is Westernized culture.

At this juncture in my own life, I am reaching the point where a veil is being lifted and I’m seeing the many alternative ways of living that focus on mutually beneficial production, conservation, and sustainability. It seems that in order to achieve this, we must strip away so many preconceived ideas about the world, ideas which have been instilled in us throughout our own upbringing by our nearest and dearest. And this is tough. Afterall, if the cautions handed down to us from our care-givers turn out to be false, then we might actually have to man up and decide for ourselves whether to take risks in life, or strive to place ourselves in that more positive, trusting and harmonious environment.

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Jon touched on something hugely important to modern society – the idea that we need to have certain things in order to be happy. Many such possessions must be equal to if not better than our neighbour’s things. Yet, once you travel the world, you see that people live extraordinarily different lives and compete to possess completely different things. As an Irish man, property and land jump out as being the holy grail of our existence. Yet, in Germany, it doesn’t matter if you own or rent a flat or a palace as long as you drive a better car than the Jone’s. 

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Therefore, this whole competition is completely relative and a complete illusion. I know this. You know this. Yet we persist in this game. Madness. We ignore the truth and persevere working thirty odd years for a house when we could be building a modest natural home and seriously reducing the amount of time we spend in a job we grow to resent. Instead, we could be lying in a hammock somewhere pondering the truths about our existence and what it is we really want to do with our lives.

Fundamentally, what needs to occur is an examination of our lifestyle, what we need, what we  desire, and what it is we don’t really want but feel pressurized to possess. Then, we must begin to evaluate the sacrifice. What are we giving up to have such things in our lives? And is it worth it? When I lived in Thailand, I would look at those people lying on top of their bamboo stalls snoozing in the sunshine, I felt impatient at their lack of ambition. It’s only now I begin to see how clever they are. This is a fictitious marathon we’re in, and frankly, I’m a bit tired of running around in circles.

Take it easy!

Martin

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Boozing in Bavaria.

15As the train cranked it’s way through the Austrian Alps and across the border towards Munich, we were excited not just by the fact that we would be meeting old friends but that we were arriving in the Weisse bier capital of the world. For those who may not be familiar with this form of frothy brew, weisse beer is prepared with a large quantity of wheat and malted barley. Yummy.

14With a few nights in Munich lined up and ten more nights http://www.couchsurfing.org with three different hosts around rural Bayern, we were certainly going to become well acquainted with this stuff. First, we payed a visit to the English Gardens, which was full of unusual activities such people surfing on a river in the middle of a city and a large part of the park filled with naked people. However, the highlight for us had to be gorging on giant salty pretzels and knocking back the weisse beer. After that is a bit of a blur but when we checked our cameras after leaving the city, sure enough, there was photographic evidence that we had visited a few attractions in the city, like St. Peter’s Church.

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IMG_5270We departed Munich feeling satisfied if  not a little what the German’s would call katzenjammer. Onwards to Roding, a small town in rural Bavaria. Our couchsurfing host was in Switzerland but recommended that we stay with his parents. Despite a certain awkwardness in the beginning, we were absolutely thrilled with this experience. They were gentle, considerate people who possessed a real curiosity for different cultures.

IMG_5273They loaned us their bicycles to visit Cham, with it’s huge castle-like entrance to this small city and the impressive maypole standing proudly in the square. Back in Roding, we took a quick ride on a awfully German looking cow and then our host drove us an embarrassing 25km to our next host who was there to meet us in the town of Rötz, which we later learned when hosting a couple of German guys, that this name means ‘snots’. Moving on swiftly, there was plenty to do in the area, such as climbing Arbor mountain and having a nice weisse beer. Our next destination was Viechtach, which was again, only 25km from there. Here, we spent our days picking mushrooms and

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30learning how to cook scrumptious Bavarian meals. One evening we headed down to the local festival which seemed to be something about beer. We drank and ate, and ate and drank, until we had indulged to the point of explosion. Finally, since this host was under 21yrs old and itching to do a spot of gambling, she very kindly drove us over the border into the Czech Republic where we

IMG_5602began the detox of the century. Overall, rural Bavaria stood out for us as extremely picturesque and welcoming. Never have we been somewhere that felt so much like the locals had decided to take a holiday with us. Oh and finally, did we mention beer?

Yours soberly,

Olga & Martin

Click Map: http://goo.gl/maps/dvWVR

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Loy Krathong, Thailand.

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For weeks beforehand, there was a buzz of excitement around the school. The teachers were as excited as the kids, a kind of innocent excitement that you just wouldn’t see in the modern Irish (or perhaps Western adult). But there was good reason for such sense of anticipation – Loi Krathong. This is a festival celebrated throughout Thailand, parts of Laos, and the Shan state of Burma (Myanmar). It is a way of showing respect and giving thanks to the goddess of water. The word ลอยกระทง (Loi Krathong) means floating crown, floating trunk or floating decoration depending on who you’re talk to.

