Northeast Laos; The caves of Vieng Xai

The next stage of my journey sees me steer a little further from the well worn backpacker track. Drawn by the lure of Vieng Xai’s caves in the far northeast of landlocked Laos, I’m headed to it’s nearest neighbour Xam Neua which is a mere fourteen hour bus trip from former royal capital Luang Prabang.

The journey is a variation on a theme which is emblematic of my time in Laos thus far. The decrepit old bus crawls along the mountain roads at a gruelling 40 mph. Hairpin bends punctuate our ascent sending me bouncing left and right sharply on my seat. It’s all too much for the locals in places, and the conductor hands out plastic bags for travel sickness which are promptly filled and thrown out of the window into the cavernous verdant woodland below us.

The landscape is utterly beautiful here, but at each turn a glance down into the ravine is rewarded with the deposited loads of garbage trucks below. There isn’t an infrastructure in place that can cope with the country’s waste due to pockets of extreme poverty in Laos. Clearly there are higher priorities for local funds. But it does make me so sad to think that education of responsible waste is so non-existent that it is ruining the country’s rugged natural beauty – the very rugged beauty that brings so many travellers and their much needed dollars here.

Another shock to the system are the toilet stops, my options are either a) don’t go to the toilet or b) use the roadside. I don’t fancy applying the ‘when in Rome’ mantra here and circumvent the issue by near dehydration. We do however stop for food; me and my travel buddy Jackie (who has joined me for this leg of the trip after our hang time in Luang Prabang) buy bags of sticky rice to keep us going on the last leg. The lowlights were plentiful but the highlight was the drive over the bridge at Nong Khiaw in the Muang Ngoi district where you have the chance to gasp at the languid Nam Ou river below.

We arrive in Xam Neua just before midnight exhausted by the trip, then negotiate the classic tuk tuk driver issues at the bus station. Y’know, they commit to take you to the guest house you’ve booked, you agree a sensible price…then you’re taken to their mate’s guest house instead. Fairly straight forward stuff. After the jiggery pokery, and two failed attempts, we finally check in to the Hotel Samneua in the town centre which is rather grand looking and ornate from the outside and rather comfortable on the inside. Needless to say that sleep comes easily…

We venture out into the town foraging for breakfast the next morning, and find a very pretty industrious town set against yet more of those eye-catching karst limestone mountains.

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It feels like it is probably the laborious journey to get here that makes it Laos’s least-visited provincial capital. It’s a logical transit point for Vieng Xai, and the very reason that we have ventured here so we hop in a tuk tuk (this one complete with souped up stereo) for the 60 minute journey.

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The area here is truly fascinating, but as much for what we can’t see as what we can. The mountains hold the secrets of a vast network of caves to which nationalist movement the Lao Patriotic Front, eventually known as the Pathet Lao, fled in 1964 to shelter from the bombs that were falling on Laos.

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Global politics changed dramatically after the second world war, and were broadly defined by anti-colonialism and the Cold War. Both of these ideologies had their own profound effect on Laos.

It was formerly part of French Indochina, a colonial empire since 1893, along with nearby neighbours Vietnam and Cambodia. When that was formally disbanded in 1954, many political activists in the country began a movement toward independence.

The US feared that communist governments would add weight to the Soviet Union, their already formidable Cold War opponent. This was evidenced by the much publicised war they were waging in Vietnam. So, they started investing heavily in Laos and tried to write its role as that of a buffer between communist northern Vietnam and the rest of the region in South East Asia. To that end, they did everything from basing fighter planes there to undermining local elections.

At this time, Laos’s population was a meagre 1 million, predominantly farmers living in regions of the country that US money never reached. The corruption witnessed gave strength to the independence movement as they realised that they were no longer masters of their own destiny. Laos became an unfortunate victim of its own geography, and of the US’s paranoia, and a much more ‘secret war’ was fought for its control with the nationalist movement having to flee to these caves in the Vieng Xai province to protect themselves from the US bombings. For 9 years, this was the command centre for the resistance and thousands based themselves here, from where they ran their operation.

It was at this time that Laos picked up the dubious and since unmatched accolade of becoming the most bombed nation in history. I don’t think there could be a sadder or more surprising statistic.

From 1964 until 1973, over 2 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos. That’s two tons per person and at a cost to the US of $2 million dollars per day. A full head count of the dead could never be done due to the remoteness of the area and its weakened infrastructure, however 3,500 villages were destroyed and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes. Even now in 2014, this most unwelcome legacy continues to affect everyone in the country with unexploded ordnance (UXO) a real issue in the northern region.

Having been schooled in a western democracy, unsurprisingly I was never taught too much about the Second Indochina War, aka ‘Nam, the one that many would like to forget. So the scenes brought to life here by the wonderful Narrow Casters audio guide are news to me.

Our starting point of this network of 450 caves, which sheltered over 23,000 people, is the cave of President Kaysone Phomvihane. I have no idea what I expected, but I was stunned by the sophisticated set up. From the makeshift bathrooms and kitchens…

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…to the annex of bedrooms…

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…and the politburo meeting rooms where the country’s decisions were taken…

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…complete with original political paraphernalia.

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All are linked by passages just like the one above, with stunning views out over the forest. Whilst you might feel exposed inside the caves, the outside reveals just how invisible you are once inside.

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President Phomvihane was born in 1920 to a civil servant father and a farmer mother. He studied at the University of Hanoi in Vietnam, which became a meeting place for like minded political activists. He was a very well educated man, speaking many languages including English, Vietnamese, French and Russian, and he brought his political ideals for an independent state back to Laos founding the Lao People’s Party in 1955, who would later come to be known as the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. They were to be at the core of the movement for over 20 years.

After a brief rest in the sun…

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…we tuk tuk onwards to the cave of Prince Souphanouvong, one of the founding fathers of the Pathet Lao. He was known as the ‘Red Prince’, born into royalty in Luang Prabang but turned visionary by the education he received at the University of Hanoi. Having spent a great deal of time in the company of Ho Chi Minh, he met Kaysone Phomhivane in 1950 and the building blocks of their movement were in place.

Here we are struck by the peacefulness and the beauty of the gardens that the Prince personally tended during their captivity. There is also a stupa dedicated to the life of his son which was taken by enemy agents. You can almost feel the swell of power that this anger must have given them.

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Vivid descriptions from eye witnesses on the audio tour talk of US spotter planes flown by a group of pilots known as the Ravens, who were employed by a private company called Air America that ran a transport service throughout Southeast Asia. They delivered aid and ammunition to the US effort, carried spies and refugees and flew reconnaissance missions to identify air strike targets. If caught, they would not be publicly acknowledged by the forces that gave them their orders. It later turned out that those orders were given by the CIA who owned and operated Air America.

Throughout the region, the resourceful nature of the Laos people is on display with many bomb craters since being transformed into water troughs, swimming pools and cultural landmarks.

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Finally, we end up at the cave of Khamtay Siphandone which also doubled as the headquarters of the movement, from which all communications were run. And by communications, I mean the daily newspaper and radio station they produced broadcasting to the network of 450 caves and throughout the country. I’m wonderfully mind-boggled by this…and by the impressive array of caves within here.

From the Xanglot cave, which was used for rallies, weddings, concerts and movie screenings…

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…complete with dressing room yo!

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It has, as does every cave in the network, an emergency room to make sure its occupants would be protected from chemical or nuclear attack…

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…with handpump installed to ensure that uncontaminated oxygen could be drawn into the room to keep them alive.

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The final stop on the tour is at the artillery cave, from which, after a climb, you can look out over the landscape from the spot the Pathet Lao used to scan the skies for enemy aircraft. It was one of the safest areas because it was situated at the top of the mountain (therefore no falling rocks or rubble could harm you) plus the area was loaded with anti-artillery guns that shot down US bombers.

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The rock formations are particularly beautiful up here…

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…and the still and rolling hills below set the unlikeliest of scenes for the pictures being described. 

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A ceasefire came to pass in January 1973 at which point the Pathet Lao could leave the caves and move back into their desecrated villages to rebuild what was left of the country. It took nearly another three years for the complete independence of Laos and the abdication of the King. At this time, Phomvihane and Souphanouvong took lead roles in the government which continues to rule present day Laos.

This conflict, albeit secret at the time, has unmistakably shaped this nation. In 2008, a convention was signed in Oslo by 94 governments banning the use of cluster munitions and committing to help those nations contaminated by them. Notably, the US did not sign this convention.

There is plenty to think about on the way back to Xam Neua where we delve into our first Lao fondue experience! Having been recommended a restaurant called Mrs On’s BBQ, we settle down to the Lao speciality.

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A wrought iron bowl is placed in the hole in the middle of your table with coals burning. On it a spherical dome is placed with a ‘moat’ surrounding it.

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It is very much a DIY approach.You’re given a plate of raw meats, a selection of glass noodles and vegetables and huge kettle full of stock. You place the meat in the middle to cook whilst filling the ‘moat’ with stock and your selection of veg. It’s really rather brilliant.

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It’s also only 50,000 KIP (which in real money works out at about 3.60 GBP.)

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I really despise the phrase ‘not to be missed’ having seen it in too many press releases in my time…but that phrase was invented for this meal (along with a Beerlao of course.)

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And because we’re a game couple of travellers, we decide to take on yet another bus journey the next day…this time an easy peasy ten hours from Xam Neua to Phonsavan. The former doesn’t have enough to pique our interest for another day, so we’re on the move again.

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Back to the bus station we go, this time in daylight.

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This was an incredibly unique journey, in that the battered bus had rusted holes in the floor so we can see the road moving at breakneck speed below us. We can also add spitting to the soundtrack of vomiting we have become accustomed to. Only the music and the view out the window makeup for what is absolutely the worst bus journey I have endured in any country.

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We arrive, remarkably, in one piece at Phonsavan, negotiate our way to the Chittavanh Guest house and promptly fall ill. All in a day’s work for the adventurer…

And the soundtrack was:

Editors ‘The Back Room’

The Delgadoes ‘Peloton”

Maximo Park ‘Our Earthly Pleasures’

Midlake ‘The Courage of Others’

Oxford Collapse ‘Remember the Night Parties’

Youth Lagoon ‘Wondrous Bughouse’

Two Gallants ‘What the Toll Tells’

PINS ‘Gils Like Us’

 

 

 

The Big Luang Prabang Theory

From Ventiane, it is simply a hop a skip and a jump north to Luang Prabang. Okay it is more like an eight hour bus ride, and an experience that will become synonymous with my time in Laos. Unfinished rocky roads mix with questionable suspension to provide a unique trampoline effect. Additionally, as we weave through the karst mountains, hair pin bends present themselves every thirty seconds creating a kind of roller coaster effect…but without the added security of a safety belt. Sure.

My partners in crime on this particular voyage are Jackie, an American lass who has been living in Bangkok for the best part of a year and recently engaged Brits Emily and James who have been on the road for TWO AND A HALF YEARS. Yes I am not quite sure how this is possible, if I did know it’s unlikely I’d have a flight home booked…

As soon as we arrive in Luang Prabang, life starts to get a lot more colourful.

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We celebrate our safe arrival with some dinner at backpacker hangout Utopia which hosts Yoga by day, and boozy falangs by night. The moodily lit gardens, low level cushioned seating and fringed palm trees offer a great atmosphere, but the food is fairly standard. It’s quiet when we arrive, but by the time we’re turfed out in time for the national 11pm curfew, it’s quite a chore finding our flip flops in the gigantic pile outside the door.

This beautiful town is certainly one of the jewels in South East Asia’s crown, and it’s intangible charm draws me in immediately. Nestled at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, it’s the kind of place where time stands still as you wander tree-lined streets perusing handicraft shops, wats and patisseries, the ever present scents of frangipani, sticky rice and baking, a sign of the town’s former French links, lilting around you.

