Subways and semla in Stockholm….

For those of you who followed my recent adventures in South America, you will know that I booked a surprise trip to Stockholm for my partner, Ken, upon my return in February, to say thank you for supporting my decision to take four months off work while I worked through my mini-midlife crisis. I stepped off the plane in Amsterdam – wearing shorts to the bemusement of the cabin crew – to be greeted by a smiling Ken, who had just read my latest blog and was therefore aware of the surprise trip. If you’re wondering why Stockholm, you can read about it in this post.

It seems we have a knack for surprises in our relationship as, unbeknownst to me, Ken had gone to the UK to pick up the cats the previous week and they were at the door to greet me when I got home. Having been away for so long, it was a special homecoming. However, Ken took it one step further, as I discovered when going to the bedroom to change clothes only to be greeted by my best friend, Leah, who he’d picked up in the UK on the way back to the Netherlands. I was somewhat overwhelmed to be honest, and the endorphin rush was intense, like after a good workout. Or so I’m told. Perhaps I should go to a gym if it really does feel this good afterwards.


Unfortunately, our flight to Stockholm was booked for the following morning, so we said tot ziens to Leah and the cats, with promises to take her to her favourite restaurant on our return to the land of orange, evidenced above!

Ken and I haven’t really been on holiday in the 18 months we’ve been together, save for a few day trips in the Netherlands, so the upcoming 24/7 would be a new experience. We treated ourselves to some bubbles in the lounge despite the early hour and soon found ourselves on the Arlanda Express – how bloody much?!?!?!!! – whizzing our way to the city centre. I had booked a cute AirBnB apartment that didn’t disappoint. Despite it’s small square footage, it was designed perfectly and was very gezellig. Not that we spent that much time there. No, we came for the subway stations and unfortunately they require being outside. Well, underground, but you know what I mean.

As we had three days in the city, we took it easy on day one, exploring the narrow streets of Gamla Stan (the old town), and it wasn’t long before I persuaded Ken to partake in a spot of fika at Chokoladkoppen, a cute cafe on the main square. Thankfully they were still serving semla buns (they’re only available at certain times of the year, and you can read more about the tradition here) and it didn’t take me long to demolish one. Given that eating out in Stockholm is so expensive it requires remortgaging one’s dwelling, we took advantage of the fully stocked kitchen and had dinner at the apartment that evening.


The next day was bright and sunny, but perishingly cold, so we decided to save being underground for the following day when the weather was due to be overcast, and instead took a boat around the archipelago. The guide was very engaging and informative, and Ken was very happy being on a boat, despite spending most of his adulthood on one having first worked in the Merchant Navy before pursuing a career as a marine engineer! It may, however, have been the hearty soup and dubious looking shot glass of liquor that put a smile on his face. By the time we returned to the dock, the temperature had turned even more baltic so we made a pit stop at H&M to buy some gloves for Ken and an extra jumper for me. I then managed to persuade him to allow me to push the boat out – it didn’t take much to twist his arm to be honest – and eat at an amazing looking restaurant we passed by the evening before.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t put it off anymore, it was time to do what we came to Stockholm to do, namely tour the subway to view the art installations. Unlike Ken I’m not a transport geek, nor do I know anything about art beyond imitating Patsy Stone (‘yeah, but is it art?’), however seeing Ken’s growing excitement – wait, that sounds rude – gave me a fuzzy feeling inside, and after all, I brought him here to make him happy. Mission accomplished it seemed.

I don’t often ride the metro in Amsterdam, but I know that if I lived in Stockholm – not that I’m willing to sell a kidney to do so – I’d look forward to getting on the tunnelbana every day. Words I never uttered during the 12 years I rode the Tube in London! Perhaps Ken’s enthusiasm was catching. The T-bana stations are truly incredible, as you can see from the photos below. I’m heading back to Stockholm this weekend for a tournament with Amsterdam Netball Club and I’m already looking forward to introducing them to these magnificent structures.


