La Bella Venezia

Yesterday we returned from a week in Venice. Yes, that’s right, a full week in the place most people visit for two or three days at most, pausing only long enough to tick off the main sites (Rialto, St. Mark’s Square) and do the main tourist attractions (gondola ride, selfie in front of the Bridge of Sighs). But if you take the time to spend longer than the average tourist in this amazing place, you will really reap the benefits.

Besides being beautiful, with its labyrinth of canals, colourful buildings, lively squares and narrow passageways, Venice is steeped in history. One only has to stick their head into the stunning Frari Church or Scuolo Grande di San Rocco to get a flavour of what the city has to offer. And it doesn’t stop there. The different areas all have their own unique charm, from San Polo (where we rented a lovely Airbnb property and found a gorgeous sandwich shop/bar which we frequented for a beer and glass of Prosecco most evenings) to Castello (where we returned to a wonderful restaurant near to the famous Arsenale – former ship yard and armoury – where we dined on our honeymoon last year) to the Jewish Ghetto and Giudecca, which both have a completely different, but no less charming, vibe compared to the other parts of the city.

This year, the Venice Biennale festival includes modern art, with a huge display of artworks to explore in both the Arsenale and Giardini. A two day ticket costs only 25 Euros, which is well worth the money. There are also a huge number of other galleries and exhibitions (both permanent and temporary, to coincide with the Biennale) running across the city, including new exhibitions by Damien Hirst and David Hockney (neither of which we saw, sadly, as we ran out of time).

And then there is the beach. On my previous two trips to Venice, both less than three days in duration, I didn’t make it as far as the Lido. But with a few days more we were able to hop on the Vaporetto (water bus) and make the half hour journey on two occasions. It’s not the best beach in the world, and it is very busy during the summer, but there are still plenty of sun beds and umbrellas available to rent and it offers respite from the searing heat and busy streets in the city, when sightseeing gets too much.

I need not linger on the food (it goes without saying Italian food is divine); suffice to say if seafood and ice cream are your bag, you will not be disappointed in Venice. I’m pretty sure I’ve come back at least half a stone heavier, but I don’t regret a moment of it!

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Hong Kong: Day One

After an eleven hour flight, only three of which we actually managed to sleep (and even then only fitfully), we touched down in Hong Kong at 2pm this afternoon. One train and an expertly blagged free bus later we were standing outside our guest house on the 13th floor of the infamous Chung King Mansions hammering on the door and staring forlornly through it at the empty reception desk. Fortunately it was only a few minutes (and a passing cockroach) later that someone appeared to let us in. Somewhat less fortunately we were then asked to pay the  balance in full for our two night stay (£100), despite me having thought I’d done this months ago through the booking website. Unable to get online to verify this (great idea Tesco banking for refusing to let customers log on from abroad unless they confirm a text message you’ve sent them – however Three, as I’ve discovered today to my chagrin, don’t automatically set new customers up with data roaming when abroad. How then, pray tell, am I meant to confirm a text and log on if I don’t have phone reception to receive it?) we reluctantly handed over the cash before being led to our cell-like “double” room.

The trauma of the room behind us we attempted to shake off our tiredness and go out-a plan made somewhat trickier by the horrendous backache that’s crept up on me over the past few days and is now not only fully fledged but also, it would seem, here to stay (bodes well for the days of trekking ahead…). It took all of my strength to get out of the guest house but happily once we were out things improved immeasurably.

We’ve spent this evening wandering around the night market, sampling lots of yummy street food and taking a promenade along (culminating in a night cap overlooking) Hong Kong’s stunning harbour. I’m still in pain with this stupid back ailment but we are at least firmly back on track with the holiday enjoyment, which is very much the most important thing. Next stop New Year’s Eve and I cannot wait!

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New Beginnings

On this Christmas Eve I’m thinking about new beginnings. More specifically, the new beginnings that two of my friends are making – one, in fact, who at this very moment is on a plane from New York to Hawaii to start the next chapter in the rip-roaring adventure that is her life, and the other who is spending Christmas in Bali after losing her boyfriend to a tragic accident earlier this year and returning to Australia without him to rebuild her life.

Both these friends are brave beyond all measure. They have endured the most testing of times and yet have still stood up in the face of tragedy and adversity and said to life, you know what? You won’t beat me, because I won’t let you. Their strength of character both astounds and inspires me.

Jen, the friend en route to Hawaii, is the fellow wanderer and writer who I met in India in 2011. She forged a fantastic life for herself in NYC from nothing, but she knew in her heart it was time to move on and has ignored her misgivings and the doubts of those around her to make this change happen. She is a free spirit in the truest sense of the word and is my muse and spiritual twin (as cheesy as that sounds it’s true).

Sarah, meanwhile, has been to hell and back in recent months after the loss of her wonderful Paul, and yet has borne her loss with a huge amount of dignity, poise and humility. It was incredibly brave to return to Australia so soon after Paul’s death and resume her life there but it seems, from the outside, at least, that the sun and her wonderful friends over there are beginning to work their magic, and whilst I’m certain she will never get over the loss of her love, I’m hopeful she will find in life many other much deserved joys that will bear testament to the fact it can still be wonderful.