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Being a Unesco World Heritage site saves the centre from the usual logging lorries, trucks and tourist buses trundling through it and many choose to see the sights from the comfort of one of the favoured modes of town transport.

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On day one, the first sight to enthral me is the stunning Wat Xieng Thong, one of Luang Prabang’s most visited monasteries. The wat itself is a classic of local design, roof sloping low on either side and housing gold stencil work capturing exploits from the life of the legendary King Chanthaphanit.

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Classic gifts to Buddha in Laos include money, fruit and sticky rice. However, they also leave beautifully crafted offerings sculpted from banana leaves and flowers. It’s the equivalent of lighting a candle in a church, something of a Same Small World tradition when travelling.

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Dotted around the wat are stupas and chapel halls including the Haw Tai Pha Sai-nyaat featuring an especially rare reclining Buddha dating back to 1560.

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As the sun drops, the monks in their monastic robes play gong and drum which can be heard across the town.

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I wander back through the grounds to scope the stunning view out over the Mekong.

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You can walk all the way down the steep stairs (perfect for practicing your Oscar acceptance walk) to dip your toes in the river. It is one of the most polluted rivers in the world mind, so I wouldn’t dip much else in it.

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Round the corner, just off Th Sakkarin, is Big Brother Mouse, one of the first of many goodwill projects that catches my eye in this little town. It is a bookshop and literacy programme that invites tourists to give something slightly more consequential back than sweets and coins (actually impossible given the Lao currency, the Kip, is note format only) Here, volunteers are invited to drop in at either 9am and 4pm to spend a couple of hours helping local Lao schoolchildren with their English. It is a lovely, warm and fuzzy sort of experience, and I am struck by the linguistic talent on show from the kids. The are varying levels of ability, but the standard is certainly higher than my French would have been at an equivalent age. Of course, Luang Prabang is the big smoke round here, and I will soon learn that this is certainly not the case in the more remote towns and villages.

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Jackie and I have earned our dinner, which is a delicious water buffalo red curry at Lao Lao Garden on Kingkitsarat.

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Those of you very familiar with Same Small World (hi Mum, hi Dad) will know that I’m fairly fascinated by countries who hold their spirituality in high esteem. For me, it doesn’t matter what you believe…but if you believe it so utterly and completely, I will be slightly obsessed by you.

So, it’s not surprising that I’m up a good hour before the sunrise the next day to witness Tak Bat. Daily, at dawn, Buddhist monks, barefoot and saffron clad, perambulate along Th Sakkarin and Th Kamal in procession begging for alms by way of honouring their vows of humility. Townsfolk kneel on the roadside and place balls of sticky rice in their begging bowls, gaining spiritual merit in this act of donation. The stillness of the moment and the simplicity of the faith immediately springs a tear to my eye and gives rise to quiet contemplation. It is a very moving demonstration of faith, humility and respectful giving.

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What is even more stark alongside these admirable human values, is the ugliness of the disrespect displayed by some of the touristic voyeurs. This is supposed to be a meditative ceremony and there are several ways that you can show your respect; observing from a good distance across the road, removing your shoes and kneeling with your feet pointed behind you, covering your bare arms with a scarf and not making eye contact with the monks.

However, the willingness to get that perfect Facebook or Instagram photo seems to overtake good manners, and visitors sporting hot pants and bare arms crowd around them letting flashes go off in their faces. It is utterly despicable, like a twisted red carpet at an awards ceremony…and I’ve marshalled enough of those in my day job to know how empty, vacuous and devoid of admirable qualities they can be. It really gets to me, and now hot tears sting my face as I quietly simmer, head bowed, putting every grain of my being into not running over to berate them.

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Afterwards, I need to get far from the haranguing crowd so I tackle Phu Si, the 100 metre hill which dominates the city centre and skyline.

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Townsfolk are rising and getting on with their mornings below.

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For me, it is time to get involved in another local tradition. Local Lao lad La (try saying that after a few sherries) tells me all about it as we look out over the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Locals take songbirds up to the summit in small, hand-woven wicker cages and release them into the wild whilst making a wish. La, dressed head to toe in Lycra, says he runs up here every Saturday morning after dawn as part of his morning jog and makes a wish that he can one day become an English teacher.

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It’s a beautiful sentiment…and I want in. Here are my little songbirds.

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But I’ll be keeping my little wish to myself…

That Chomsi, a beautiful gilded stupa, sits atop Phu Si.

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The walk down the south easterly side of the hill is punctuated with a series of new gilded Buddhas (seemingly themed by the days of the week)…

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Followed by a footprint believed to have been made by Buddha himself (Christ, he must have been massive…)

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The rest of the world is waking…so Jackie, Ebba and I meet for breakfast to decide what to do with the rest of our day.

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After slinging on our bathers, we head out to grab a tuk tuk and meet up with a travelling twosome, French Lisa and Dutch Sander. Together, we drive out to Kuang Si waterfalls which is a little over 30 minutes from the town. As with every tourist attraction, a network of eateries and kiosks have sprung up at the entry to the waterfall’s park, but we’re on the hunt for something with a little more of a local feel. We’re following a recommendation from an expat Luang Prabang library staffer. It takes a good twenty minutes in the unforgiving midday sun…but it is well worth it. It is a waterside organic vegetarian cafe on stilts over the river, which has its own little falls that the local kids splash around in whilst we enjoy one of the best meals of the trip.

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The proprietor’s sun squawks up to her to come down and open up for the falangs. There isn’t even a menu…she just offers vegetables and rice…but it is so exquisitely cooked and seasoned that it becomes a true culinary highlight.

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Heading into the waterfall park, it is a five minute forest walk past a bear enclosure (yes, bear enclosure) to the foot of the falls. The stunning opal blue pools start strong, and only get more and more beautiful as you continue upwards onto higher level cascades. Seriously, it’s somewhere between a Bounty advert and a Timotei advert…but with less hard sell.

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We even happen upon The Thinker.

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The rest of the day is spent splashing around in the pools and behaving like eejits.

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Dinner comes courtesy of the town’s swishest restaurant Tamarind on Ban Wat Nong where we are reunited with Emily and James, and it is sampling platters and stuffed lemongrass ago go.

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So far, Luang Prabang has been utterly mesmerising. But on our last full day, it steals my heart in a way I never thought possible. After breakfast on our last day, Jackie, Ebba and I set off on a boat trip that I will never forget. The Luang Prabang library, in association with Community Learning International, an NGO promoting literacy here in Laos, invite donations from upwards of $2 (the cost of a book) all the way to $300 (the cost of taking a floating library aka the ‘Book Boat’ to remote villages along the Mekong.) I’m completely beguiled by this project, so here we are putting along the river in our long boat surrounded by books on a very special mission.

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Some of the books are in Lao, some are bilingual…and some very recognisable.

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We’re with charity staff Chantha and Sally plus animateurs SinXai and Madame Seangchan, who deftly prepare the props and puppets before we arrive at our destination.

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We arrive at Ban Hoi Koa just over two hours later, and the excitable squeals of the kids as they run down the hill to meet us at the waters edge can be heard clearly over the loud thrum of the boat’s engine.

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We walk up the hill and find shade from the punishing sun under a thatched roof in the centre of the village.

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In association with another NGO Eau Laos Solidarite, who focus their efforts on providing running water systems and toilets in remote Laos villages and educating local children in sanitary matters, SinXai leads an all-singing class on the basics in promoting good sanitation. They are so eager to learn that even children too young for school line up in oversized uniforms to ensure they don’t miss out.

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Around us, the sheer poverty is writ large. It is hard to believe, being so close to Luang Prabang, a town that pulsates with industry, culture and tourism. But, here in the shadow of a dramatic karst rock formation, the population of 300 constituting 70 families live without running water or latrines.*

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One of the many many things that is beautiful about this experience is the solidarity and friendship between the children. They have nothing…but they have each other.

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After class, the kids troop down to the floating library and are allowed to choose a book. Within seconds they are all seated and reading to themselves absorbing every word like their lives depended on it.

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As we hand out textbooks, storybooks, pens and soap to the kids, neatly lined up to wave us off, I’m told it is one year since the Book Boat last visited Ban Hoi Koa…and it could easily be the same again before they can return. It is this fact, and the look in the kids’ eyes as they stare hungrily at our supplies, which slowly and quietly breaks my heart as we slip away upstream back to Luang Prabang.

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I’m very heavy hearted by the time we return. If you are moved enough to read more about it, and how you can help this beautiful literacy project, please have a read of my feature on The Culture Trip here

Thankfully, Jackie, Ebba and I are cheered with a visit to Dyen Sabai just across the bamboo footbridge over the Nam Kham river. It is an open sided riverside restaurant, with wooden decking and seating sloping down the lush hillside to the water and twinkly fairy lights marking out the paths. The pork and aubergine with sticky rice, washed down with Beerlao, is easily the best meal I have had in Laos. Emily and James join us, and since all of us are headed for pastures new in the morning, we chat about the next chapters that await us.

In the more immediate future however, there is the serious matter of the League Cup Final. My beloved Manchester City take on Sunderland at Wembley tonight, and we all troop to the local Sports Bar which is full of cheering expats buoyed by Beerlao. It ends in a 3-1 victory, and after saying my goodbyes to our little Luang Prabang team, I proudly watch Kompany et al lift the trophy before I saunter home in a beery fug.

Luang Prabang has been utterly stunning, and I am immensely sad not to be staying longer.

And the soundtrack was:
Tom Baxter ‘Feather and Stone’
We Are Scientists ‘TV En Francais’
TV On The Radio ‘Return To Cookie Mountain’
Sharon Van Etten ‘Tramp’
Vampire Weekend ‘Modern Vampires of the City’
Arcade Fire ‘Afterlife’
Foals ‘Antidotes’
Luscious Jackson ‘Electric Honey’

*Special thanks to travel buddy extraordinaire Jackie Echegary for contributing this image to Same Small World.

(Fa)Lang May Your Lum Reek in Ventiane

Finally, Same Small World has been blissfully reunited with its backpack. Having lain impotent at the bottom of the wardrobe for the last nine months taunting me with the adventures that might never be, it’s now stuffed full of flip flops, mosquito spray and travel adapters once more.

Having spent half of last year sauntering through South and Central America, it seems as good a time as any for a return to South East Asia. The first stop on this particular reunion is Laos, population 7 million, which has fast established itself on the backpacker trail.

This trip is much needed and follows a fairly grim few months at the turn of the year which included frequent 20 hour days at work and an unexpected stint in hospital heralded by my maiden voyage in an ambulance. All the signs were there telling me that a change was in order. As a relatively wise person once said, ‘If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, then you’ll keep on being what you’ve always been. Nothing changes unless you make it change.’ So as I shake off the shackles of a very forgettable chapter of my life, I take my bruised and battered soul back to it’s spiritual home…the open road.

I have my first impressions of Laos in Ventiane, the languid capital which nestles on the Mekong whose banks play host to the majority of my first day here. Capitalising on part of its 1865km share of the river, they have developed Fa Ngum Quay, a stunning stone esplanade the length of the city’s river bank. It’s perfect for the runners zooming by, the impromptu keep-fit class taking place up ahead and the evening offerings made by the locals.

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All human life is here.

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It’s the ideal spot to watch my first Mekong sunset, a hazy affair where a perfectly spherical sun doesn’t so much as drop into the horizon as it does into a thick band of smog burning orange reflections into the water below. It is stunning nonetheless.

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Opposite the quay lies Buddhist temple Wat Chanthaburi, a great introduction to the kind of intricate carvings and stunning architecture that pure unadulterated worship provokes in these parts.

