I can’t believe 2015 is nearly over. The year has flown past so quickly, probably due at least in part to the fact that I’ve been out of the country so much. There were a couple of periods where I’d fly somewhere, fly home, dump my stuff, pick up the next round of stuff, and leave immediately. There was a point when I flew from Barcelona to Birmingham with a four-hour stopover in my own house.
Inspired by several of the travel bloggers I follow, I thought I’d do a round-up of my salient travel moments this year. Some good, some bad: all ones that I don’t think I’ll forget in a hurry.
Visiting the Old Library at Trinity College Dublin
Dublin was the first place I went this year, in March. It’s not somewhere that’s ever been on my list of places I’d like to go, but I’m really glad I went.
The old library is any book lover’s dream: filled to the brim with old books, beautiful winding iron staircases between the shelves. And the Book of Kells sequestered away in a darkened room at the back, just beyond an exhibition room which tells the story of the book and shows enlarged copies of some of its pages.
I’ve developed more of an interest in museums and artefacts as I get older. Standing in that room with a little piece of history was a wonderful feeling, and I was tempted to get the pangur bán poem tattooed on me, but resisted.
Sailing down the Waccamaw River in South Carolina
It’s hard to choose highlights from South Carolina, because I loved being there so much. But one of the main ones was making my way down the Waccamaw river on a boat guided by tour guides who pointed out the local wildlife and talked about the history of the area.
Since I’ve been back, a lot of people have seemed surprised that I loved South Carolina as much as I did. I’ve tried to explain why, but it’s hard to put into words. The natural beauty of the place moved me beyond belief. There are parts that still seem so untouched, and coming from the UK I’m just not used to seeing so much space.
The Waccamaw river itself has some beautiful islands and some amazing wildlife: we saw alligators, ospreys, turtles and a snake. Rick and Kim are excellent guides and obviously really love the wildlife and landscapes they’re working with; if you’d like to book a place, you can do so on the Waccamaw River Tours website.
Wine in Barcelona x2
There were two wine occasions in Barcelona that I really enjoyed. The first was sitting in a rooftop bar, overlooking the Gaudi park (see above) at night. There was a pool, a DJ and a singer. The atmosphere was calm and laid-back. The conversation was good and I felt more relaxed than I had in quite a while.
The second time was sitting in a smaller bar near my friend’s house. I wasn’t sure if I could afford wine, because I was assuming it was London prices (about £7). But when I picked up the menu, it turned out to be 2 Euros. 2 Euros. We had a nice time drinking wine and chatting; it was one of those cozy evenings that never get old.
Learning about the history of whisk(e)y at Dublin’s whiskey museum
I’m Scottish, so I usually spell it without the ‘e’, and I’d always wondered why. Turns out that whiskey was invented in Ireland, and at some point when a new distillery opened in Scotland, they wanted a way to differentiate themselves from the original product, so they dropped the ‘e’.
When I went along the tour had only just opened – I think it was in its first week, in fact – but it was well worth a visit, not least because you get to try three whiskies once the tour is over. It was interesting to learn the history of the drink, and to understand how it’s developed over the years, including its bootlegged versions while it was illegal.
You can find out more and book a tour on the Irish Whiskey Museum website.
When the ocean beat me up in South Carolina
This was an utterly terrifying experience that has to be included because it was definitely one of the most memorable parts of this year’s travels.
It was two days before I was due to fly home. It was 35 degrees outside, and that meant I wasn’t going to do anything strenuous. So I rented a beach chair, dumped my stuff on it and went swimming.
I swam for hours, spending a lot of time just floating around, and quite a bit of time bodysurfing, which feels a bit like what I imagine it’d feel like to be trapped in a washing machine, but is somehow pleasureable.
I got out of the water when they started packing up the deck chairs and went to pick up my stuff. On the way back to the motel, I realised my inner right thigh hurt quite a lot. I decided it was probably just some kind of blister, or perhaps some sand, and continued walking. The fact that walking was a challenge should probably have alerted me that it was a little more serious than that.
As I walked, a couple of cars slowed down and the drivers stared at me. I thought they were probably just creepy men. Some women behind me yelled “HEY, YOU! ARE YOU OK?!” and I assumed they were drunk. Passing the pool on the way up to my room, I noticed people stopping what they were doing and watching me. Amazingly, I still assumed nothing was really wrong.
I got up to my room, went into the bathroom, pulled off my swimming shorts, draped them over a chair and turned on the lights.
And that’s when I realised there was blood everywhere. Running down my leg, pooling at my feet, all coming from somewhere in my right inner thigh, but I couldn’t see where because there was too much blood.
Now, I’m OK with blood in general. And my body does tend to bleed profusely at the slightest provocation. But this was a lot of blood. And it was mine. And I was in a foreign country notorious for its lack of affordable healthcare options, and I didn’t have travel insurance. I only had a couple of plasters, which definitely wasn’t going to help.
I felt a bit dizzy. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt faint at the sight of blood, but I think it was more just the feeling of Oh shit, I’m screwed.
Anyway, I cleaned myself up and discovered the cut, which was long and deep. To this day I have no idea how it got there. My cab driver a couple of days later pointed out that I’d actually been very lucky, considering that I’d been standing in one of the most shark-populated oceans in the world, bleeding profusely into the water.
Once I’d cleaned up most of the blood and found the problem, I turned to pick up my swimming trunks, which had previously been light blue board shorts with white flowers on them. Now they were mainly red board shorts. There was a lot of blood all over the insides of both legs. No wonder people had been staring as I walked home.