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It was at this time when I was TEFL teaching, I had started a programme called ‘Teach Me Thai’. The primary objective was to get the students to become more comfortable around ‘the farang’ (foreigner) and reach such a point of frustration at trying to explain something to me in Thai that they’d be forced to speak more English. For me, taking the risk to speak to natives is the hardest part of learning a new language and I figured doing it this way would be less strenuous than speaking English in front of the class. Well, I never even thought I might actually learn any Thai but after several weeks of pressure they managed to drill a little of the Loi Krathong song into my head. The English translation acts as a manual for the clueless on what it’s all about and what’s expected of you on the day.

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The full moon (of) the twelfth month,
as water fills to the banks.
We, all men and women, really have a good time
(on) loy krathong day
Float, float the krathongs
Float, float the krathongs
After we’ve floated our krathongs, (I)
invite (you) my darling to come out and dance.
Ramwong (on) loy krathong day
Ramwong (on) loy krathong day
(Making) merit will give us happiness
(Making) merit will give us happiness
 
 
 

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So there you have it, full moon of the twelfth month (November in the Western calendar… don’t ask!), get your Krathong, float it on the river! Afterwards, have a dance, play the Ramwong drum and make some merit! Bob’s your uncle… you’ve got happiness. The old Catholic within is trying to convince me that this is all too enjoyable to be spiritual and that I should repent for even thinking about it let alone taking part.

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So it went, I watched as all students and teachers alike, constructing these incredibly intricate designs, each completely unique. I couldn’t help but be struck by their creativity and the joy they received from simply folding up banana leaves. I pictured trying to make these with some of the kids I worked with in Dublin, them succumbing to their ADD, ADHD (or whatever other label there is for uncomfortable within oneself) and firing them out the window while cursing me for suggesting the idea.

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Not in Thailand, they busied themselves until the task was completed and finally the night arrived. We headed down to the river and after the important and ancient ritual of photographing everyone from every angle imaginable, we finally got to cast them out on the water. Then came that moment of serenity, nobody spoke, we all just stared out over the warm river water as it gently lapped our incense stick and candlelit vessels away. I imagined what it might be like to look down on that part of Asia that night and see all the rivers and streams lit up, interconnected and flowing like veins.

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Many people come to Thailand for the buckets of redbull and rice whiskey they serve up at the full moon party on Koh Phangan, but this for me was one of the highlights of my trip. I was two months in Thailand at this stage and I had already quite smoking, barely let alcohol through my lips and was eating an extremely healthy diet of mixed vegetables and rice with occasional egg, pineapple or cashew nuts. Even more than that, I had slowed my life down to adapt to both the culture and nature. I learned a great deal about myself and feel fortunate to have found myself in the Nan Province for the majority of my time there.

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I digress. Back to the festival. After our little floats had went around whatever bend in the river was closest to us, we headed up to the main street to enjoy the parade. It ended up being one of the latest nights I had while living in the town of Pua and I crawled into bed at an embarrassing 10pm. 

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Like everything else, the festival is changing. Environmental concerns have led to a change in the types of materials being used in the bigger cities, from mostly banana trunks and leaves to making a floating bread. One might imagine the carbon emitted and oil consumed to harvest grain and cook bread to be worse than chopping some  rapidly growing banana trees but in Thailand, it’s all harvested by hand – something I had a chance to try out myself. 

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So if you’re ever in Thailand around November, be sure to make yourself available for the festival and you could even ask in a school if you could learn how to make a Krathong from students in exchange for… well basically, speaking English around them. You’d be surprised what new cultural experiences you might have.

ขอบคุณสำหรับการอ่าน,             

Martin

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Click Map: http://goo.gl/maps/GH60K

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A Hell of a Time in Helsinki.

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After getting off the ferry we followed the crowd to the city centre and with great ease came upon the bus heading to our http://www.couchsurfing.org host’s house. He was a Korean man living and studying in Helsinki, Finland. We didn’t have much time there but with him chatting about all that the city had to offer and showing us around the next day, we got to see more than expected.