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Ventiane also provides a promising introduction to Lao cuisine. Whilst quality varies throughout the city, value is a constant and there are one or two standout joints including Amphone on Th Wat Xieng Nyean and Yulala Cafe on Th Hengboun. Laos has abundant specialities including Laap, a kind of spicy salad prepared with meat or fish, mint, chilli, coriander and lime juice and Or Lam, a stew of vegetables, smoked or grilled meat and aubergine. Other dishes include the kind of curries, stir fries and flavours you would expect from a nation with such proximity to Thailand and Vietnam.

However, the key ingredient is the universally present sticky rice. Laos people eat more sticky rice than any other nation, in fact it is seen as the essence of being Lao. Traditionally, it is eaten by hand, rolling the rice up into balls and dipping it into your curry or stir fry relegating it to accompaniment status. There is a phrase in Lao ‘Luk Khao Niaow’ that they often use to describe themselves, which literally translates as ‘Descendants of sticky rice’ Thankfully, it is utterly delicious and slightly addictive…although don’t expect many variants other than white sticky rice, black sticky rice or wild sticky rice.

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Further out of the city due east lies Phu Khao Khuay meaning ‘Buffalo Horn Mountain’ which is a nationally protected mountainous area of over 2000 square kilometres home to gibbons, Asiatic black bears, clouded leopards and Siamese fireback pheasants. It’s not only the wildlife that entices me out here, but the promise of Tat Xai waterfall set deep amidst the jungle. We set off waterfall hunting from Ban Hat Kai, a 25 strong village on the banks of the Nam Mang river. The journey starts by long tail boat.

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We get acquainted with some of the locals along the way.

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We trek through jungle, over rock and bridge until we have it in our sights.

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It’s a cracker, made all the more enjoyable by the welcome physical exertion to arrive here. I’m impressed that it still cascades at all during hot season.

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We head to the nearby Pha Xai waterfall, but its 40 metre drop is dry as a bone, bullied into submission by the soaring temperatures.

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It still offers stunning scenery set against a verdant backdrop.

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Now, before I make my merry way north to Luang Prabang, I must nod to this post’s title. ‘Falang’ is the entirely inoffensive colloquial noun for ‘foreigner’ and how the locals will be cordially referring to me during my trip. Think ‘gringo’ but in the Far East. Referring to yourself as a ‘falang’ when talking to Lao people immediately prompts a fit of giggles…So it’s a good one for the internal phrase book.

And the soundtrack was:
David Kitt ‘The Big Romance’
Mogwai ‘Master card’
Drenge ‘Drenge’
White Denim ‘Corsicana Lemonade’
Sigur Ros ‘Kviekur’
Rodriguez ‘Cold Fact’

Part X: Miami – SoBe It…

My reason for choosing Miami as the final stop on my trip is because one of my oldest friends, and oftentimes travel buddy, Tree has recently moved here. Same Small World super fans (hi Mum, hi Dad) will remember her name popping up back in Bolivia when I attempted to watch the live streaming of her wedding, and in Guatemala when she swung by for a long weekend in Antigua.

Now, with 20/20 hindsight, it has turned out to be a master stroke closing the curtain on my trip here. You see, Tree took a sabbatical and travelled the world in 2009. (I had the pleasure of joining her for the Argentinean leg.) Anyroad, not only does she know me well, but she also understands the emotions that I am going through with the end so very very nigh. Beyond the sunshine and the hang times, real life beckons…

They scoop me up from the airport and are dazzled by how quickly I managed to get myself through a famously gruelling immigration. In a first for me, my entry stamp to the US was actually dolled out whilst still on Canadian soil. Rather nifty really, and saved me a good hour of difficult questions about why I have so many non First World country stamps on record in the last six months…

Tree lives with her husband Ally (after 18 years of him being her boyfriend, will I ever get used to saying that?) in Miami Beach. The sun beats down on the water as we cross over from the mainland and pull up in front of their flash new pad on Lincoln Road.

We spend our first day watching Bundesliga’s finest Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich battle it out in the UEFA Champions League Final with Ally, his Dad Gordon and their pals, fellow Scots, Chris and Stu. None of us had a favourite team going into this, but by the time the second half kicks off we’re roaring for Dortmund. After equalising with a penalty in the 68th minute, both teams put everything into it. But a Robben strike in the dying minutes seals the deal for Bayern. And with that, football season grinds to a halt.

The day gets a little girlier after that as Tree and I head off for pedicures and manicures round the corner. Of course, cocktails are a mandatory inclusion in any pampering session, so we head to Yardbird on Lenox Avenue to kick off proceedings with an outstanding Blackberry Bourbon Lemonade. The bar is as resplendent as its cocktail menu, and as inviting as its friendly staff. Afterwards, we swing by Haven to sample their wares. They have some really interesting serves including Grey Goose Poire, jalapeño, lychee and pear-prosecco. The delicious coconut panko rock shrimp comes with a wasabi-sour peach marmalade and the sweet potato fries surprise us with a spiced brown sugar and lemon cayenne aioli seasoning. Not a bad local!

After a much needed sleep, Sunday comes our way, and Tree has booked us in for brunch at The Biltmore. After donning our glad rags (as glad as you are going to get from the inside of a backpack), Ally drops us off at the hotel, a brave new world of opulence and indulgence. The hotel is Mediterranean-style, built in 1926, and is a National Historic Landmark situated on 150 tropical acres. It is nothing short of stunning.

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It also boasts the biggest hotel swimming pool in the US (fact fans)…

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We arrive at 10am and I’m ready to be thrust a brunch menu filled with eggs benedict and waffle options. What I am not expecting is an all-you-can-eat and all-you-can-drink affair. Our waiter takes us through the options.

There’s the fruit station…

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the salad station…

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the bread station…

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the sushi station…

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the seafood station…(which we renamed the crustacean station)

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the eggs and bacon station, paella station, waffle station, pasta station (sorry, too overwhelmed to even take photos), the pancake station…

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the “I don’t even know what that is” station…

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the dessert station…

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the candy station (not to be infused with Candi Staton)…

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and finally (no show without punch) the cheese station.

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And if this wasn’t perfect enough, you can complement your meal with Bellinis, Mimosas and Bloody Marys all part of the $80 cover charge. I don’t think they saw us coming…

Basically, we don’t end up leaving until 4pm creating a strategic approach that will essentially see us successfully have breakfast, lunch and dinner there.

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There is so much to catch up on from the last five months; weddings, big TransAtlantic moves, new friends, old friends, misadventures and grand new perspectives on life. It brings home to me how much I will miss Tree’s frequent London visits when I get back.

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We take a moment to appreciate how lucky we are.

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Not long afterwards, as though to punctuate this, something very strange happens. Tree sees a girl in the bathroom who looks very upset. She asks her if she is okay, and the girl collapses in tears. Tree gives her a huge hug and stays with her until she can pull herself together again. In a rush of words and emotions, it turns out that the girl, Irisa, who lives out of town, was due to meet her boyfriend here at The Biltmore for the weekend. She has just taken a call telling her that he has died.

Back at the table, Tree tells me what has happened, and we both agree that we don’t want Irisa to be on her own. Tree invites her to join us, and we spend the afternoon with her as she tries to compute what to do next. Our hearts break for this girl, and it puts all other worries and emotions screaming into perspective.

Now and again she wants to talk about it, but mainly she wants her mind to be taken off it. She can’t thank Tree enough for her kindness. It is all very humbling.

Afterwards in the late afternoon sun, we taxi round to the Miracle Mile in Coral Gables and plonk ourselves in Hillstone’s for more cocktails and chatting. As the sun starts to think about setting, Ally collects us and we meet Chris and Stu, plus their work pals Louise and John, at Taco Rico back in Miami Beach where they’re eating tacos and watching Miami Heat take on the Indiana Pacers in the basketball play offs. It is not a sport I purport to know the rules of, but judging by the yelps from the locals it is safe to say they got through. Late night drinking and celebrations continue in The Abbey, Miami Beach’s only brew-pub (and certainly the best tunes I’ve heard in a bar so far) until we spill out into the night for an impromptu disco back at Tree and Ally’s place.

There is only one thing for it the next day…South Beach! Or SoBe as it is known to its surgically enhanced locals. We would have visited much sooner, but it is Memorial Day weekend which apparently means unofficial parties so ridiculous that they often lead to shootings. By the time we wander through Lincoln Mall, the crowds have cleared…mostly.

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When we hit the sand, as synthetic as the breasts that currently sunbathe upon it, there are two things that strike me; the awesomeness of the lifeguard towers…

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and the stunning shade of the sea. This time, completely natural.

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We spend the afternoon sitting on the beach, watching the cruise liners coming in and going out again…with frightening regularity. I’m reliably informed that Miami is the cruise capital of the world.

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Aside from a three minute monsoon, we soak up the rays hungrily – I’m conscious that with a London summer beckoning…this could be the last sun I see for a while.

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We pause, briefly, to mock the evening’s entertainment that the clubs are trying to tempt us to.

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We take a walk along the boardwalk…

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…spying on the mega hotels that flank the beachside.

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All that lounging around has worked up an appetite. We decide to straddle the money spectrum with cheap falafel eats in Maoz on Washington Avenue…

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…followed by cocktails at The Ritz on Lincoln Road.

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The next day, Ally and I go gator huntin’!

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This involves us getting in an air boat, y’know like the one on Gentle Ben!

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The weather is kind of overcast, and before we get on the boat I throw my bag in the back of the car. Ally asks if I can bring his poncho out, but all I can see is a girls rain jacket or some scrunched up plastic. Assuming that is the poncho, and that Ally will not want to be seen in a bright pink rain jacket, I grab the plastic.
The heavens open whilst we are out on the boat, and unfortunately for Ally, the plastic was not a poncho…but the wrapping from a dry cleaned suit. Oh dear. The are no words for how soaked he got. He was not a happy boy.

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Then we see this little fella out in the wild.

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Less impressive was the floor show afterwards.

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It felt like a lot of the animals were kinda doped up. I didn’t feel comfortable at all.

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We warm up with lunch at the amazing Versailles in Little Havana…and it is gooood to be speaking Spanish again.

After Tree has finished slaving away in the office, we take a walk along the beach, this time towards the much more placid southern tip. And while we do that, the sun does this. It is exquisite.

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We round the bay point and face the port, now at rest having seen off the day’s 40 odd cruise ships.

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Then Piña Coladas and Lobster Ceviche are the order of the day at Monty’s.

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After that, the final 24 hours of my trip is upon us. We spend it lolling between the beach, the mall with the highlight being Little Haiti where we pop into Ally’s favourite record shop Sweat Records to peruse the vinyl.

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We choose the destination for the last supper very carefully indeed. After a glass of wine at Chris and Stu’s beautiful apartment round the corner, we make our way excitedly to Joe’s Stone Crabs. Basically, a review we read said ‘No visit to Miami would be complete without eating here.’ SOLD.

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Our server, Janette, ends up being so spectacular that she is probably my favourite server of all time. I mean, look at her, she’s awesome.

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Killer King Crab Claws and Lobster Mac and Cheese win out from the menu, and it certainly is the finest crab I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat.

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Key Lime Pie completes the experience and it’s all back to the house for some Ciroc Red Berry and Cranberry on the balcony.

And there you have it, the sun has set on my trip of a lifetime.

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I spend a few hours listening to music and looking through my photos. The next day, head hung low, I make my way to Miami airport for the final flight, the flight home.

After 21 flights, 3 ferries, 2 sailboats, 2 helicopters, 1 single engine Cessna, 15 buses, 2 trains, countless skiffs and 1 parasail, it is time to make my merry way back to London.

It has been all highs, no lows. All killer, no filler. My eyes and heart have been opened wider by the stunning places I have seen and the unforgettable people I have met.