So here’s to new beginnings, fresh starts and adventures-may they take us where we want to go, and may they make us richer in spirit and strength than we were before.

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Thoughts for the Philippines

I’ve been so saddened to hear of the devastation that’s been caused in the Philippines by the recent typhoon. Two of the worst affected parts are the islands of Leyte and Malapascua, both places on our travel itinerary for January. The dive school where we are booked to stay for three nights on Malapascua has been completely devastated (see pic) and supplies are being sent in from the office on the northern tip of Cebu, which hasn’t yet managed to make contact with the inhabitants. Similar devastation has befallen Leyte, where we are due to go on a whale shark tour.

The clean up and repair operation of this beautiful paradise will likely take months, but the emotional scars of the survivors may last forever. When we visit in January it will be a very different Philippines that we find to the one we had expected, but I suspect we will come across individuals and whole communities who have been strengthened in the face of such tragic adversity. I hope we may even be able to help in some small way, perhaps through some form of relief volunteesring.

News like this makes me realise just how charmed a life my peers and I lead. I can’t imagine the shock and horrors those poor people have suffered and seen over the past few days, it’s almost incomprehensible. All I can say is that my thoughts and prayers go out to them all.

 

Bucket List

I’ve been hugely fortunate in my life to have already done some incredible things, among them: living in a mud hut by myself in Kenya; spending a week on a desert island in Borneo; going on safari in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania; taking in the wonder of Halong Bay in Vietnam by boat; diving with green turtles in Malaysia and watching the sun rise over the Taj Mahal. So when I decided to sit down today and write my bucket list, it’s fair to say the bar was already set extremely high.

Why write a bucket list? Because in two and a half weeks’ time I will be turning thirty two – an age that two of my friends who tragically passed away this year will now never grow older than. It’s a desperately sad and sobering experience when people the same age as you die. It brings a lot of things into sharp focus and makes you realise what’s really important and what’s of little or no significance at all. It also makes you want to squeeze every last drop out of life that you can, because heaven only knows when your time will be up too.

I’ve spent a long time coming up with this list. Whilst experiences and travelling make up most of it, I felt it was important to also have some personal life aspirations and altruistic goals thrown into the mix. I’m pleased as I read it back now to see that only one thing on the list (no.14) is about ownership of something, which should hopefully help me to achieve no.37…

And so, without further ado, I give you…Belle’s Bucket List:

  1. Swim with whale sharks in the Philippines
  2. Dive with sharks
  3. Complete a marathon
  4. Go to Las Vegas and fly over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter
  5. Go husky sledding, see the northern lights and stay in an ice hotel
  6. Go on a writing retreat
  7. Have a novel published
  8. Dance in Rio for Mardi Gras
  9. Trek Machu Picchu
  10. Go up, up and away in a hot air balloon in Burma
  11. Visit Tibet and Nepal
  12. Rave at Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock desert
  13. Volunteer on Christmas Day
  14. Own a house
  15. Learn a choreographed dance
  16. Stay in a hut on stilts over a tropical sea
  17. Hula in Hawaii
  18. Stay in at least five homestays in remote villages
  19. Read 100 Booker Prize-winning books
  20. Take a trip on the Orient Express
  21. Exchange wedding vows with someone I love
  22. Have someone call me “Mummy”
  23. Get back to nature in the Galapagos Islands
  24. Go on a cruise
  25. Canoe in the Amazon rainforest
  26. Float in the Dead Sea
  27. Party in New Orleans
  28. Give blood
  29. See a polar bear in the wild
  30. Ski in the Canadian Rockies
  31. Stay on a ranch and ride horses
  32. Go on a road trip
  33. See Ayers Rock
  34. Eat in a world class restaurant
  35. Be an extra in a film or TV series
  36. See the pyramids in Egypt
  37. Stop worrying about money
  38. Overcome anxiety and self-doubt
  39. Take a giant leap of faith
  40. Make someone feel less lonely

Productivity and pressure

Today’s mot du jour (said in a sophisticated French accent, naturellement) is “productive.” It’s 11.07am as I type this and already I’ve run five kilometres on the treadmill, sifted through the reams of crap accumulated in my desk drawers during my sixteen months here (binning most of it and saving a few nuggets that may be of use later on), applied for my New York visa, ordered both my travel money and insurance and made an exhaustively comprehensive to do list covering virtually every remaining minute of my working day (and indeed beyond, as this evening I’ll be helping my boyfriend move into his new place by lugging a massive suitcase from one end of London to the other in the name of love – or lunacy, I’m not sure which).

In short, I’m in the midst of a necessary manic phase, which has got me thinking about the nature of pressure. I don’t know about you but I have a love hate relationship with pressure. When I’m under huge amounts of it I panic; my hands sweat, my head pounds, my breathing is shallow. Sometimes (too often) I turn into a whimpering, gibbering mess in the corner, claiming between sobs that it’s all too much, I just can’t do it. But then a funny thing happens; I remind myself to breathe, drag myself out of the corner, put the kettle on and sit back down at my desk. And then I simply carry on. And you know what? If it wasn’t for the pressure bearing down on me I often wouldn’t complete the task I’d set out to achieve in the first place. In other words, much as it stresses me out, pressure is an essential part of my productivity. I work better with it than without it – and that’s a fact.