Solna Centrum




Tekniska Högskolan






Photos taken before I realised I should’ve noted where we were!

Hiking the ‘Classic Inca Trail’ to Machu Picchu….

So, the day is finally here: Macchu Picchu here we come. For many, this is the thing to do during their time in South America, and while it was amazing, I think I’ve preferred discovering the less well documented, but no less impressive sights such as Lake Quilotoa or Rainbow Mountain. Nonetheless, it was an incredible four days and one that won’t be forgotten in a hurry.

500 people are permitted to start the trail each day, but this number includes approximately 300 support staff in the form of porters, cooks and guides. I chose the Classic trek because the equipment is carried by humans who choose to do so, as opposed to pack animals which are used on other treks. The porters are truly incredible; they carry up to 30kg of equipment on their backs, while I struggled with my daypack weighing 7kg. Having finished our breakfast, we would set off on a day’s hiking, only to be overtaken by running porters who would then have lunch ready for us upon our arrival. This was repeated for dinner when we would arrive at the campsite to also find our tents and bed all set up.


Distance: 12km

Starting elevation: 2,700m

End elevation: 3,000m

Start time: 1103

End time: 1627

# of showers: 0

# of poos: 0

We started the Inca Trail at KM82 in Piscaycucho, where we met our team of porters and guides. Having shown our passports and permits, we crossed the Urubamba River, following the shoreline through lush farmland before gradually climbing for the next few hours. The walk today was relatively easy, and we were treated to some stunning views of Mount Veronica (named after a woman who went missing on the mountain and was never found).


Distance: 11km

Starting elevation: 3,000m

Highest elevation: 4,200m

End elevation: 3,650m

Start time: 0643

End time: 1429

# of showers: 0

# of poos: 0

# of coca leaves chewed: countless

Today was by far the hardest of the four days, with the hike being almost entirely uphill with steep inclines. The scenery made the effort worthwhile, although I had to consciously remind myself of that at times, especially when I felt the formation of several blisters on my feet. The group made good progress first thing and were therefore treated to a two hour lunch, during which I took the opportunity of a nap. However, upon waking I felt decidedly ropey but unable to put my finger on why. We started walking again but I was quickly beset with a splitting headache. Lauren – a.k.a. Wonder Woman on account of the fact she was doing the Inca Trail only three months after surgery to repair het ACL – confided that she was feeling something similar and we decided to try chewing coca leaves which we’d been told would help. The first taste was revolting. Having chewed five leaves, we stored them in our cheeks like hamsters and waited for them to work their magic. We were told to change the leaves every ten minutes and counting the time helped me concentrate on something else besides my throbbing forehead. The leaves are indeed magical as within twenty minutes, both Lauren and I felt much better, even putting on a bit of a spurt. We reached the highest point on the trek, Dead Women’s Pass, and stopped for some celebratory photos. Thankfully, it was downhill to that evening’s campsite where, upon arrival, I promptly slept for several hours before dinner.


Distance: 16km

Starting elevation: 3,650m

End elevation: 2,650m

Start time: 0635

End time: 1437

# of showers: 1 (if you count dipping one’s balls in a bucket of warm soapy water)

# of poos: almost 1 (despite repeated attempts in the bush)

Today was my favourite day of the trek. Up to now I could generally be found at the back of our group of 14, with one of the guides, Willian, who was great at making us take breaks and not go beyond our limits. However, today was mostly downhill which suits me much better. Several of the group struggled more today because of the impact on their knees, but for me this was much preferable than the ascents. At one point, a small group of us, inspired by the amazing running porters, decided to run down the ancient stone steps with them, for about 30 minutes. It was exhilarating and I had a massive smile on my face when we reached our next checkpoint, the ruins at Phuyupatamarca and waited for the others, filling the time by doing some handstands above the valley. The drop in elevation meant that I felt fine and my breathing and heart rate returned to normal almost immediately upon stopping. It felt bizarre given that I’m usually out of breath for a few minutes having run twenty minutes for a tram in Amsterdam!!