And the soundtrack was:
Yo La Tengo ‘And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out’
Mum ‘Green Grass of Tunnel’
Bonnie Prince Billy ‘The World’s Greatest’
Public Enemy ‘Rebel Without A Pause’
Will Smith ‘Miami’
The Shins ‘Wincing The Night Away’
Daughter ‘Smother’

Part XI: Montréal at my Quebec and Call

So, with the Pacific north west coast ticked off the list fairly comprehensively, it is time to fly east. Shit’s about to get (Mont)réal…

It is weighing heavily on my mind (and heart) at this point that only ten days of my trip remain. For some reason I find this a difficult boulder to climb out from under, try as I might. I know I need to soak up the adventure in every second that remains, so I grab Montréal with gusto and set about busying myself getting to know the city.

On arrival, it occurs to me that I don’t think I realised just how French French Canada is. Now, I should explain at this juncture that my degree was in French, and I lived in Paris for a year as part of the course. Some of the most special people in my life are friends I made there so Montréal, with its echoes of Paris, brings with it another surge of emotion. I think it’s important that you know that to put this post into context.

The similarity is completed when I check into the M Montréal Hostel in the Quartier Latin. That was the area of Paris where I lived and worked (and loved) for a while.

I should feel more confident talking French than I was speaking Spanish back in Latin America. But I swiftly realise that in Quebec, it’s French…but not as we know it. Also, my brain doesn’t seem to be agile in switching languages and for reasons unbeknownst to me…the Spanish word usually finds its way to my lips before the French one does. So it would appear that 4 months of Spanish has seemingly cancelled out 11 years of French. Right, great.

Together with its extreme Frenchness, there are lots of other things I didn’t know about Montréal. For example:

– it’s an island
– they voted on independence from Canada as recently as 1994
– they are nearly all hockey crazy
– Leonard Cohen was born here
– it was the capital of Canada for five years until 1849; an anglophone mob put paid to that when their protesting saw it shifted to Ottawa

With every word I devour of the guide book on the five hour flight from Van City, the more this city intrigues me, particularly politically.

So, with discovery in mind, I set out for an exploratory saunter. Of course, empires were never built on muesli bars, so I swing into Le Gros Jambon for a hearty breakfast. It is the slightly less spenny little brother of L’Orignal from chef Travis Champion – and his surname could certainly be applied as part of a review. The staff are super friendly, the walls are adorned with vintage Montreal kitsch and the food is presented as beautifully as it tastes.

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The coffee is exceptional, and comes along with this little guy…

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The next stop is the Basilique Notre-Dame, the grand dame of Montréal’s religious treasures. It was opened in 1829 and designed by New York Protestant architect James O’Donnell. I only mention his religion as, notably, he liked the Basilique so much that he converted to Catholicism in order that his funeral could be held there. You can see why…

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Don’t worry, Canadian God seems to be a little more laid back and is quite content with photography in the Basilique. He had his clergymen put signs up and everything.

Excuse the poor phraseology here, but the devil really is in the detail with this building. It is full of ornate wooden pillars and carvings.

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Gilt stars shine down from the ceiling, while the stained glass windows radiate light.

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The huge 7000 pipe Casavant organ oversees musical proceedings from on high.

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As has become the Mellotte family travelling tradition, I light a candle for loved ones who have gone before us and those we’re lucky enough to still have.

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Outside, the Basilique looks onto the Place d’Armes.

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Here the Monument Maisonneuve stands, proudly dedicated to Montréal’s founder Paul de Chomedey.

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From here it is a brisk walk along the Rue St-Sulpice to the Vieux Port. Despite the fact that it is a rather blustery day, you can see why the port is favoured for recreation. Quai Jacques Cartier is the centrepiece, and large promenades lend themselves to strolling, cycling and skating. It also looks like it is in the throes of rejuvenation, not least with the sleek and sassy Centre des Sciences de Montréal. The port has clearly always been an important revenue stream for the city, with cruise liners docking at the Quai Alexandra. In their absence, the sailboats bob around in the bay.

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I cross into the Parc du Bassin-Bonsecours…

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…and along the Quai de l’Horloge towards the Sailors’ Memorial Clock Tower, dedicated to mariners who died in the world wars.

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The views are across to Parc Jean Drapeau and the Montreal Biosphère environmental museum,

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an installation of public art, including Alexander Calder’s 1967 piece L’Homme,

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and La Ronde funfair.

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On the same side, a makeshift beach has been built to capitalise on the good weather that looms in the not too distant future.

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As I walk back to the city, the city skyline hovers above me…

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…including the neoclassical Marché Bonsecours, formerly the town hall but now an arts and crafts market.

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Behind it is nestled the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Bonsecours, known as the Sailors’ Church where sailors would leave ship-shaped lamps in thanks for safe passage. It’s far more peaceful than its big Basilique brother, and a lovely place to spend a few moments giving your own thanks for safe passage.

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The statue of Our Lady of the Harbour sits atop it, and was made famous by Leonard Cohen in his song ‘Suzanne.’
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After this, a little lèche-vitrine (window shopping) along Rue St- Paul’s boutiques is in order.

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And a squizz at the Hôtel de Ville.

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The rains come, torrentially, so I drop into Boris Bistro for the duck and mushroom risotto and a large glass of Malbec. Then, it’s time for a little bar hopping in Vieux Montreal, with the standout being Philemon where you can have your Malbec with a cheeseboard. Don’t mind if I do.

I’m reliably informed by Canadian friends I met in Bolivia that Montréal is the place to get a smoked meat sandwich. (Hi Michael if you’re out there) The Montréal Reuben is the speciality of hot smoked meat, Swiss cheese, thousand island dressing and sauerkraut on rye bread. A Downtown Deli called Reuben’s seems like as good as place as any to start the day, and mighty fine it is too.

It also gives me a chance to ogle the areas that the world famous Montréal Jazz Festival is usually hosted, in and around the Place des Arts.

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En route, I also pass the dazzling Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde.

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But today’s main focus will be losing myself in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal.

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It is stunningly huge, Canada’s oldest museum, and houses its permanent collection of everything from the old masters to contemporary work in three free-to-access buildings on Rue Sherbrooke Ouest.

There is some beautiful work on display here, from Salvador Dali’s Homage to Marcel Du Champ chessboard,

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one of Henri Matisse’s many portraits of his muse Lorette – this one from 1917,

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Pablo Picasso’s Head of a Musketeer from 1969,

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and Claude Monet’s La Grande Allée à Giverny a copy of which hung in my room when I was an early teen.

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My favourite museum in Paris was the Musée Rodin, so I was really happy to find some of his work exhibited here too. Most notably, Sirens.

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People far more intelligent than me suppose that the three women represent the three furies in Dante’s Inferno, the first section of the Divine Comedy, he is warned not to look at them in case they summon Medusa who will turn him to stone with just one look. Deceptive sensuality at its most beautiful for my money.

The Thinker also has a place here.

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This bronze cast from between 1902 and 1909 was bought directly from the artist and was the first Rodin piece ever to be exhibited in North America. This piece has come to have so many connotations in popular culture; art, humanity etc. But what I love about it, is Rodin’s own description of the figure, modelled on Dante himself: “Chin on hand, he muses. Fertile thought develops slowly in his brain. This is not a dreamer, but a creator.”

Next, the buzzy student area of Rue St-Denis beckons. After a saunter through, I settle into Le St-Sulpice for a swift one before dinner at O’Thym, a dinky yet elegant bring-your-own-eatery not far from my hostel in the Quartier Latin. Surrounded by exposed brick and enlarged mirrors, I dig into (vegetarians, look away now) Foie Gras Tatin followed by rack of lamb.

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One of the things that I love about this city, is the adeptness with which the people can switch between Québécois French and English. It is such a huge skill to be so completely and utterly fluent like that. The downside is that, spotting you’re not a local, people will switch to English for you. So, to gain back my French confidence, I need to insist on trying to speak French…and they are particularly conducive to it here.

Another day on the road…another market. This time Marché Jean-Talon in Little Italy in the north. It involves my first jaunt on the artful Metro.

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The market itself is the usual mix of vibrant flower stalls,

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colourful fruit and veg vendors,

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And my special favourites, the cheese and seafood…

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It’s a lovely meander, and I manage not to hemorrhage too much cash, leaving only with some sirop d’érable (maple syrop) and some Pear Ice Cider…apparently a Québécois speciality.

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After this, I tour round Little Italy stopping to inhale one of the city’s most famous foods, a bagel from St Viateur Bagel on the street of the same name.

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This place is an institution, and I opt for the cinnamon and thyme bagel with a giganta dollop of Philly cheese. I’ve never really been a bagel person, but I can see what all the fuss it about.

Little Italy and nearby Mile End are pretty areas to hang out in for a spell. They are jam packed with vintage boutiques, awesome bookstores (like Welch Books) and quirky independent coffee shops (I recommend Le Cagibi which translates quaintly as The Cubbyhole.) I had hoped to have time to head to Parc du Mont-Royal, but tonight’s gig by The Shins is not far away so it’s time to make for home.

Very handily, the venue The Metropolis is a mere two minutes walk from the hostel, so there is time to spare for a swifty in the nextdoor Foufounes Électriques before the show.

It has seemed like all of my favourite bands have been touring the US and Canada whilst I have been there, but most have played just before or immediately after my arrival in each city. How inconvenient. So I’m completely beside myself with excitement about this show. The last time I saw The Shins was at Reading Festival last year, but they clashed with Santigold so I only saw a couple of tracks. A full set will feel very indulgent by comparison.

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It is an absolutely great show, complimented by the hilarious drummer and a receptive crowd.

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I’m quite tickled to see that the bartenders actually walk through the venue here selling pints piled on trays that they hold aloft. I can see that approach lasting about ten seconds in a sold out Brixton Academy…

Before long I’m chinwagging with lovely fellow-Shins-fan Alex, and we decide to grab a late night drink at Le Saint Bock after the show. Of course, we end up talking about music until the wee small hours and I come away with a head full of new albums recommended to me.

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The next morning, I bravely fight through the groggy hangover and throw myself on a bus with the recently downloaded The National album ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ which came out a couple of days ago. This is quite enough to amuse me for the 2 hour trip to Ottawa. Now, this will be a flying visit if ever there was one.

I’m visiting the fabulous Jimmy Rib (aka James Thompson) with whom I used to work back in the day in Glasgow. We slaved over many a T in the Park together and I have seen very little of him since he returned to his native Canada, wed the wonderful Amanda and produced ridiculously cute Jack. We’d very much like to be hanging out longer than an afternoon, but as bad luck would have it, Amanda is due to give birth any minute now! But the thought of being so close but yet so far was too much, so we decided to do lunch in Ottawa. And I was more than happy to make the trip for an old friend.

Jimmy Rib’s nickname originally came from his insatiable love of ribs, so you’ll never guess where we go for lunch…the inimitable Fatboys Southern Smokehouse. The ribs are smoked on site, and the smell that greets us when we walk in is nothing less than a-maze-ing. This hungover girl needs some carbs…

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It is so good to catch up with him, and to hear all of his news; his wedding to Amanda, their wee boy Jack and his hilarious turn of phrase. So much time has passed, and I hate it when good friendships drift over time. So it was worth every hungover second on that bus trip to get here, if even for a few hours.

When I arrive back in Montréal, Alex and I are trying to decide what to do with our evening. There is one thing left on the tourist check list that can be accomplished tonight; Poutine.

Poutine is to the Québécois what chips and cheese is to the Scots, literally. It is French fries smoothed in cheese curds and gravy. From discussions with people here, you either love it or you hate it. But I simply cannot leave Montréal without trying it.

We head for La Banquise at 994 Rachel Est, but we are greeted by the most gigantic queue I have ever seen at a restaurant. Keen not to simply fall into the nearest pub and repeat the excesses of the night before, we decide to take a walk in a nearby park and come back for Poutine later. I am particularly pleased because I haven’t made it to any of Montréal’s green spaces yet, not even the most famous Parc du Mont-Royal. When Alex hears this, a swift revision of our plans is made so that we can squeeze it in before sunset. And I am so glad we did.