At school and university I could often be found at 2am the night before an important exam, cramming every bit of information I possibly could into my brain. It wasn’t that I hadn’t bothered to revise (well, it wasn’t always that), I just couldn’t focus properly until I was under sufficient pressure to be able to block everything else out. I’ll never forget the week before my dissertation was due when it dawned on me I really had left it too late, and I had to pull out every last stop to deliver on time. My body’s reaction to that particular period of pressure was somewhat extreme – I blacked out whilst hyperventilating over the choice of finishing my dissertation and attending a party. Needless to say I eventually (and sensibly, as wasn’t always customary in those days) opted to stay in and finish the dissertation, and thankfully went on to clinch an upper second degree as a result.

In today’s society pressure is, whether we like it or not, all around us. We feel pressure to succeed in every aspect of our lives, from our jobs to our relationships and even in our hobbies. Even those who seem, on the face of it, to be at the top of their game – the company CEO, for example – are under constant pressure to deliver better, smarter, cheaper. But the reason such people get to the top of their game is because they’ve managed to get a handle on the pressure and make it work to their advantage. They’ve understood that often pressure is a good thing which provides a necessary catalyst for change (if you don’t think change is a good thing, see yesterday’s post which, I hope, will change your mind – geddit?).

Now I’m afraid I really must be off, I’ve got a million and one things to do before the day is out and my hands are getting clammy….

This photo shows me at a time when I was under considerable pressure – to host and deliver a successful end of expedition ceremony in Borneo in 2011. You can tell from the sweat on my brow I was nervous (and also brown – so brown, sigh…), but fortunately my effort was passable and the event was a success. See? Pressure in action. I rest my case.

Two simple words

This weekend I’ve spent a lot of quality time with family and good friends, something I realise I haven’t done nearly enough of in recent months. It’s so easy to get complacent about the people closest to you. They’re not going anywhere, after all. But it’s precisely because they’re not going anywhere – because they love you unconditionally, because they’ll never let you down – that you should make an effort to keep them at the centre of your life. They’re the people who understand you better than anyone else, the ones you feel most comfortable being your true self with. They’re the ones who can provide a listening ear and shoulder to cry on one minute and make you laugh like a drain the next. In short, you need them to be you – why wouldn’t you cherish them?

I’ve also spent time this weekend reconnecting with friends – both in person and by email – who I made on my various travels over the past few years. I find these types of friendship so interesting, because you don’t share a history but you do create an unbreakable bond as you make new memories together. People who meet whilst travelling the world alone already have something in common – they’re searching for meaning in their lives, hoping for an adventure, maybe even trying to escape from a negative situation in the ‘real’ world that they’ve left behind. Whilst these kinds of friendships are very different to the friendships that have stood the test of time and turbulence, they are no less important. They teach you just as much about yourself – if not more – and should be valued and nurtured accordingly.

Then there are the friends you don’t even know that well, or who you’ve long since fallen out of regular contact with, who contact you out of the blue to wish you well and offer words of support and encouragement at just the right time. Several such friends have done just that for me in the past week. Their kind words really picked me up when I was plagued with self-doubt about my writing, and they’ve given me the strength to carry on.

Thinking about peoples’ tendency to be complacent towards their friends has, in turn, made me think about the simple act of saying thank you – not just when a stranger holds a door open for you or gives their seat up for you on the train, but to the people you know and love. To be a good friend, parent or sibling takes a degree of selflessness, you must be prepared to put your own ego aside and put that person before yourself. So when someone does that for us, shouldn’t it follow that we show our gratitude in some way?

In light of the above I’d like to do a little roll call to acknowledge all the people who have supported me and made me smile in the past week – family and friends both old and new:

Thank you Mum and David, Rory, Hayley Norrish, Anna Bullock, Amy Roberton, Gabrielle Liddle, Jen Chardon, Alex Sayer, Kaye Dolan, George, Caroline and Milo Watson, Mouse Bunch, Sian Brace, Lucy Caslon, @benjaminmurdoch, @cripesonfriday, @adeteal, @beyond_nadia, @SirHeppe, @matthewpaulgray, @BinaryDad, @dogtaniontastic, @teenybella – you’re all absolutely ACE 🙂

And a general thank you to all the friends and family who I haven’t mentioned above who have – at various times and in various places – put up with me, helped me find hope in hopeless situations, and generally just been there. You know who you are xxxx 

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I can’t think of a better picture to go with this post than this, of me and my best friend at my mum and stepfather’s wedding. We were six years old and completely different (me a girly girl, my best friend a tomboy – hence the colour of our dresses!) but we were – and still are – inseparable. True friendship that stands the test of time doesn’t require you to be the same – it requires you to appreciate your differences, and be there for one another through thick and thin. I’m so fortunate to have wonderful friends who have done just that for me.