IMG_8210After a relaxing evening and good night’s sleep, we set out for the city centre the next morning. On the way, our host brought us into his university campus and showed us his lab experiments. He was writing a thesis on the benefits of mixing decomposing wood into soil to enhance growth. As a permaculture enthusiast, I tried to absorb as much of his knowledge as I could. En route to town, we also passed an incredible sculpture of a gorilla, made completely of car tires. It was a great way of utilising (along with building earthships) such a destructive waste product. We arrived in town and saw all the main attractions such as the pristine Helsinki Cathedral and

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the Uspenski Cathedral standing proud on it’s rock. I made my way inside to rest my sensitive Irish skin from the blazing sun and although the cool air was refreshing, the interior of the Uspenski just didn’t compare to the grandeur of it’s exterior presence. We continued on. This time, we meandered down to the port to board a small ferry to the Island of Suomenlinna, which is now a UNESCO world Heritage site. As we waited in the blistering heat for the MS Suomenlinna II to come along, our host discussed how comfortable he felt living in Finland. He had lived in different parts of the country and spoke of his experiences of the 

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extreme north, a place I’d someday love to visit. Our ferry arrived and we set sail, admiring all the little islands along the way, each with quaint little houses perched on their jagged rocks. On arrival to the island we made our way through the fortress arch and down the picturesque main street before

IMG_8288arriving at the barracks. Our host explained the whole history of Finland’s many bouts with Russia and how between the two sides, this well fortified structure emerged. The subterranean bunkers were still in perfect condition with their chimney breasts springing from the grassy hill above like mushrooms.

This island is now a popular picnic destination for the locals and it was great to see so many people out and about. As I watched a few kids playing on the rocks I was pleased with the fact that a place of war was now offering so much recreation and leisure.

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After.returning to the mainland, we went back to our host’s place for a delicious barbecue on the balcony. We awoke the next day energised and enthusiastic, albeit late for our ferry. As we sprinted through the city centre and docklands, I was sure we’d miss it. Yet, it seems Finland and Ireland have more in common than I had previously thought. The ferry departed fifteen minutes late, allowing us time to board. As we pulled out of the harbour catching our breath and sweating profusely, we were satisfied with our experience and ready for what lay ahead in Tallinn.

Good news I guess for environmentalists too. The ferries on those Viking Line routes now run on natural gas as opposed to diesel. It ain’t solar but it’s a start. Check it out!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-22457141

Martin

  Click Map: http://goo.gl/maps/G9wlC

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Tallinn, Estonia: Best Old Town Ever.

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This city really is one of the little gems of Eastern Europe. I’ve been to a few different Old Towns in various cities (mostly in the former communist countries) but this stands out for me as having the most character and ambiance.

Myself and my two brothers took a city break in summer 2012 and decided to squeeze two countries into one trip. This of course limited our options but we struck gold with the ferry-connected cities of Helsinki and Tallinn. We couldn’t have been happier with our choice as these were two extremely different places.

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The Old Town of Tallinn had most of the original fortified wall remaining and once you pass though the entrance it’s like stepping back in time. So many old churches, archways and cobbled lanes remain and modern restaurants and boutique stores are tastefully assimilated into these picturesque streets.

 IMG_8445The main market square seems a place where days could be lost just sipping delicious beer, sampling tasty Estonian dishes like the refreshing cold beetroot soup which went down well a treat while sitting out in the hot afternoon sun, or even watching the beautiful Estonian people strolling through this relaxed and leisurely capital. Having said all that, I want to point out that Tallinn is not just for those wishing to wind down their twilight years. Once the sun sets, the Old Town unfolds into a bustling party spot with pubs and clubs seemingly jumping out of the historic walls.

4795458539_c9f60ceda3With an early sunrise in that part of the world, it’s easy to have a moderate enough night out while returning home to your friends and boasting having partied til dawn every night. Aside from the parties there are so many other attractions to this place. While my brothers hit for the shooting range to unwind while firing off a few rounds from Kalashnikovs and other weapons, I took a swim in the Baltic on a lovely beach, walking distance from the centre. And now the new free public transport service makes this place even more inviting (See related articles below).

Overall, this was a very pleasurable and memorable experience and I cannot recommend Tallinn enough to any interrailers passing through the area or for those resilient enough to endure a Ryanair flight, a nice weekend getaway.

PS. For those looking for even more adventure, you can enter Russia ‘visa-free’ for a few days by taking a ferry from Tallinn. See the link for the long list of terms, regulations and exceptions. It could be an interesting excursion.

http://www.discoverthebaltic.com/spb/visas.htm#.UYyTy6LU9uk

Click Map: http://goo.gl/maps/UYVur

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Sweet Dreams in Sydney

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In 2007, I spent a week in Australia visiting friends before flying back to Thailand to work. Apart from the severe jet-lag and heavy insomnia, I spent the time mingling with Irish people, drinking in Irish pubs and sleeping in an apartment with walls draped in tri-colour and county flags.

One day I managed to get out and explore the city. On my travels I popped into the Wildlife Sydney Zoo and spotted this fellow catching forty winks, something I was longing to do myself.

Since then I’ve eased off on the big ‘Irish Style’ nights out, I’ve resolved never to take such a long flight for such a short stay (both for environmental and mental health reasons) and I’ve been put off any visits to a zoo recently after seeing one too many depressed animals. Still, it was nice to see that this chap was taking the whole incarceration thing in his stride.

Sweet Dreams.

Martin

Click Map: http://goo.gl/maps/9VFX3

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