The park was designed by Frederick Law Omlsted, the same architect as New York’s Central Park. This is every bit as amazing. Its wooded slopes and grassy areas attract joggers, cyclists, horse riders and even battle re-enact-ers in the spring and summer. Whilst winter’s snows welcome skiing and tobogganing. Either way, if you were born and raised in Montréal, you likely grew up doing one of the above.

It’s a solid hour or so walk up the mountain, but the views out over the city are truly breathtaking. The sun is settling as we climb, throwing a golden sheen over every building rolled out in front of us.

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Once at the Pavilion at the top, the city shimmers below.

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It is a stunning view, and proves once again why it is good to throw away with guide book from time to time and head out with someone who lives in, and loves, the city.

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And of course, with all that exercise, dinner is well earned. So we flop into Chez Claudette at 351 Laurier Est to reward ourselves with Poutine and a beer.

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Chips, cheese and gravy has never tasted so good.

Soon enough it is time for the magic of Montréal to come to an end, and Alex drives me to the airport for my middle-of-the-night flight to my final stop, Miami.

When I look back to Montréal, the stand out memories will be The Shins at The Metropolis, sharing ribs with the King Rib himself, making great new friends (and letting them show you how amazing their city can be) and that sunset. Let’s see it one more time shall we?

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Onwards, to Miami…

And the soundtrack was:
Leonard Cohen ‘Suzanne’
The National ‘Trouble Will Find Me’
The Shins ‘Wincing The Night Away’
The Shins ‘Chutes Too Narrow’
The Shins ‘Oh, Inverted World’
The Shins ‘Port of Morrow’
Les Colocs Unknown
Eric Satie Various
Karkwa Unknown
Blonde Redhead ‘Loved Despite Great Faults’
Arcade Fire ‘Neon Bible’
Foals ‘Holy Fire’
Sly And The Family Stone ‘If You Want Me To Stay’
Edison Lighthouse ‘Love Grows’

Part XI: Victoria to Vancouver

Another morning, another country frontier crossed by boat. Going from country to country, by sailboat, skiff or ferry has become one of my favourite things.

So, Leslie, Chris (from Team Wokich) and I load up the car and set sail on the Washington Ferry from Bellingham, WA (say WA?) to Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, (Oh!) Canada. I’m pleased to announce slightly higher health and safety standards than on my Caribbean Sea crossing…

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So, it’s farewell to the US, but only for ten days after which I shall revisit your soil once more. I mark the occasion with a very American convenience breakfast.

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It is a smooth crossing, and with the dense fog, the stunning San Juan Islands look distinctly surreal, like a kind of Truman Show film set.

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It’s my intention to come back here one day and sail my way round the archipelago. Yet another thing for the future travel-musts list.

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For now I am content with the girls day out that Leslie, Chris and I have created for ourselves. British Columbia, at least this small corner that I see, is beautiful. I did not expect it to be so literal though. As we walk along the water side, I jolt at the number of English accents that surround me. It is the first time for a long time that I’ve heard them.

It also feels and looks very British here. I know the clue is quite literally in the title, but you could easily be standing at Brighton or Southampton (if slightly warmer…) And by the way BC, that’s a compliment. The port is very pretty…

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…full of eager tourists setting off on whale-spotting missions…

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…desperately cute water taxis puttering around the port…

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…and flanked by grand county and tourist buildings.

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We’re not walking aimlessly at this point…we have a very special appointment to keep, a Wokich family tradition if you will. We are going for that most quintessentially British of things, afternoon tea.

Our target? The stunning Fairmont Empress Hotel.

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The timing of this is perfect. If you were to ask me what food I missed the most in Latin America. I would more than likely say scones. Yes, the banana bread in Belize was second to none, but Latin Americans don’t really do scones. God I love scones, I’d quite forgotten how much until we sashay into the grand tearoom.

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After a very British starter…

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…the pièces de résistance arrives.

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Incredulously, Team Wokich had never heard of that very Celtic tradition, and integral part of the British version…asking for free refills. This is a new awakening for them, and we more than certainly put a dent in the price tag as a result.

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After an elegant sufficiency (renamed by Harry Mellotte as the ‘elephant sufficiency’), waistline damage limitation is next on the menu. We walk round to Beacon Hill Park for a stroll to burn off the baked goods. It’s a stunning meander through the park.

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We are greeted at the most southerly tip by stunning views out over the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

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We snake our way through the myriad of paths.

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And make some new friends along the way.

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My personal favourite being this little chap, who made us feel decidedly underdressed.

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After our confab, we saunter back through the park to the city.

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In the evening, we reward ourselves with a jaunt to a Scottish pub The Bard and Banker (aye) where we indulge in a couple of fine bottles of red and set about putting the world to rights over them.

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After a grand night’s sleep at the Ocean Island Backpackers Inn, and Chris’s first ever backpacking hostel experience, we head to John’s Place one of the city’s famous brunch spots. They even serve (Buffie – look away now) a chocolate bacon waffle! Zing!

It’s time to say farewell now as Leslie and Chris head back to Bellingham to the male half of Team Wokich. I’ll miss my partners in road trip crime! After waving them off, I visit the Royal British Columbia Museum on Belleville Street. It is a natural and human history museum, the latter of which is the draw for me as I want to learn more about the First Nations people of Canada.

It is a great introduction to the nation, from Kwakiutl and Haida tribes all the way through to the Asian population. I particularly enjoy the masks that First Nations People used, each with their own story and meaning within the culture.

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Before long it’s time for me to take my leave of the island and catch the bus, then ferry across to the mainland where Vancouver awaits my arrival.

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Once checked into the HI Vancouver Central hostel (good hostel – woeful wifi), I head out to meet an old pal for a pint.

Remember back in Bolivia, when I mountain biked down the world’s most dangerous road, like a (very slow) badass? Okay, and do you also remember Tim (nickname Timvincible), the daredevil who actually came off road plunging about 10 metres over the drop and sustaining little more than a few cuts and bruises? Well, him and his fabulous missus Naomi have finished their six month walkabout, and have moved from their Melbourne home to Vancouver…just in time for my arrival. How’s that for timing?

We catch up before he has to head to work in the evening with plans to reconvene. After this, my first introduction to Van City is to be gig-shaped. The lovely Australian Alice, from the Lanquin instalment of the Guatemala chapter, also lives out here and she has invited me to join her and her lovely pals to see Daughter play at the Commodore Ballroom tonight.
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It’s a cracking gig complete with a cover of Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’. They’re a band who I knew little about, but I’ll definitely be buying their album on the back of that performance. Alice – you have impeccable taste!

Afterwards, I head next door to The Bottleneck for a good ol’ chinwag with Tim and Naomi to hear all about the post-Bolivian component of their travel story. After a suitable reminisce, we all roll home in the wee small hours.

At brunch o’clock the next day, Tim and I meet at The Templeton old school diner on Granville Street for a hearty brunch. It is quirky, kitch and wonderful.

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Here I am introduced to the Canadian tradition that is the Bloody Caesar, a variation on the Mary theme but made with clamato (made up word KLAXON) which is a blend of tomato juice and clam broth. Sounds horrific, tastes really rather brilliant.

We take a stroll afterwards as I am in day one exploration mode. We head through Downtown towards Canada Place, shaped like a series of jutting sails. It’s pier offers brilliant waterfront panoramas. We gawp at the cruise liners lining the dock and the seaplanes jetting in and out of the bay.

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20130615-164638.jpg How the other half live…

We gaze out over North Vancouver.

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We saunter through Gastown to the east of Downtown, past the old steam clock built in 1977 by Canadian horologist Raymond Saunders.

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Despite its steamy exterior, it apparently is run on electricity. Still, it looks the part. Then, we spot early Gastown resident Gassy Jack teetering on his whisky barrel.

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The barrels put us in mind of ale, so we head to a local hostelry called The Steamworks Brew Pub for a couple of swifies. Before we know it, we’ve been gassing in Gastown far too long and it’s dinner time. So, off to The Fish Shack on Granville Street we go. The fish is super fresh, the atmosphere is laid back and friendly, and the restaurant is decked out with wooden pallets to give it the fishing shack feel – even the seats are upholstered to look like life jackets. Mussels feel like the way to go here, and they are cooked in a metal vat right before my eyes.

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We have cocktails in mind now, so we nick into UVA Wine Bar, Tim’s new place of work where I sample the I’m A Banana cocktail (c’mon it had to be done.) Purely by accident, we happen upon a cheeseboard to complete the dining experience. The booziness continues once more as we scoop up Naomi after her shift at The Hawksworth and head to new local The Bottleneck for a few libations.

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Sunday kicks off with a bundle of nerves for Tim as it is the last day of the English Premier League and today London’s teams will fight it out for the remaining Champion’s League place. A staunch Arsenal fan, he insists that we’re all up for the 8am kick off. My beloved Manchester City has secured second place, and there is nothing else to play for, but Tim needs the moral support so we troop over the road to the Same Sun hostel, the only place open at this ungodly hour, to watch the game. 90 minutes later, Arsenal have secured the spoils, and everyone heads home nap-bound. But sleep evades me, so I walk down to Granville Island Market.

It is a stunning view from the Granville Bridge looking down on the island and the bay below.

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As I’m crossing the bridge, a fellow tourist asks me for directions mistaking me for someone who actually knows where she is going…we get chatting and we’re both heading to the market so we wander down together. Kyla has just moved to Vancouver from San Francisco with a three month stint volunteering in Africa in between times. With a new house, a new job and a new puppy on the way, she’s settling into life in the city after an amazing time on the road. Clearly, we have a lot to talk about!

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The market is very quaint.

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It is the usual mix of speciality food stalls…

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…and flanked by pretty little boutiques stock to the brim with jewellery, gifts, books, cards and objet d’art. As you would expect, I am drawn to a jewellery store where we both buy silver necklaces handcrafted to look like aerial map views of cities; Kyla buys her new home Van City, whilst I buy Paris, a city that will always have a special place in my heart as the very first place outside of Scotland I ever lived.

We take a walk through Kyla’s new hood and former 60’s hippy haven Kitsilano, and peruse a few shops including the bookstore Wanderlust, a must for travellers at heart, and Zulu Records.
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Then, we say our goodbyes. It has been lovely to randomly meet a new like-minded friend and spend the avo with her. I hope you’re settling into Van City well Kyla – maybe see you back there some day.

I bus back to Downtown before walking up to English Bay beach. But first, I pass tiny Morton Park and its interesting piece of outdoor art called A-maze-ing Laughter by Beijing based artist Yue Minjun. First installed temporarily in 2009 as part of the Vancouver Biennale, the sculpture of 14 three-metre tall shirtless bronze statues, all standing in different poses, but all laughing maniacally, is due to stay in the city.

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Upon further investigation, it would appear that the artist in question modelled the statues on his own face, and has created various sculptures and paintings that depict him laughing. Neat little idea, and beautifully executed here.

I amble over to English Bay beach where the sun belts down in the hazy late afternoon. Tim comes to meet me and we sit on the beach chatting in the sunshine.

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As the sun starts to drop and, hearing how stunning the sunsets here are supposed to be, we rue the bad planning of us not bringing a bottle of plonk to the beach with us. Alas, I have an Oregon Winter’s Hill Pinot Noir just asking to be drunk before I fly to Montreal tomorrow but it is back Downtown.

As we debate this, a guitar player has turned up behind us on the beach. He is playing original music, very much in a Jamie T stylee. He’s really good, and I quietly love that he isn’t even busking…just playing to himself.

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With the sun dropping behind us…

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…we bus back to Downtown, pick up the vino tinto and head to a bring-your-own-booze Italian for a pizza before flopping down at the bar at the excellent Keefer Bar for numerous cocktails and chats. Naomi comes to meet us after work, and we fight through tiredness for another couple of swifties at last chance saloon The Pint. Soaked in booze, my long weekend in Vancouver is coming to an end exactly how it started.

