Epiblogue

Well, that’s just about it from us. This is the last post of the blog, the last of a 122 updates. We hope you’ve enjoyed them, and that they’ve made you feel as if you’ve shared some of the trip with us. We’d like to think so, anyway.

If you remember, back in September 2011 we set sail from the shores of Great Britain with the words of Mark Twain ringing in our ears: ‘Explore. Dream. Discover.’

Over the last twelve months we have explored three continents, fifteen countries and over eighty cities, towns, villages, beaches, forests and mountain tops.

A lot of our dreams have been realised: Copacabana Beach, Cristo Redentor, Iguacu Falls, Machu Picchu, the Bolivian Salt Flats, Mendoza’s vineyards, horse-riding in Cordoban, and camper-vanning in New Zealand. We’ve experienced Fijian heaven and Fijian hell, Andy Murray at Melbourne’s Australian Open, snorkelling at the Great Barrier Reef, Balinese eco-cycling, Javanese surfing, and climbing Mount Kinabalu. We’ve bathed Elephants in Chiang Mai, slow-boated down the Mekong, rice-farmed in Luang Prabang, volunteered in Siem Reap, explored Angkor Wat, windsurfed in Nha Trang, island-weaved around Halong Bay, and lived the high life in Bankgok.

It’s been an Olympic year for us in more ways than one, and in keeping with the big theme of 2012 we’d like to hand out some of our own medals. Bronze goes to Argentina, a shimmering jewel among the many rough diamonds of South America. Vietnam gets the silver medal for its incredible diversity and glorious contradictions. And gold has to go to New Zealand – quite simply, it is a country that has it all.

Amid all these adventures we’ve had the time to discover the delights of Amis (Martin), Bronte (Emily), Dickens, Dostoevsky, Dumas, Flaubert, Fleming, Kerouac, Lee, McEwan, Marquez, Melville, Nabakov, Proust, Salinger, Steinbeck and Tolstoy.

And although we haven’t read any Twain on this trip, we do know that he wrote: ‘Life does not consist mainly – or even largely – of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.’

Through this blog we’ve already shared some of those thoughts; we’re looking forward to sharing the rest of them with you in person when we return. So although it’s goodbye, it’s also hello.

Finally, we would like to dedicate the trip and this blog to our mothers. Only one was able to wave us goodbye, and neither will be able to welcome us home. But we would like to think that both have travelled with us.

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Days 330-336: Bowing Out In Bangkok

R: This is the blog’s last post but one, and it’s perhaps a little different from the others. You see, there are many cultural sights in Bangkok: the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Grand Palace, the National Museum, the Erawan Shrine, etc. But we haven’t seen any of them. And while I wouldn’t suggest for a minute that on this trip We’ve Seen It All, after three hundred and thirty days of multicultural absorption perhaps We’ve Seen Enough. Plus, I suspect this won’t be our only visit to Bangkok.

So, unlike any other stop on this trip we checked into a 5-star hotel, hid away our backpacks behind beautifully finished wardrobe doors, and threw away our ‘Southeast Asia On A Shoestring’ guidebook. Our six days here have been dominated by huge buffet breakfasts, thunderously large shopping malls, some rather delicious room service inside the hotel, and some rather fine restaurants outside of it.

We’ve also sat ringside at an evening of Thai boxing and hit the dance floors of one of Bangkok’s most exclusive clubs (yes, they let us in; we were surprised, too).

These last few days has made us wonder who it was, then, that toughed it out on Bolivia’s Salt Flats, survived the swamp that was Fiji’s Bay Of Plenty, and braved the cold and wind atop Mount Kinabalu? Not us, surely?

We have only one day of our trip left and only one post of the blog remaining. In the meantime, here are some photographs from Bangkok. Not quite the stuff of high adventure. But, boy, has it been good.

The view from our hotel room – and we’re only on one of the lower floors.

Chilling in our five-star crib: well-earned and surprisingly affordable.

A golf course slap bang in the middle of the city – only in Bangkok.