Distance: 4km

Starting elevation: 2,650m

End elevation: 2,430m

Start time: 0330 (!!!!)

End time: 0730

# of showers: 1 (upon return to hotel at 1930)

# of poos: lots (also upon return to hotel and its functioning, clean toilet)

The porters woke us up at the ungodly hour of 0300 to start the short walk to the Sun Gate and our first sight of Machu Picchu. When I booked this trip, the brochure said we would arrive at Machu Picchu at sunrise, but this wasn’t entirely true. We walked along the jungle path for fifteen minutes, before joining the queue of hikers who were waiting for the path to be opened at 0530. Ian ‘entertained’ us with the five jokes he has memorised for such an occasion, our polite laughter the only sound piercing the early morning silence. The gates were promptly opened at 0530 and we began the 75 minute walk up to the Sun Gate. By this time, sunrise had come and gone, and after climbing the final super steep steps, we were treated to our first sight of the famous Inca city of Machu Picchu. Except we weren’t. A mist had rolled in at exactly the worst moment, and all you could hear were the disappointing sighs of smelly and tired hikers. Thankfully the sun worked its magic and the mist soon cleared to reveal the ancient stones. It’s a truly remarkable sight and it’s hard not to be impressed by the spectacle.

After the obligatory photos, I was craving some alone time, so I went for a coffee and sandwich before playing with the numerous well-fed pooches who hang around the entrance of the sight hoping for scraps from tourists. Ian and I then caught the bus to the nearby town of Aguas Calientes (literally Hot Waters) and celebrated our achievements with a couple of litres of beer and WiFi. I’m not sure Ian felt much of a sense of achievement given that he said he thought it was a lot easier than he’d imagined (needless to say I thought it would kill me at one point on the second day), or perhaps his achievement was managing to cope with me as a tentmate for three nights without killing me. Either way, the beer went down a treat.

The group met for lunch after which we took the train back to Cusco. Following dinner, copious amounts of alcohol was consumed before a corresponding amount of dancing took place on the bar of a local club.

I decided to call it a night at 0430, 25.5 hours after I’d woken up the day before. The walk home was probably my favourite part of the evening, once Ian and I had discovered Cusco’s slippery stone pavements.

Hospitals and haute cuisine in La Paz….


La Paz is the capital of Bolivia, and at 3,640m / 11,950ft, it is the highest administrative capital in the world. From a distance it reminded me very much of Quito, sitting as it does sprawled across a valley and encompassed by mountains. However, upon arrival downtown and on closer inspection, I realised the similarities ended there. It seemed to be a much more bustling city with more noise, traffic, dirt and people on the streets. After the last couple of weeks in sparsely-populated towns, it was an assault on the senses and quite welcomed. I met my Instagram buddy, Steven, for coffee and we wandered around the ‘Witches Market’ which is pretty much like most other markets in South America, apart from one rather macabre distinction: they sold llama foetuses, strung up at the entrance of the stalls. Some were large with fur and obviously removed just before birth, while others looked like bird skeletons and removed earlier on in the pregnancy. Steven is fluent in Spanish and we learned from the stallholder that the foetus is offered to the earth mother, Pachamama, when new buildings are erected. I think I’d prefer some champagne personally. It was fun getting to know Steven beyond Instagram pictures and we’ve promised to visit Mallorca and Amsterdam respectively once we’re both back in the real world.

As it was the last night on the trip for many passengers, the hotel laid on a spread for us on the top floor restaurant which, with its neon orange and green colour scheme and formal matching tableware, looked like an Irish/Dutch wedding on speed. All crimes against interior design were soon forgotten once the free wine and food appeared, all of which was delicious. We were also treated to some traditional Bolivian dancing, although three of the four dancers looked like they’d rather be anywhere else than in the room with us, especially when their leader indicated it was time to pull up a gringo from our motley crew and teach them the movements. They were visibly relieved to be, um, relieved of their duties, and we headed into town to discover the city’s nightlife. We didn’t get too far as we were persuaded to visit ‘The English Pub, which was about as English as a native llama. A few too many pisco sours later and the group were either playing beer pong or dancing on the bar, which seems to be de rigeur on this continent.