A healing brunch is on the cards so I meet up with Alice and we head to The Elbow Room where Naomi joins us (Tim is being a gigantic lightweight and hasn’t been able to get out of bed – disgraceful…)

This cafe is hysterical, bruskly rude in a congenial sort of way. One of the first things the waiter says to Alice and I, pointing at the empty seats on our table, is “where the fuck are these dickheads?” It’s affronting but endearing all at the same time, and the staff turn out to be a right laugh.

What’s more, the eggs benedict with blue cheese, bacon and avocado is exquisite.

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But what is even more exquisite is the company. It is absolutely great to have been able to meet up again with good pals from Bolivia and Guatemala again. I had been looking forward to it for a long time.

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One of the greatest surprises on my travels has been the amazing friends I’ve made along the way. Not only that, but being able to see some of them again either on the road, or in the future when I get back to London. I feel really quite privileged to have been in such good company.

For now, it’s goodbye to Naomi and Alice, and off to Van City airport to scoot east to Montreal. I intend to spend the 5 hour flight reloading the French tapes in my brain…and filing the Spanish ones.

And the soundtrack was:
The Kinks ‘Victoria’
Jamie T ‘Panic Prevention’
Daughter ‘If You Leave’
Cold War Kids ‘Mine Is Yours’
Phoenix ‘Entertainment’
Hooray For Earth ‘True Loves’
Yeah Yeah Yeahs ‘Mosquito’
Jurassic 5 ‘Power in Numbers’
Alt-J ‘Am Awesome Wave’
The Maccabees ‘Wall of Arms’

Part X: Washington State of Mind

I have to be ripped from Portland’s clutches, but when I finally board the Amtrak train northbound to Seattle I am superexcited for two reasons. Firstly, my cousin Myles is studying at the University of Washington so I have the chance to hang out with him (and mainly pretend to be a student again.) Secondly, the rather wonderful Bryan and Leslie whom I met back in La Paz live near these parts. Since they recently made it home from their epic year-long walkabout, I am to be reunited with them.

I head up to the Fremont area where recently-opened hostel Hotel Hotel will be basecamp for the next four days. It is a lovely spot, and certainly the slinkiest hostel I have stayed in for a while.
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There is an hilarious induction by Luke who checks me in. During it, he treats me the way I imagine a warden would treat an unruly teenager checking into a young offenders institution. Luke, I appear to be a good ten years your senior and I have no intention of raiding the fridge in pursuit of unlabelled produce during my stay here…

Fremont is a lovely neighbourhood, quirky and friendly in equal measure. It’s a little north of Queen Anne and runs along the Fremont cut of Lake Washington. It is also home to the Fremont Troll, a concrete sculpture perched under the Aurora Bridge which was made in 1990.
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And so my first day is spent how every great first day should be spent in a new city, exploring. The first stop is a world first for me, riding a monorail!
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It whizzes me from downtown to Seattle Center in two minutes. Built in 1962 for the World’s Fair, a defining moment in the city’s development, the track runs over a mile from the Westlake Center down to the Space Needle.

What better way to orientate yourself than by journeying high above the city and looking down on it.
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The Space Needle, designed by Edward Carlson, was also built in 1961 and opened on the first day of the World’s Fair the following year. It’s observation deck sits atop the 605 foot high structure and it has become a symbol of the city and of the Pacific North West.

As we shuttle upwards in the elevators, we’re told that we are travelling at 10mph “as fast as a raindrop falls to earth.” As you would imagine, the views are cracking. It’s also rather a glorious day for it. Downtown sprawls leisurely nearby to the South East.
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Lake Union beckons from the North East.
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Queen Anne lies off to the west. Fans of Grey’s Anatomy will want to know that this is where Meredith’s house is…
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And this is where they film their helicopter scenes when patients are airlifted to Seattle Grace Mercy West (technically that is a spoiler if you are not up to season four…)
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Mount Rainier is snuggled just behind downtown.
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And in the foreground are both stadiums including Century Link Field, home of the Seattle Sounders and the Seattle Seahawks (more on that later.)
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Due west is Puget Sound itself, and I can just spy the Victoria Clipper heading for Canada’s Vancouver Island.
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On the way down I am told that the engineering of the Space Needle ensures it would withstand an earthquake up to 9 on the Richter scale. I’m not sure this information would be too comforting if that were to happen.

I walk back to downtown and head to the Public Library, a building of notable design by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.
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It opened in 2004, and is a really beautiful place to spend some time.
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The reading room offers views out over the city through its lattice style walls, as such it is full of natural light.
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It is completed by neon escalators, art installations and even an indoor garden.
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After the exploration, I venture to chef Tom Douglas’ Dahlia Lounge for some rabbit and pistachio pate, followed by west coast king salmon. Top marks Tom.

On day two, there is the small matter of the FA Cup Final. Manchester City are taking on Wigan and hoping to capitalise on their only remaining silverware opportunity of the season. It is a perfectly respectable 9.15am kick off with the time difference, so, thanks to Bryan’s recommendation, I am settled into George and the Dragon with a pint in my hand and butterflies in my stomach by 8.30am.
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I am almost surrounded by Wigan fans, and disappointed to learn that a story has leaked in the UK media that Mancini will be sacked at the end of the season. That, together with Fergie announcing his retirement in the week leading up to it, is distraction enough for City. As time passes without a goal, I am increasingly nervous. They just don’t seem to have the fight in them that has characterised City in the past.

The dying seconds of the game bring a headed goal from Wigan and it’s all over. After banking on extra time, we are to leave empty handed and empty hearted. Seeing the look in the eyes of the Wigan fans reminds me of how I felt last year at the season end when we grabbed the title from Manchester United’s clutches at the last gasp. I am utterly devastated and wildly jealous of that feeling, but thankfully Bryan and Leslie are there to scoop me up and take me to see…wait for it…more soccer (before you start, you have to say soccer to be understood here!)

We head to Century Link Field to watch Seattle Sounders take on the San Jose Earthquakes.
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We are in the stand with the ECS (Emerald City Supporters) which turns out, brilliantly, to be the business end of the stadium. Bryan and Leslie, both Arsenal and Sounders fans, gift me a scarf as we go in…and before long the big screens demand that we get our scarves up.
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In this part of the stadium, the chants are lead by the capo at the front facing the fans. The poor lamb doesn’t even get to see the game! Bryan tells me that this is standard, and that most ECS members record the matches because they end up seeing so little of it in real time.
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I have never seen this before, and it is far less haphazard than the UK’s efforts. It is one part wild, two parts mental in there. They even hand out song cards, which helps out the new starts like me so there can be no excuse for not singing.

Some of the chants are what the FA might deem close to the bone, notably one whose lyrics include ‘Burn, destroy, wreck and kill. The Seattle Sounders surely will.’ There is also ‘Take ’em all, put ’em up against a wall and shoot ’em.’
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That would probably be frowned upon in most sanitised soccer stadiums in England. However, I expect it doesn’t turn into actual violence here.

SPOILER ALERT: When the Sounders score, I am struck by some latent leftover excitement from the earlier FA Cup final. Seems I have more than a little shout in me, and I totally lose my shit. Nobody nearby would have taken me for a new fan…
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We leave comprehensive victors with a 4-0 scoreline. Ah, that’s better.

Afterwards, we meet up with cousin Myles. Now the Mellottes (and related clans on the Irish side of the family) are a tall brood. But I had quite forgotten just how tall Myles is. Despite my 6ft, he dwarves me.
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Of course, we need to put this into context, so stand him next to teeny tiny Leslie with hilarious results…
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After this larking around, and some fine Seattle IPAs, we head down Post Alley, by way of the bubble gum wall…
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…to an improvisational comedy show next door which has us giggling until the witching hour. Then, Myles’ lovely lass of a girlfriend Margaret and her pal join us and we head out for a final drink. At this point, I am starting to feel cheated out of my champagne opportunity from the morning’s cup final. So, we buy a bottle anyway.

Of course we do.

The next day Myles takes me on a tour of his beautiful campus at University of Washington (or U Dub as it is fondly known locally.) First we wander through the main campus, taking in the academic buildings and Myles is a bloody great tour guide as he is chock full of factoids.

The Suzzallo Library, opened in 1926, is absolutely stunning and decorated externally with terra cotta statues of great thinkers and artists like Charles Darwin, Beethoven and Dante amongst others. Here’s a sneaky peak at the inside.
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Then we head round to the sporting facilities for a quick squizz. Myles is an incredibly accomplished rower, and he is at the university on a rowing scholarship. As we walk, he tells me horror stories about his 6am daily training sessions. He describes the worst exercising scenario I can possibly imagine; running up and down every step in a major sport stadium…while carrying a tube above your head…that is half filled with water. Right, I’ll stick to spin class thanks…

We peer in at the closed Basketball Court, where the Huskies usually play their home games.
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Even though it is Sunday, the devoted marching band drummers are rehearsing nearby. Myles shows me the boathouse where they keep all of the boats they use for training and in competition. His dedication to the sport is mighty impressive, and I have such respect for his achievements. In comparison, I had achieved little more than a record number of pub crawls at his tender age.

Now, due to Seattle’s plethora of lakes leading into Puget Sound, one of the recommended ways to see the city is on the water. So, after I have marvelled at the campus, we head round to meet Margaret at her place of work Agua Verde which is a cracking little kayak and paddle board rental company with a tasty Mexican restaurant attached. Handy on a number of levels.
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So, post mandatory burrito, we head out on the water, Myles and I in a kayak with Margaret accompanying us on a paddleboard.
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For the second time that day, I’m impressed by the tour guide skills! Margaret points out loads of sights along the water as we paddle along (albeit Myles putting slightly more into the rowing than I.) I can imagine how enamoured Myles is to be rowing on his one day off from rowing training!

After we have dried off, we head round to Margaret’s folks house to wish her Mum a happy Mother’s Day. It is here that I learn a ground breaking new yard game that I simply must export back to Fife this summer.

It is called Corn Hole, and you basically throw corn filled bags at a board hoping to slam dunk as many as you can from a significant distance.
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Three points for each bag, with one point for landing on the board and zero for missing entirely. It is first to 21, with the other team’s point scoring negating yours if they match. Got it? Good.
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It’s really flippin good fun, I can visualise that fun being increased on a summers day with a gin and tonic in your hand. The next project will be building a board for Harry’s house.

The next day, I am back on the tourist trail. In the morning, I visit the stunning Pike Place Market where I come face to face with the famous Pike Place flying fish. They are flying over your head, thrown by exuberant staff decked in galoshes while you check out the other seafood. All of which is pretty friendly.
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Some of them are even well versed in Web 2.0…
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There is other wildlife to behold, but they are largely harmless.
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Elsewhere in the market, there are a dizzying number of flower stalls….
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…fruit and veg carts…
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…and, my personal favourite, cheese emporiums.
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Beecher’s is an institution with speciality cheeses for sale, and a snack bar with heavenly mac’n’cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches.
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Once you have ordered, you plonk yourself down on these stools and watch’em make the cheese fresh (not for your sandwich, just to y’know, sell to someone else later.)
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LA Buona Tavola is the place to go to try all sorts of truffle delicacies from truffle oil tapenade to truffle infused mustard, with so much more in between.
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While Piroshky Piroshky Bakery is the place for a pastry if you have a sweet tooth.
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Full, and happy, I train up to the Experience Music Project (EMP) which is a modern not-for-profit museum devoted to telling Seattle’s musical story alongside great studios that people can come play around and make music.
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In fact, they put it far more eloquently than me, describing it as a museum dedicated to the ideas and risk taking that fuel popular culture. It was founded in 2000 by Microsoft, and designed by Canadian-American Pritzker-winning architect Frank Gehry. It is as lovely to look at as it is to go inside.
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Once inside, you are greeted by a stunning art installation…
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And a number of well laid out permanent and temporary exhibits. Naturally, the lion’s share of my time was spent with Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. (I may have been asked to step away from their original guitars…)
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And it isn’t often you see a photograph in an exhibition of someone you know…(Hi Eugene if you’re out there.
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It is a great space, covering everything from media coverage of the time, interactive videos and original attire. It is a fascinating place to while away the afternoon.
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Please note, no flash was used in the photography of these specimens.