I couldn’t stop it bleeding properly, and I couldn’t walk enough to get down to reception and ask for a first aid kit, so I put a load of towels on the bed, wrapped another one around my leg, and then lay down. I spent most of the night watching reruns of The Big Bang Theory and trying not to move, because every time I moved it started bleeding more.
Lessons learned from that one: First aid kit and travel insurance, always.
Malaga: conferences and cocktails
It’s hard to pick a single stand-out thing from Malaga, because it was all so much fun. I met up with some of the DFRWS crew at SADFE, another forensics conference. We got to know each other better over 18-year-old Glenfiddich and copious amounts of wine (the best way).
We got lost at 2am in the centre of town. We walked through the botanical gardens on the outskirts of the city, climbed up a hill and looked down at the map of streetlights below. We had dinner in a house hidden in the middle of the gardens, and talked about Star Trek, TV recommendations, and what it’s like to work in criminal investigation.
When everyone else had flown home, I stuck around for an extra couple of days and explored the city. I had the best pina colada of my life in a little bar opposite the cathedral, went to a counter-terror exhibition run by the Spanish police (because I’m never really off duty even when I am), and finished the evening at a flamenco show, where I introduced myself to my fellow Gypsies at the end of it and we were all pleased to make friends with other Romani people.
My birthday in the place where I grew up
Just writing that sentence surprises me. I have a love-hate relationship with the area I grew up in, that mainly swings towards the ‘hate’ side of the spectrum. I also don’t celebrate my birthday for a number of reasons, and get annoyed if friends even acknowledge that it’s happening.
This year I’d just spent three days being bored to death in the most soulless place I’ve ever visited (and I’ve spent two weeks training in an industrial estate in Slough, so that’s saying something!). I was in Scotland, in the town I lived in for a while as a kid, on my birthday. I’d just been with my mother and grandparents, which never puts me in the best frame of mind.
To take my mind off everything, I decided to go for a meal. I went to a pub at the bottom of town and did just that, but was still feeling a bit ill at ease. Unable to stretch the meal out any longer, though, I figured I’d just head back to the BnB I was staying in and go to bed.
On my way back up the hill, I walked past another pub from which live music could be heard. Glancing through the window, I saw a young guy playing and singing Johnny Cash songs with the aid of his guitar.
Well, why not? I thought, and I went inside.
This proved to be a really, really good decision. I bought myself a whisky and sat down to listen. A short while later, I was joined by two men who were probably in their sixties. One of them, Tam, had grown up in the same place as me and also ended up in the same part of London. We started chatting and they insisted on buying me drinks.
Then I let slip that it was my birthday, and there was a chorus of “BIRTHDAY DRINKS!” and more whisky appeared. The dude played on. We sang along to Dylan, Cash, the Stones and more. At one point we started dancing. The lady behind the bar poured me my last double whisky, then removed the bottle from the wall and upended it into the glass: “You might as well finish the last wee drop, hen.”
The next day I was very the worse for wear, but it was definitely worth it.
Glastonbury: walking & talking
I love Glastonbury. It was the first place I ever went on holiday, the first place I presented research to a group of international academics, and the first place I ever properly relaxed.
I go back once or twice a year if I can, to see my friends who run a BnB there.
This time, we all had dinner together and then Anna and I stayed up until 4am, drinking wine and artisan Vermouth and putting the world to rights in one of those talks that solidifies a friendship.
The next morning I was very hungover, but I still went for my customary ten-mile walk: a loop down through the fields, by the river, along the road, and then down into town for dinner before heading to the pub in the evening to meet up with everyone, then going back to the house and having a bath while the sounds of Ray Davies playing the Abbey concert provided a live soundtrack.
Leaving (and missing) South Carolina
I took this photo from my motel balcony the night before I left South Carolina. It’s the only place I’ve ever been where I really, really didn’t want to leave.
When the cab driver dropped me at the airport, I found myself fighting back tears. When I got back to London, rather than my usual feeling of relief at being home, I immediately wanted to be back there.
It took about a month for me to stop wishing I was still in South Carolina and just accept the fact that I was in London for the time being.
I’m going back next year and I can’t wait.
Working across the table from Caitlin in Barcelona
My friend Caitlin moved to Barcelona this summer. I went to see her after she’d been there a few weeks and had a great time. We did a lot of exploring, wandering round the city, and trying out bars and restaurants. But my favourite bit was sitting across the table from her, working together.
I’d dreamed of going back to freelance life the whole time I was working in my old advertising job. Ever since I first went abroad, I’d dreamed of travelling and working from various locations around the world. Sitting at the table in her living room, each working on freelance projects while the puppy chewed the chairs and got up to mischief, I realised I’d finally achieved that dream.
Train journey down the East Coast
I went to Scotland again towards the end of autumn, partly for a conference and partly to see my grandparents before the winter sets in.
On the way back down the country, there were beautiful views out of the train window. My client had given me a first-class ticket and I was sitting in a comfortable chair, looking out at the views over Berwick-Upon-Tweed and the sea, holding a sporadic text conversation with someone at Europol about child protection.
It was then that I realised that my life had become the one I’d dreamed of having. I’ve had a couple of those moments this year, and it’s been amazing. I can’t quite believe I’ve done it: ended up a digital nomad working in forensic investigation, specialising in child protection and counter terror, still doing academic work, living in London with my cat.
If you’re on the fence about taking a big risk and trying to fulfil your dreams, let me help: Dreams can come true. 2015 proved that for me.
Here’s hoping 2016 continues the trend!
What were your favourite travel moments this year?