I called it a night at 0300 as my alarm was set for 0700 in order to join a mountain bike expedition along El Camino De La Muerte. In case your Spanish is as rusty as mine, allow me to translate: Death Road. We met our very sprightly guide, Linda from the Netherlands, and set off to the start of the route which would eventually descend 1,300m. Linda regaled us with stories of her very impressive cycling exploits while doling out protective gear, for which I would later become very thankful! The start of the ride was up in the clouds and bloody freezing, and was actually on the asphalt of the ‘new road’. For 22km we freewheeled down the winding road, taking in some stunning scenery, before reaching a tunnel which we bypassed to try our first ‘off roading’ of the day. We then jumped back on the bus for the short ride to the start of the ‘old road’ a.k.a. Death Road. The road winds itself down through the mountainside and several micro climates and is very narrow in parts, as in the width-of-one-car narrow! It’s incredible to think that it used to handle two-way traffic with various passing spots. Our other guide and photographer, Rodrigo, led the way and we gingerly followed, taking some time to learn to trust the bike over some pretty rocky terrain.

We all made it to the marathon point (42km) in one piece and stopped for snacks, after which we continued down the home stretch. On one of the fast downhill sections, my rear wheel got a puncture and luckily I managed to jump off the bike and land on my feet. Five minutes later, however, when the back wheel of my replacement bike skidded on a rock on a slow and innocuous section of the road, I was not so lucky. For some reason, as the bike fell it took me with it for several metres and we were locked in rather a painful embrace. Unlike at home in the Netherlands, I was wearing a helmet and therefore I folded my arms across my chest to protect my collarbone instead, which is often injured in a bike fall, and that meant Linda had to extricate me from the bike in which I was tangled. She was very calm as she asked me if anything hurt (yes; my leg and lower back), if anything was bleeding (I didn’t think so) and if anything felt broken (no). She asked if I could make it to our bus, which thankfully trailed behind us the whole way, and I thought I could. However, upon sitting up, we both saw the blood which was quickly soaking through the thick protective clothing and I realised (I guess the initial shock had masked this previously) that my right leg was in fact extremely painful. Linda and our driver, Santi, carried me to the bus and gently sat me down, before Linda proceeded to remove my trousers and shorts, giggling “it’s been a long time since I’ve taken off a guy’s pants”, to which I responded “me too love, me too”.

Once removed, we could see that the copious amount of blood (that thankfully was not spurting which Linda took to be a good sign) was coming from a narrow but deep cut in my thigh. We applied a compress and started the three and a half hour drive to hospital. I felt a bit ill and closed my eyes, each bump in the road bringing a louder ‘ouch’ than the one before. I was very impressed by the healthcare received in La Paz: I was met at the roadside by a porter with a wheelchair and was taken immediately to a ward where I waited all of forty seconds to be seen by Dr. Mayra. The medical staff all knew my name and why I was there thanks to the biking company who had obviously called ahead to forewarn them (“another stupid effing gringo who’s fallen off a bike” is how I imagined the conversation went). The whole experience was seamless. Thankfully Dr. Mayra’s first act of treatment was to give me some pain medication before inspecting and cleaning the wound. To be honest, cleaning the grazes was three most painful part of the treatment, more so than when I got my pretty large tattoo. Dr. Mayra was concerned that the depth of the wound may have resulted in a blood clot so I had to go for some tests, but thankfully all was clear, and three stitches, $173, and two hours later, I was in a taxi back to the hotel. A taxi ride which was more frightening than anything I encountered on the death road if I’m honest.

Ian had very kindly accompanied me to the hospital, and paid the bill as I didn’t have my bank card with me. We found a pharmacy near the hotel and went to collect the four sets of tablets prescribed. They wouldn’t take Ian’s card and asked if we could pay cash, in response to which I took out a wad of notes that were stuck together with congealed blood, demonstrating why I was there in the first place. Miraculously, the pharmacist said she would take the cash, albeit with a disgusted look on her face.