Siam Paragon: shopping doesn’t come much bigger than this.

Bed Supperclub, Bangkok: DJ Fred Jungo was our host for the night.

Ringside at our first Muay Thai boxing night. A good time was had by all.

Well, nearly all.

Caption Competition Winners

R: It’s the moment everyone’s been waiting for – the announcement of the caption competition winners.

It’s been an agonising process for the judges, sifting through thousands upon thousands of entries, and trying to agree on the winners. Sometimes it has been wit, sometimes intelligence, sometimes lateral thinking which has won through. But whatever the reason, the stamp of genius has been the common factor. Mostly.

Due to issues surrounding security, and following advice by Royal Mail, we are unable to announce details concerning the actual prizes. We would, however, advise against making any rash career decisions or large impulsive purchases until you have received your prize. Please allow up to 28 days for delivery.

Thank you all for your entries, and a special congratulation to all the winners.

Brazil

‘Richard prayed that his bushtucker trial did not include rats bottoms, cobras bowels or monkeys weeners.’

– Barry Peebles

Peru

‘I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in, to stop my mind from wandering… where it will go.’

– Peter Restall

Bolivia

‘The food was so bad that I lost 8 stone…’

– Alison Jones

Argentina

‘We can dance if we want to, we can leave your friends behind, cause if your friends don’t, and if they don’t dance, then there no friends of mine.’

– Daniel England

Chile

‘You get a good view of your house from here!’

– Campbell Scott

New Zealand

‘Gary Glitter’s new disguise wasn’t fooling anyone, especially the children…’

– Mike Stewart

Fiji

‘Richard makes an early return to Shandwick Place.’

– George England

Australia

‘Strictly Come Dancing kicks-off new season on board the QE2.’

– Kevin Rooney

Indonesia

‘Does my bum look big in this.’

– John Shields

Malaysia

‘Bear England.’

– Shona Galletly

Thailand

‘Richie longs for a Mr Whippy back in the UK.’

– Darran Flowers

Laos

‘The annual oxen prostate exam’s a two-man job…’

– Tom Muir

Cambodia

‘Has the bell gone?’

– Linda Livingstone

Vietnam

‘Spot the dummy.’

– Linda Livingstone

Photo Gallery: The Rest Of The Best

R: We’ve only a few days left, so we thought it would be good to share a few of the photographs that haven’t made it onto the blog.

For the DSLR-owners out there, don’t get too excited – we’ve been using a humble Casio Exilim, which offers only 10.1 megapixels in resolution. But despite its technical limitations it’s done a pretty decent job.

This gallery also means that you will be spared having to sit through hundreds of photographs upon our return. Sighs of relief all round, I think. It will also be something of a boon to those who have only looked at the pictures anyway (you know who you are!).

Happy viewing.

Bibliography of a Backpacker: ‘Moby Dick’ by Herman Melville

R: The White Whale and I have become great friends on this trip; and although I finished reading Moby Dick nearly four months ago, I thought it a fitting book with which to end my literary odyssey.

I’m not a great reader on the bus, suffering as I do from text-induced motion sickness. Planes and trains are no problem, but buses (and Fijian boats) are necessarily prose-free areas for me. With this in mind I left the UK with an unabridged audiobook of Melville’s classic.

Through bursts of Frank Muller diction the whale has followed me along Brazil’s Costa Verde, through Peru’s Sacred Valley, around Lake Titicaca, across the Altiplano, down the Chilean coast and twice over the Andes. And it has helped break the monotony of overnight rides from Melbourne to Sydney, Sydney to Byron Bay and Bali to Java. In Singapore Moby Dick disappeared amid the gloom – the backlight of my iPhone packed in – before resurfacing in Thailand, where, in Kindle format, I eventually made it to the book’s climatic final scene.

So what of the book itself? At first Melville’s style – long sentences, archaic language and florid descriptions – is a little difficult to penetrate, but as the mist clears you are soon pitched headlong into a salty, oily world of whales, whaling and harpooners.