Myles, Margaret and I meet up for dinner at the rather splendid Uneeda Burger, then they introduce me to the best ice cream parlour I’ve ever heard of. Basically right, they chopped up Reece’s Pieces and put them like INSIDE my banana bread flavoured ice cream. (There is nothing about that sentence that doesn’t interest me.)

From there, we say our goodbyes as I am due to get back on the road in the morning. It has been absolutely lovely hanging with the two of them in Seattle, made me wish I was a 21 year old again…or at least that I could continue behaving like one as I am now!)

In the morning, and before the off, there is time for a mysterious underground tour of the city hosted by Bill Speidel. The tour takes you through Seattle’s subterranean sidewalks and streets which were the originals until the Great Seattle Fire in 1889.
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As you walk underneath the rumbling traffic and rushing pedestrians, they regale you with tales of the corrupt politicians, brothel madams and speakeasy bars that made Prohibition Seattle such an entertaining place for quite a few people.
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And with that, it is a slow saunter to the Seattle Union Station.
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My northbound train to Bellingham turns out to be a northbound replacement bus, but once I have arrived the lovely Bryan and Leslie scoop me up from Bellingham station and take me to stay with their sensational folks Mick and Chris in the stunning area of Fairhaven on the water.
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With people, and views, this stunning how could I not stay?
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They are utterly fantastic hosts, so generous and great fun. We cycle all the way around the bay out to their favourite brewpub The Boundary Bay Brewery (tasting is practically mandatory.)
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Before…
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After…
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We sample stunning seafood at the marina at Anthony’s, then wander round to visit the exact spot where lovebirds Leslie and Bryan were married.
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Then in the evenings, on ridiculously comfortable sofas, tucked under blankets with large glasses of red, we sit round the kitchen table chatting or watch EPL and European Football. I couldn’t feel more at home.

We enjoy ourselves so much that Leslie and Chris decide to join me on the next chapter of my walkabout on Vancouver Island. So we pack our bags and say goodbye to the boys.

Team Wokich – I know you are reading this, and I would like to thank you so so much for all your kindness. I had such a great time with you lovely lot (in North America and Bolivia) My door is always open in London. Big overseas squeeze for each and every one of you.

Onwards…to Canada.

And the soundtrack was:
Jimi Hendrix ‘Electric Ladyland’
Nirvana ‘Nevermind’
Billie Holiday ‘Blue Moon’
The Vaselines ‘Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam’
Death Can For Cutie ‘Codes and Keys’
Band of Horses ‘Everything All The Time’
Dave Matthews Band ‘Crash Into Me’
Seattle Sounders Emerald City Supporters Various
Oasis ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’
Petula Clarke ‘Downtown’
The National ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ (first listen klaxon!)

Part X: Portlandia

Portland Oregon was a place I knew little about when I added it to the list. It has a powerful music scene and it is the gateway to the Pacific North West, frankly these seemed like compelling enough reasons as any to squeeze it in.

The first time I was made aware of the apparently archetypal Portland hipster, was when I told my sister (an ex dweller of LA LA Land) that I was planning to go there. “You might as well turn vegan now” she quipped with a glint in her eye and a grin on her face. She instantly brought comedy web series Portlandia to my attention (yeah yeah, I know I’m late to the party on this one) thus underlining that this stereotype is not unique to those in and around California.

Portlandia is basically hysterical, and if you don’t know it you need to stop reading this and catch up with it. It is the brainchild of Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen and Emmy nominated Carrie Brownstein. The bite-sized webisodes live in a magical kingdom, which you can access free of charge by winking twice at the gatekeeper once you have clicked here

When I arrive in the city, I am delighted to see that this is a tag they are happy to brandish, embracing it wherever possible with a dollop of good humour. It’s self-effacing and disarming, I love it. Portland, which reveals itself completely under the flight path of our plane, immediately grows on me.

Checking back into a youth hostel after enjoying the 5 star quality of LA, Palm Springs, Vegas and Hawaii, is exactly what the phrase ‘coming back to earth with a bump’ was coined for. I head to the North West of the city to this little perfectly placed gem.

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Obviously Portland is a city known for its established music scene.

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There is a solid, dependable market here for music, not just through live shows but for the fact that they still have multiple record stores (mainstream and niche) on every high street.

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Some are even open 365 days a year. Take heed UK!

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So many of my favourite bands are playing here…admittedly mostly after I have left (cue gnashing of teeth.) But I just can’t see how a fan of good music could ever be bored here. I head to the Mississippi Studios to watch Talkdemonic who opened for Flaming Lips on a US tour in 2011. The two-piece are based round here, so it has all the added swagger that a homecoming show usually provides.

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What Portland is less known for is its network of independent cinemas, many restored from their original wonderment. Some are not-for-profit, like the exquisite Hollywood Theatre in North East Sandy Boulevard, which first opened its doors in 1926. Alongside the film schedule, they also host B Movie Bingo.

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Others are owned by independent local companies, like the Bagdad on South East Hawthorne Boulevard, complete with stunning post-flick cocktail and pool bar.

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The key thing to note here is not how rinky-dink the cinemas themselves are, but the price tag of the tickets. The cheapest I bought was $4, and the most expensive $8. The Portland tradition is to watch the movie with a beer from the local microbrewery and a slice of pizza. Naturally I embrace this.

Put simply, this means that for two thirds of what you would pay in London for a ticket only, you can put away two beers, two slices of pizza and a packet of Reece’s Pieces. Not to be sniffed at.

I watch the following during my week there (click on the link for the trailers):
End of Love A touching portrayal of a single father’s struggles after the death of his partner, written and directed by Mark Webber
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone A laugh-out-loud all the way Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi movie that you can’t help wondering how much funnier it would be if Will Ferrell had a hand in it
Jay and Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie Super low budget, rollickingly amusing and long awaited return (in cartoon form) from Kevin Smith and Jay Mewes. Roll on Clerks III.

All very different movies, I am sure you will agree. In the latter, Kevin and Jay rock up for a chinwag after the show. Somebody in the crowd has brought their 9 year old son with them, and draws Kevin’s attention to it through twitter. That child is going to need a bucketload of therapy.

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Another surprise in Portland is the proximity to frankly stunning nature. Just ten minutes walk from North West district is the International Rose Test Gardens. Over 7,000 plants with 550 variants are tucked away on a hill overlooking the city.

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Of course, when I am there very few are in bloom. It’s all in the…timing. But a stroll through the Shakespeare Gardens and the Amphitheatre is still beautiful.

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I manage to locate a few pleasing blooms.

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And I am delighted to hear that the Amphitheatre is used for gigs too. Bands like Flaming Lips play for nish in the summer.

It is a stunning walk home…

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…even the greens are in radiant spectrum.

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I pass quite a few abodes that I decide I want to move into.

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Further afield is the stunning Colombia River Gorge, still only 30 minutes drive out of the city. A day spent hiking to the Bridal Veil falls…

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and Multnomah falls…

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…is a day spent happy. The views from the top of the latter out over the river are mind boggling. Douglas Firs as far as the eye can see.

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You might even spot some of these guys, who apparently are vegetarians (I’m sorry but when did the word herbivore fall out of parlance?)

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Then, take your trusty motor over to Hood River to watch the windsurfers.

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Be sure not to miss the formidable Mount Hood.

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Then make your merry way home.

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If you are waterfall intolerant, head out to stunning Willamette Valley in Oregon’s wine country. Spanning 60 miles at its widest point between the Cascade Mountains and the Coast Range, and just 50 miles from the Pacific Ocean, there are over 16,800 acres of vines. Predominantly these are Pinot Noir, and the region was made famous by 2004’s ‘Sideways’ directed by Alexander Payne. *Adds film to list of books to reread and films to rewatch*

This valley accounts for 74% of Oregon’s wine production, and we centre on the Dundee Hills for our tasting tour. My favourite Pinot Noirs were Domaine Serene (the flashy Rolls Royce) and Winter’s Hill (the dependable family-run Volkswagen.)

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The views from Colene Clemens are show stopping.

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Back in the city, I need almost a day to lose myself in Powell’s Books, a bookstore so comprehensive it has its own map.

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Naturally, I focus on the Blue Room. Those classics just cannot get away from me on this trip…

I’ll drink to this.

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Spending time in the city, you are never far away from the distant honk of a train’s horn as the MAX light rail criss crosses the metropolis. Imagine the intro to The Kink’ ‘Apeman’ and you know how it sounds to live in Portland.

Whilst I am there in early May, the sun beats down 28 degrees on the city from a cloudless sky. The locals soon put me straight that this is not normal meteorological behaviour. It seems that Portland can draw parallels with Glasgow in many ways, wet but wonderful. The comparison is even stronger when crossing any of the Colombia river bridges.

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The lofty temperatures have kids running through the Salmon Street Spring fountains…

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…and locals out in Pioneer Square playing chess.

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The city’s many statues look on, including Portlandia herself. 1878’s Miss Commerce, she is the second largest statue in the US after that brash New Yorker with her arsonistic tendencies.

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Even with some of the best restaurants in the North West, Portland is withholding yet another surprise…its humble food carts. From gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches to delicate Korean dumplings, Da Nang pork sandwiches and soft shell crab subs, all tastes are satiated here.

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And if you want to indulge in a beer en plein air, ditch the motor.

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Only in Portland.

When it is finally time to leave the city, I have to be wrenched from its clutches.

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Portland Oregon, you have my heart.

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And the soundtrack was:
The Kinks ‘Apeman’
Talkdemonic ‘City Sleep’
Portugal, The Man ‘In The Mountain, In The Cloud’
Oxford Collapse ‘Remember The Night Parties’
The Shins ‘Oh Inverted World’
Maximo Park ‘A Certain Trigger’
Pavement ‘Brighten The Corners’
Daughter ‘Youth’

Part X: Wowee Zowee Maui

We leave the bustling metropolis of Honolulu for the slightly quieter island of Maui to the east.

Sheer relaxation is the name of the game here. There is a common misconception amongst my comrades that I have spent the most part of this trip on beaches, but this is mos’ def’ not the case so I am looking forward to spending some quality time with my book and my iPod, two of the best travel companions a girl could have.

An even better travel companion than that is Buffie; usually London-based she has joined me for the west coast portion of proceedings. We scoop up our motor at Kahului Airport, and meet fellow traveller Brian, currently saving for his next trip by working at Budget. He gives us countless awesome recommendations on how to enjoy our week on the island. Brian – if you’re out there, you are wasted at Budget…
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We drive to Kaanapali Beach and check into our hotel then set out to explore the massive garden grounds that lead all the way to our private beach. Of course, at this point it would be terribly bad form not to explore the cocktail menu comprehensively.
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After a couple of days of what can only be described as Olympic-standard extreme lounging, we make our way to nearby town La Haina to a luau. It is called the Feast at Lele, the old Polynesian name for La Haina. When we arrive, fresh leis are draped around our necks and piña coladas are thrust jovially into our hands.
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We are right on the water, and the backdrop is stunning.
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We are treated to an indescribable Pacific sunset, which we enjoy as we work our way through the liquid specialities.
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The only real experience either of us have of a luau is the one that you see Baby’s sister Lisa rehearsing for in Dirty Dancing. As a result, we have had Lisa’s rendition of ‘Hula Hana’ in our heads all day. Thankfully, it is nothing like this. If you need reminding, find it here.