On a previous trip, Ian met a girl called Cat, who joined our tour in La Paz and is staying with us for three weeks until Santiago. Cat is lovely and I felt really guilty at monopolising Ian on the first day of their reunion. Thankfully, the opportunity to make it up to them both presented itself the very next day when I took them for lunch at Gustu, La Paz’s only Michelin starred restaurant. We opted for a tasting menu, although the wine pairing was ‘prohibido’ due to the election on the following day. The meal was delicious, as were the soft drink pairings, and I was pleased to hear lots of exclamations of pleasure coming from Cat’s mouth (although I’ve since discovered this happens pretty much any time a plate of food is put in front of her).

The following day another group from our tour decided to tackle the Death Road, this time resulting in one person fracturing their collarbone and requiring a three day stay in hospital to insert a metal plate; and one woman went over the side of the cliff and had to be roped up by the guides. Miraculously she only ended up with a few grazes on her leg. A couple of others also fell off the bikes but thankfully received no injuries. Our tour leader said that he’s never had any fallers before and I’m guessing he wasn’t expecting five in two days! I have to say that the touring company, Dragoman, and the cycling company, Gravity Tours, were both amazing. If this blog post hasn’t put you off, I’d highly recommend both.

Needless to say the next couple of days were spent resting in a drug-induced fug, although I did manage to make it to the restaurant next door for a plate of picque machu, a meat and eggs dish, that I shared with Cat, and which was delicious. I really fancied a beer – for medicinal purposes of course – but unfortunately, the three day alcohol ban was still in force. Or so it seemed until our waitress waved a piece of paper under our noses advising we could have beer, but it will be disguised as a coffee. As you can see from the photo below, the ‘beeracino’ was quite convincing, although the unused tea bag which adorned the saucer kinda gave the game away!!

Challenges in Cusco….

20171119_112509939091199.jpgThe main reason for visiting Cusco was its location as the gateway to Machu Picchu, but we’d also heard there was a great trek up to Rainbow Mountain, known as Vinicunca in the Quechua language, and having ogled the relevant Instagram hashtag, four of us decided it was definitely worth doing. I’m not quite sure how or why we reached that conclusion given the following:

* The day trek requires a 0400 wake up call for a 0430 departure, and we’d return to the city at 1930;

* The hike would take us to 5,200 metres above sea level, by far the highest we’d been on the trip so far, and altitude sickness isn’t fun;

* We would be doing the 4-day Classic Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu after Rainbow Mountain, with only one rest day in between.

Like I said, I’m not sure how we decided it would be a good idea, but nonetheless we paid the fees and off we went. It took three hours by minibus to reach the start of the hike which is located at 4,700m above sea level (Cusco is 3,600m). On the way we stopped for a very hearty breakfast, but as those close to me already know, I can’t eat anything before ten in the morning. I managed to swallow a few bites of a bread roll while my fellow hikers scoffed cereals and panqueques, a far more sensible preparation for what was to come.

The first couple of kilometres were relatively flat so we declined offers of ascending on horseback – something I came to regret later – and we set off purposefully, the rhythmic clack clack of our walking sticks the only sound to be heard. The inclines got steeper after the third kilometre and it became a real struggle, especially as we had to reach the summit by a certain time in order to be able to descend in daylight and return to the city by early evening. There were horses available at various spots on the mountain and Ian came up with the mantra of ‘every horse you pass is a victory Gazza’ which really helped by appealing to my competitive nature. However, by the time we got to the fourth kilometre, that competitive streak which has served me so well throughout my life decided to desert me when I needed it the most, and I finally gave in to the idea of completing the trek on horseback. The only snag, however, is that horses were forbidden from going any further from where I currently stood. I stopped and wondered what I’d done to deserve such a cruel fate.