But Moby Dick is as much famed for its verbosity as its virtuosity, and there is no denying that Melville’s prolixity can often frustrate and even defeat the pluckiest of readers. Arguably, nearly half of the one hundred and thirty-three chapters do not concern the main narrative, exploring instead the history, science and culture of whales and whaling. In fact, a more appropriate title for the book may have been Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Whales But Were Afraid to Ask.

But the hardy reader is rewarded, as the accumulative effect of each digression serves to both build suspense and enhance the central metaphor of the whale. I say central metaphor, as there are probably as many meanings as there are chapters in the book. But what does the White Whale itself symbolise? God, nature, immortality? And what is the significance of Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal quest? Sin, hubris, or just plain old-fashioned revenge? Arguably, the key meditation of the book concerns the limits of man’s knowledge: that no matter how many ‘facts’ we gather about the world – about nature, about life, about ourselves – there are some things which remain forever unknowable.

Elsewhere I have lamented the attempts of others to write The Great American Novel; and it is from Melville that any aspirants must wrestle this title. In Moby Dick Melville does not speak of America but of the world, not of a whale but of life. This is why he takes his rightful place among the literary heroes of this trip.

But it is in the metaphorical richness that Moby Dick achieves its greatness. Its layers are so numerous, its weft and warp so tightly packed, that the reader is free to invest his or her own meaning. For me, Moby Dick is a metaphor for both the limits and the glories of travel. And I will leave Ishmael with the last word on both.

On the limits:

‘Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.’

And the glories:

‘How vain and foolish for timid untravelled man to try to comprehend aright this wondrous whale, by merely poring over his dead attenuated skeleton, stretched in this peaceful wood. No. Only in the heart of quickest perils; only when within the eddyings of his angry flukes; only on the profound unbounded sea, can the fully invested whale be truly livingly found out.’

Days 92-103: A Palaver in the Yasawas

Well, well, well. We expected island-hopping up and down the Yasawa Islands would pass largely without incident. We thought that it would be more of a holiday than an adventure; that relaxing on icing-sugar soft, icing-sugar white beaches would be a small betrayal of the backpacking spirit and would warrant only a fleeting entry in the blog. How wrong we were. (Apologies in advance for the length of this update. It’s cheaper than visiting a psychiatrist.)

First, we had a five and a half hour trip on the Yasawa Flyer, a 60-foot catamaran. An idyllic cruise over still turquoise waters and under azure skies? No. Nearly six hours smashing a path through deep swell. One of us spent the entire trip with their head between their legs, the other fared better for the first three hours but then spent the remainder of the trip hugging a toilet bowl. Not an auspicious start.

Finally we reached our first destination: Nabula Lodge on the island of Nacula. As with each of our ‘hops’, we were scheduled to stay three nights there. We were a little disappointed by the standard of accommodation, but the food was good, the bay quite picturesque and the sun was invariably shining. We were also fortunate enough to bump into a top couple from Scotland, Dave and Lyndsey. Thank you both for making it a memorable start. And thanks Dave for all those free Kindle books – offshore guys can get you pretty much anything these days.

While we were at Nabua much of the talk between guests centred around what islands people had visited, what they were like and where everyone was going next. Reports varied wildly, but the most disconcerting aspect was that no one had heard of our next stop – The Bay of Plenty. Anytime we mentioned it people would cock their heads to one side and screw up their faces in puzzlement. We might as well have said The Sea of Tranquility for all it registered with our fellow travellers. Still, we thought, its anonymity would probably be matched by its exclusivity. It may even prove to be a refuge for the rich and famous. Besides, what did two-star actually mean these days.

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So after three nights at Nabua Lodge we transferred back on to the Flyer and then on to BoP. As we approached the beach we realised that it wasn’t a beach. It was swamp. Yes, it was definitely a swamp. The swamp suspicions were confirmed as we left the boat and trudged through the mud, disturbing thousands of thumb-sized sand crabs in the process. Lovely.