Each dinner course centres on a different country in Polynesia from Aotearoa lamb, Hawaiian Kalua pork, Samoan fish in banana leaf and scallops served in their Tahitian shells. Performances also underline the traditions of each country.
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It is an exquisite evening, and soaked in rum and culture we make our way home.
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Later in the week, we decide to take the car out on the open road by driving it to Hana on the east side of the island. To prepare us for this all day road trip, we take on board a truckload of carbs in pancake format at Napili Bay’s Gazebo Cafe.
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Our accomplice on this trip is Hawaiian Harry. He is the voiceover of the ‘Road to Hana’ CD we buy that delivers the lowdown as we drive. His factoids are of such a high standard, that we name him after historical fact-deliverer extraordinaire Harry Mellotte.

This road needs such particular assistance as it is over 60 winding miles through lush rainforests along the coastline, with multiple waterfalls, parks and sights along the way.

More importantly, the road is a difficult one to negotiate. It looks like a polygraph might if Tottenham Hotspur’s Gareth Bale was to deny looking for transfer options this summer.

It has over 60 bridges, 50 of which narrow to single lane traffic, and countless switchbacks along the way. Buffie and I show our cultural roots by automatically tooting the horn before crossing each bridge. You can take the girls out of Scotland…

Our first stop is Ho’okipa State Park. This is a blustery bay right at the beginning of the Hana Highway where we perch atop the cliff watching the surfers impress their audience.
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Not far from here, the windsurfers try to steal their limelight.
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Next up is the Garden of Eden arboretum. We walk up to the lookout over the Puohokamua Falls below.
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We continue through the myriad walkways until we are back at the water where we find Keopuka Rock, made famous when it was featured in the opening scenes of Jurassic Park.
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Clearly we spend the next half hour trying to remember the Jurassic Park theme tune…

The gardens are beautiful and after a walk, we hop back into the motor to venture onwards.

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The Makapipi falls surge right beneath the hairpin roads, we pull in for a closer look and a game of Pooh sticks.

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Not far past there, we swing into a roadside cafe where some incredibly stoned hippies are running a homemade ice cream emporium. All of the flavours are made with fresh coconut milk, we sample the pistachio and rum ‘n’ raisin variants straight from a coconut shell then gaze above us in awe at the single biggest rainbow we have ever seen. It is jaw dropping for us, and we aren’t even the ones on drugs.

Just ahead of Hana is Wai’anapanapa State Park, home of stunning lava rock formations and a black sand beach nestled in a cove along the bay.

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The current here is strong and over time the lava rocks have created blowholes that the Pacific Ocean sporadically bursts through.

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This place is beautiful, but it has a note of eeriness about it. The ocean is deafeningly loud and ominous sounding.

Perched right on the hill is a fresh grave, adorned with toys and whirring windmills, obviously that of a child. We pay our respects by not joining the throng of tourists gathering to take a photo.

There is time for some coconut shrimp at the Island Chef at Nihiku Marketplace before we head home from Hana.

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The rest of our week looks a lot like this…

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…except more relaxing.

Then Buffie sadly has to take her leave to return to London, and I to Portland. It is time to leave the luaus, mai tais and coconut bras behind.

Mahalo and Aloha Hawaii.

And the soundtrack was:
Primal Scream ‘Screamadelica’
The Black Keys ‘El Camino’
Dirty Dancing Soundtrack ‘Hula Hana’
Cat Stevens ‘Tea For The Tillerman’
The National ‘High Violet’
Kings of Leon ‘Sex on Fire’
Luscious Jackson ‘Electric Honey’
Interpol ‘Our Love To Admire’
Johnny Cash ‘The Man Comes Around’
David Kitt ‘The Big Romance’
Caribou ‘Swim’

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Part X: Higher or Aloha-er?

When the Friendly Fires album ‘Pala’ came out in 2011, complete with track titled ‘Hawaiian Air’ that I disco danced to in many a field that summer, little did I know that just two years later I would be humming it to myself whilst boarding Hawaiian Air flight 11 to Honolulu International.
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Buffie, my lifelong Fife-long (yet not particularly long) pal is been travelling with me. And from San Francisco, we decide to swap our jeans for grass skirts, and our hoodies for coconut bras. The plan is to spend a few days on the island of Oahu (pronounced wa-hooooooooo, well it is in my head anyway) before taking an interislander flight east to Maui.

So we touch down in Honolulu, and check into the Aston hotel on Waikiki Beach from which the view looks a little like is.
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It certainly has the most character of all of the hotels in what is essentially a line of Marriots and Hiltons.
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It is all high rise on the outside…
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…but all retro Hawaiian chic on the inside.
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Waikiki Beach is tourist south central, somehow I can’t actually believe I am walking on its soft sand. It feels like a dream…that or an hilarious outtake from Magnum PI.
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All the major services are here, the surf rescue…
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…the fire service…
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And, OF COURSE, the 5-0 (!!)
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First item on the agenda differs perhaps from your standard Honolulu tourist itinerary. It is something of a pilgrimage for those who worship at the church of Norman Collins, much lauded American tattoo artist considered the founding father of the modern day tattoo. A man of talent so uncompromising, and of spirit so original, that a rum was created in his honour. There is no way a trip to Honolulu would be complete for me without walking in his footsteps, and sampling his wares.
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After a rum punch to get things started, we head to Hotel Street the site of his first tattoo parlour. Although modernisation has brought with it the standard influx of McDonalds and Starbucks, his influence is still clearly felt in the area surrounding it.
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Eventually we reach Hotel Street, and I’ll admit to having a weird feeling strike me. It feels very much like hallowed ground, knowing how respected he is in so many circles and what a legacy he left behind after his death.
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Then, we hit the actual spot.
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The place is closed, but we peer in like giddy children at the flash art adorning the walls.
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The best we can hope for is to hit the nearest dive bar on the block and celebrate the man, responsibly.

When the rum flavoured fug clears the next day, we haul ourselves to Hau’ula on the other side of the island to go learn more about Polynesian culture.
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En route we are introduced to our tour guide who introduces himself as Cousin Cali. He is from Fiji and has a rather commanding way about him. We find ourselves jumping to his attention all day.

The Polynesian Culture Centre does exactly what it says on the tin, it pulls together all of the cultures from this expanse of the world and brings them to life.
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Some fast facts above for you, personally I had no idea that it covered 16 million square miles. When you think about it, it is remarkable that they have such strong ties and affinities with each other given how far apart the islands are. Cousin Cali has given us clear instructions on how to get the most of the day, these instructions are to do exactly as he says and to leave any independent spirits behind. It is a grave warning, and one we heed strictly…

The day starts with a welcome parade on the river, with each country represented. First, Hawaii.
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Tonga…
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Tahiti…
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Aotearoa…(aka New Zealand)
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Samoa…
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…and finally Esther, Fiji.
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It is a very colourful display, and a great way to start the tour. From there, we travel through the ‘villages’ that have been created within to honour each country’s traditions.

We visit Samoa, and learn about their tribal traditions…by way of a wicked sense of humour which tickles us Scots.
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We are then invited into the Aotearoa prayer house with a traditional welcome ceremony, and taught how the Maori’s greet each other. It is called a hongi, and you press your nose and forehead together with the person you’re greeting. Kind of like the face equivalent of a fistbump.

We are then treated to one of the most majestic haka, meaning new breath, I have ever seen.
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From there Cousin Cali frogmarches us, sorry, leads us to Tonga where we get a lesson in traditional drumming.
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Can you see Cousin Cali loitering with intent in the background here at Tonga?
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Moments after this shot was taken, he gave us the curly finger and we duly made our way over to Fiji. He is originally from Fiji, so he walked us through the Chief’s house, called a Vale Levu, and all the traditions that come along with the chief system.
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This house would be the largest and most elevated in all of the village. Apparently, the chief would sleep on the gigantic mega bed in the house, while his ‘favourite’ wife and children would sleep on the floor. He practiced polygamy, so his favourite wife would change in accordance with his humour, and other wives were housed in nearby sleeping quarters.

For her trouble, she was buried when he died having been given the delightful option of being stoned to death or stabbed. Remarkably, the role of favourite wife was still sought after, since it secured the fate of your children.

From the four doors, only the chief was allowed to use the back door which was usually positioned to the east side where the sun rises. Anyone else using that door, tradesmen, pizza delivery guy, Jehovah’s witnesses etc, would be slaughterers as their use of the door was seen as a sign of intended murder of the chief.

From there, we take a canoe trip back through the beautiful grounds…
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…past Easter Island.
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The following day, we head to Pearl Harbour to learn more about the events surrounding the attack, and of course to pay our respects. It was to be a very emotionally draining day, but it started with the most verbose tour driver we have ever met. Seriously, it feels like we are being over instructed, he stops just shy of actually telling us how to put one foot in front of the other. Thankfully he is only driving us to the monument, and will not be with us all day.
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Once we have managed to lose him, we arrive first in the queue. As the doors open, the queues grow to over a thousand people and we swell into the grounds.
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We head straight for the USS Arizona Memorial which we are shipped to by US Navy crew.
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Y’all know the story, but let’s refresh. On the 7th December 1941, Japan conducted a surprise air attack on the American military base on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. The attack, lasting only two hours, obliterated the US resources. Almost every ship in the US Pacific Fleet was anchored there, side by side. And all were severely damaged or destroyed. There we over 3000 casualties including 2403 deaths, from service men and women to civilians. This lead to the famous statement from President Franklin D. Roosevelt calling it ‘a date which will live in infamy’ and ultimately brought the US into World War II.

The USS Arizona was sunk, taking 1177 sailors and marines down with it. The ship still lies undisturbed as a tomb, and in 1962, local architect Albert Preis was commissioned to create a marble memorial in tribute to those whose lives were taken.

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The structure lies above the sunken vessel, with a sloped roof signifying the initial defeat of the attack, with strong edges raised on either side demonstrating ultimate victory. Its roof is open, letting in natural light and, when we were there, the sun shines through the ‘tree of life’ design reflecting beautifully on the names of those killed.

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It is incredibly moving, and brings both Buffie and I to tears.

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The vessel itself is exposed and visible underneath. Small patches of oil collect on the surface, leaking in tiny quantities from the ship below. The decision was taken not to disturb the ship, and to respect its peaceful grave, with the oil widely regarded as the tears of the comrades who were killed that fateful day.

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The audio tour is voiced by Jamie Lee Curtis, her own father, actor Tony Curtis, a veteran of the US Navy who enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbour and served until he witnessed the Japanese surrender at Tokyo Bay.

Back on the mainland, we visit the museum which goes through the events surrounding the attack.

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We also pause for reflection at the vessel’s anchor.

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After an emotional day, we head out for dinner on Duke’s Barefoot Bar on Waikiki Beach. Whilst we are sipping cocktails, something quite remarkable and, we’re told by the staff, incredibly rare happens.

From a barge a mile or so out on the Pacific, an absolutely huge firework display begins on the water. For those of you who have been, and to give it some context, it rivals Edinburgh or Sydney’s New Year’s Eve celebrations.

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We feel incredibly lucky to have been there. The whole beach and restaurant stops in their tracks to watch it together. We’re told that this only happens once every few years, when somebody important comes to town. We like to think that means us…but it is probably some gazillionaire.

Before we know it, it is time to leave Honolulu. We liked it here, the characters we met on the street were colourful.

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Even the statues wore leis…

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Now east to Hawaiian island Maui.

And the soundtrack was:
Friendly Fires ‘Pala’
Thumpers ‘Dancing’s Done’
Theme from Magnum PI
Theme from Hawaii 5-0
The Shins ‘Chutes too Narrow’
Various ‘Hula Hana’