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’

 

 

 

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: 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: Frrrrisco

Before long, it was time to leave Las Vegas, described by someone we met as a display of all that is good and bad about America writ large. That is certainly a fair assessment. There is nowhere else like it in the world though, so for that we doff our caps in its general direction.

So, from the ridiculous back to the sublime. After we scoop up our motor with its inexplicable New Mexico plates, it is time to take a road trip to San Francisco.
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I’ve seen the movies (all of ’em), and by this point I know what makes a high quality road trip experience:

1. Quality driving music – check
2. Snacks (bizarrely nicknamed ‘Snackatiles’ by the Mellotte family), in this case Reese’s Pieces – check
3. Partners in crime, splendid Fife bezza Buffie and super travelbuddy Kim – check, check

Off we set, destination Bay Area, with our hearts full of the promise of clam chowder and moustaches.

To epitomise the west coast road trip experience, there is only one thing eluding us…but after driving ourselves over the edge, figuratively, not like Thelma and Louise, we finally find what we are looking for.
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Frequent Californicators will know of In ‘n’ Out Burger, a veritable institution of a fast food restaurant with enough cachet to distinctly separate it from grubby counterparts McDonalds and Burger King. It has a simple, on appearance scant, menu of hamburger, beef burger and cheeseburger.

However, a secret menu exists, only known in certain circles and accessed by a fiercely protected password which you knowingly deliver to your smiley server with a perceptive and pronounced wink.
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I couldn’t possibly divulge how we ordered the below (animal style, we said we wanted it animal style) but we bagged ourselves a tricolour Neopolitan style milkshake with a heady mix of all the classic milkshake flavours and a special topping on our burgers of secret In ‘n’ Out sauce. It doesn’t look like much, but we were near tears with excitement.
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A little known fact about this emporium is that it is family-run, by Lynsi Torres, the only grandchild of its founders, and youngest female billionaire in the US. She took on the presidency following the untimely death of both her father, by an overdose of painkillers, and her uncle in a plane crash.

They are only in five states, adding Texas, Utah, Nevada and Arizona to their humble beginnings in California. Also, they are staunchly religious. Next time you are in, check the underside of your cup and wrappers. Despite the double-entendre of a call out for your mystery meal, you’ll find bible chapter and verses marked shorthand.

Righteous burger wrappers point to Revelation 3.20: Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

Whilst the virtuous French fries bag links to Proverbs 20.16: For though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again, but the wicked are brought down by calamity.

Our awe and wonder, at the food not the God bothering, earns us free stickers. Score!

Not long after the burger love-in, we arrive in San Francisco’s Nob Hill (no comment), exhausted like 5 year olds on Christmas Day.

We’re up with the larks the next day to head over to world famous decommissioned prison, Alcatraz. Booking ahead is a must, and once we have checked in we are ferried across on these wonderfully Eco boats, part powered by solar and wind.
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Then, the familiar island, oft known as The Rock, rolls into view offering great views back across the bay to the city.
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On debarkation, we’re briefed by one of the volunteers. The audio tour is voiced by former staff and inmates, unfortunately Al Capone and Robert ‘Birdman’ Stroud’s voiceover fees were too high. Given the prison’s eventful history, this seems like the way to go.
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But first the obligatory intro video which reveals its chronology, from military fortification through to its occupation as a wave of Native American protests in the 70’s. It is a history I know little about so tees us up well for the full tour.

With the stunning views of the bay and the city noises wafting across on the spring air, I can’t help but think how torturous it must have been to be an inmate here…with a full view of outside life sprawled out in front of you.
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The tour takes us through life on the rock including a glance into the recreational area,
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the library,
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the dining and kitchen area (where knives had to be shadow marked to track more easily),
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and, of course, the cells themselves (try saying that after a few ales.)
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(Liana rues the day she stole that bathrobe from that hotel…)
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There is an interesting exhibit in the Dining Room where a writer has followed the post-incarceration lives of 5 convicted US felons and examined their roads to retribution. It profiles each of the rehabilitated criminals, including their crimes (serious shit like murder and the like) and looks at their lives now.

Here is an example. Meet Phillip Seiler, convict of second degree murder in the 80’s. Now enjoys sailing the San Francisco Bay at weekends with his wife and walking his dog…he probably also has a GSOH.
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It is a challenging exhibit, and many find it in poor taste.
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But it certainly provokes discussion, it’s all we can talk about the next day.