The final two inclines were only another 400m or so, but were undoubtedly the hardest physical activity I’d ever asked my body to undertake. To give you some perspective, the summit of Rainbow Mountain is only 125m lower than that of Mount Everest Base Camp. Thankfully, on this final descent the level of camaraderie really swelled and there were lots of encouraging ‘you can do its’ and ‘you’re almost theres’ from not only the group, but complete strangers who knew exactly how I was feeling. They definitely brought on an extra spurt of energy and the sense of elation on reaching the summit was like nothing else I’d ever experienced. I think Ian and Matt were a little taken aback by the bearhugs they were subsequently treated to.

The view from atop the summit was something unique to me. So many different coloured soils were exposed, hence the name Rainbow Mountain. It was amazing to look back from where we had come and the realisation hit of what we’d achieved. After 45 minutes of celebratory back slaps and selfies (including one sitting on our guide’s shoulders, at his insistence!) we began the descent back to the start. The downhill terrain was much appreciated and we were making good time when I started to feel a bit ‘iffy’. It began with a splitting headache, and was soon followed by an upset stomach. Matt (who thankfully I’d shared rooms with already on this trip) and I sped up once I told him that I needed to reach the dreaded drop-toilet that we could see in the distance asap. We arrived just in time, however, upon squatting into position I realised that not only did the rickety door not lock, it did not even close shut. Poor Matt stood guard as my stomach fell out of me at quite a rate of knots, no doubt wondering what he’d done to deserve such a fate. I could see the hiking boots of fellow trekkers trudge by, and their footsteps increased in speed once their ears and noses were assaulted by indescribable sounds and smells. As I exited the shack, rather sheepishly I have to admit, Matt asked me if I felt better for the experience at least. I don’t think he was expecting my response to be in the form of projectile vomiting near his feet, and to be honest, neither was I. The combination of no breakfast and drinking lots of water meant that a constant stream of bright yellow liquid landed on the mountain for the next five minutes. Unlike in the drop-toilet, this time I could see the sympathetic faces of my fellow trekkers. It didn’t make me feel any better.

Matt, ever the gentlemen, accompanied me for the entire descent and I’d never been more glad to see a minibus in my entire life. Ian tried to make me feel better by telling me that another guy in our group had also puked, but I was too busy wallowing in my exhaustion to pay much attention. The drive back to the city was the best medicine and for every kilometre we descended I felt much improved. So much so that upon arrival in Cusco, I felt like I did at the start of the day. We treated ourselves to a carbtastic dinner and red wine before collapsing into bed, telling ourselves that it was good prep before Machu Picchu the day after tomorrow. My body was not convinced.



Jumping in Queenstown, New Zealand….

12194986_10156307654810294_3682798473314567828_oMy upcoming sabbatical was originally meant to begin with a trip to visit my friend, Lynsey, in New Zealand for round two of shenanigans that previously occurred when I visited her in 2015. Unfortunately, work commitments mean that I can only take four months away from the office and therefore Aotearoa was culled from my itinerary.

As part of the preparations for my upcoming holiday, I’m transferring photos from previous travels off my camera in order to make space and I came across some from an amazing holiday in the Land of the Long White Cloud which got me reminiscing. It was made amazing thanks to several friends who put me up – and who put up with me! – and Lynsey in particular.

When I moved to the Netherlands following the break up of my relationship, she was the first person to visit me. She made me giggle so much that for a moment I could forget that my life was headed in a direction I had never imagined just a few months earlier, when instead my head was filled with possible wedding venues. Our friendship was cemented after almost getting run over by a massive tourist boat while cruising along the canals of Amsterdam in a tin-can of a vessel, followed by dancing all of the next day at a beach festival in Bloemendaal, where we seemed to be the only patrons whose eyes were dilated the normal amount.

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I should probably warn you at this point that this post may* contain rather a lot of photographs. If you ever go to New Zealand, you’ll understand.

*definitely will

Continue reading “Jumping in Queenstown, New Zealand….”