As we dumped our packs at the dining area – think Bridge Over The River Kwai – we were met by a small, slightly built chap who introduced himself as Wendy and, as we later discovered, had a penchant for giggling ‘Bottoms Up!’ every time he served a drink. On the drinks front, we were also informed that although there was no bottled water on the island we could drink the rain water for free. How generous.

We were then shown to our room which stood atop a small hill overlooking the swamp… sorry, the bay. There was no mosquito net, no fan, the wire mesh on the windows were riddled with holes, the shower was a bona fide dripping tap and the floor was a forest of ants and the occasional cockroach.

Well, we all have our breaking points and we had reached ours. Enough was enough. So we did what most British people do and said that this was lovely and then made up a story about wanting to move the next day as we were trying to catch up with friends on another island.

You see, despite its setting and the state of the room, what little staff there were at BoP were all incredibly friendly. There were also a large group of Ghanaians staying there, volunteering on behalf of UNESCO, and they were equally welcoming. And to top it all off, the only other two guests on the island were a lovely English couple, James and Jenny, who were toughing it out and trying to make the most of it. More power to them.

We tried to put the horrors of the day to one side in an attempt to salvage the evening, as it is worth pointing that we had arrived at The Bay Of Plenty on New Years’ Eve.

Hogmanay started off well enough. Wendy had set out a flower-laden table for four on the beach. Dinner was tasty and plentiful (the name had to come from somewhere). And James and Jenny, being James and Jenny, shared their bottle of fizz with us. We gave them our last two ferrero rocher in way of exchange. The spirit it was given in far outweighed any monetary value.

Dining on the beach sounds romantic, and ordinarily it is. But when that beach is really a swamp then you start to encounter problems – hundreds of them. Small and largely indiscernible, they left their mark on our feet, legs, arms, shoulders – anything that wasn’t wrapped in at least two layers. We shrugged it off. We said it’s fine. It wasn’t.

After dinner the staff and the Ghanaians joined us around a bonfire for singing and the occasionally jig. We were one of the first places on the planet to usher in 2012, and celebrated by teaching our new friends Auld Lang Syne – or at least our poorly remembered rendition of it.

We wandered up to bed, and after killing a handful of cockroaches we settled down to a long and painfully hot night surrounded by the sound of buzzing beasts and scuttling scarabs. Happy New Year.

We left The Bay of Plenty in the morning, any awkwardness at our premature departure insignificant against our poor throbbing insect-invaded limbs. Insult was added to injury when the ‘management’ decided to charge us for the remaining two nights. A nice parting gesture.

N.B. In an attempt to wipe the memory from our minds, no photographs exist of The Bay of Plenty.

We soon arrived at Gold Coast Inn, but apart from a mercifully better room with a mosquito net things were not greatly improved. Rather bizarrely the ‘resort’ only had one seat, a bright fuchsia garden chair which seemed to be the reserve of the village elder and which we could only use on special occasions.

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Sophia wonders where it all went wrong

We did, however, manage to hold out for at least two nights this time. Our hostess Filo was incredibly helpful and friendly and the second night we were joined by Josh and Tania, an Australian couple from Aubrey and Melbourne respectively.

We won’t dwell much on the remainder of our island-hopping tribulations in the Yasawas. The next three nights were at Korovou, which again saw another slight improvement and where we met Martin and Jemma from England and a very entertaining couple from Malaysia. Then it was on to Wayla Lai Lai, not a Fijian version of Clapton’s biggest hit but a resort on the island of the same name. This unfortunately constituted another slip down the greasy accommodation pole and we bailed out a night early.

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We’ve now thrown a bit of money at Fiji – although not a lot more – and are currently holed up at Octopus Resort. It’s rather fantastic, and we are giving serious consideration to staying here until we head to Australia. And although it probably won’t generate the same kind of blog-boosting stories, we figure we deserve it.

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A big thank you must go out to Dave and Lyndsay, James and Jenny, Joshua and Tania, Martin and Jemma. Without them we may not have made it this far. Vinaka!