Before the tour wraps, we also learn about the siege that took place in ’46 when prisoners managed to make their escape after digging walls out over time with spoons, and take control of Alcatraz for two days in an effort to gain freedom.
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One brave prison officer took his life into his own hands when he locked himself in a cell with the keys that the prisoners needed. He was shot dead for his trouble. That could well be the literal translation of ‘taking one for the team.’

When we return to the mainland, we celebrate freedom with a visit to the Boudin Bakery on Fisherman’s Wharf.
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The dish du jour here seems to be the chowder, served up in huge bread bowls. Buffie opts for Clam Chowder, I for Crab and Corn Bisque. We are not disappointed, with this or the crisp Sonoma Valley Chardonnay that accompanies it.
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Then it is onwards for more city sauntering. Firstly along the wharf,
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then to wonderfully crooked and expertly manicured Lombard Street (I believe Liverpudlian parlance would decry it ‘on the wonk’)
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then through the city to Pacific Heights where have some light retail therapy in the independent boutiques and shops d’objet (stuff shops…you know, doodahs for the house and gifty trinkets.)
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The most hilarious item we saw was a book called Feminist Ryan Gosling, where the author pairs images of Ryan alongside feminist sayings to hilarious effect. More info on where to get it at www.feministryangosling.tumblr.com

After a busy day, we are reunited with Claire and Kerry off of the Coachella chapter. Usually London-based, they took to the road in a convertible after the festival to drive the Pacific Ocean Road through Big Sur ending in Frisco.

We head out to Lolinda’s, an Argentinean restaurant in the Mission area. We catch up on travel stories over an amazing dinner of sharing platters.
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We also take a tour of the Napa and Sonoma valley wine list. What starts off as tasteful and demure…
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…ends with us wearing another tables’ party hats (evidence would suggest as beaks at one point) and virtually hugging the waitress on our departure to other Mission hostelries.
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Of course, what this scene, a real rarity with this particular group, really needs is more alcohol. Tequila shots and Pabst at Doctor Teeth, then an entirely necessary bottle of champagne at The Clift Hotel. Entirely necessary I say.
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Due to the ungodly hour we went to bed, we didn’t wake till 1pm, desperate for fresh air in our lungs and filtered water in our systems. After a rescue breakfast of a three egg omelette with bacon, cheese and avocado, we throw ourselves in the car and head north over the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County. After only 30 minutes drive we arrive at the beautiful Muir Woods National Monument, which is 550 acres of stunning headlands. Over half of this is home to old growth Coastal giant redwood trees which are amongst the oldest in the world.

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There is a series of beautiful trails through the forest, some covered by boardwalks in order to protect the flora and fauna.

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Our instructions are clear.

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We spend a couple of hours meandering through the trails, slowly starting to feel like more wholesome people rather than hungover idiots. God bless you nature…

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The Giant redwoods dwarf us. Here is a photo for context. Look at how wee the people are!

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They are so huge that you can even clamber into them.

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A handy nearby timeline demonstrates just how old they are.

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It is stunning out here, from deep inside the forest to its canopy.

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Our farewell evening is spent at quirky French restaurant Bouche, which is amusingly also on Bush Street. The wild boar is delicious.

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And a world first for me awaits my attention on the desert menu, goats cheesecake. Yes please thanks.

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Not only am I saying goodbye to San Francisco, but it’s here I must say goodbye for the final time on this trip to fabulous Kim. We’ve managed to meet up in four different countries since we met in January, an impressive feat given our hectic travel schedules.

The absolute highlight of this trip has been the top notch people I have met, and Kim is one of the best. I couldn’t have finished the Inca Trail without her. Come see me in London soon kiddo.

And the soundtrack was:
San Francisco’s very fine KFOG radio station
Kim Wilde ‘Kids In America’
The Cure ‘Pictures of You’
Bruce Springsteen ‘Born To Run’
Halfby ‘Halfbeat’
Karen O And The Kids ‘All is Love’
Blackstreet ‘No Diggity’
Phil Collins ‘Easy Lover’
Phil Oakey ‘Together in Electric Dreams’
The Breeders ‘Canonball’
Patti Smith ‘Because the Night’
Elbow ‘Open Arms’