Sunday, 19 February 2017

How I travel a lot while (despite?) working full-time

Fairly often during my travels, I run into travellers on – how shall I put it – a somewhat different time frame.

They are the travellers on their long-term trips, covering multiple corners of the world – the ones whose happy glow conveys only one message: that they, the unattached to any one location and with plenty of time on their hands, are somehow more fortunate than you on your measly holiday allowance.

'Aren't you dying not to have to go back to the office in-between trips?' they ask me.

And bam, they couldn't be more right. I would love to cancel the lease on my London flat, cash in my savings and go on a whirlwind trip around the world. I would start off with some quality time with my parents in Riga, then get a quick Russian visa, catch a train to Moscow and embark on a long adventure on board the Trans-Siberian. I would take time to make my way past Russia's endless steppe to reach Yekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk, Lake Baikal, Ulan-Ude and Vladivostok. Or I would possibly detour to Mongolia, spend at least a month exploring the country, cross into China and finally discover the mysterious Tibet. And from there? I would see where the road would take me, but my adventure would only be starting.

Embracing travel at Mirador Los Torres, Torres del Paine, Chile


Enough day-dreaming though! My travel wish list consists of so many destinations that working through them on holiday allowance is likely to take me years, if not decades. Frankly, I am tempted to cut my wait short, abandon it all and travel without this job thing looming in mind. I have never taken a sabbatical or extended time off to travel (those eight months in 2008 were spent mainly in Greece and didn't count), and it would be great to have a well-deserved break after a marathon 8 years with my current employer.

…WHICH DOESN'T MEAN THAT FULL-TIME JOBS ARE EVIL


A full-time job does have advantages. For one thing, I absolutely love organising my day in a regimented way, with time allocated for work, eating, running errands, pursuing hobbies and exercising. This way I feel that my life is not only under control, it is also well balanced and healthy. Being on the road constantly could easily destroy this beautiful balance.

And then there are the more obvious advantages many full-time jobs come with: medical insurance, pension plans, corporate gym memberships and – last but not least – paid holiday allowance. Yes, when the holiday does arrive, the thought of my bank account silently replenishing itself while I am cramming in as much travel as possible is soothing.

Finally, despite my admittedly slow career growth so far, I have not yet completely given up on the thought that, one day, I might have grown through the ranks of my large organisation and morphed into this senior person striking exciting banking deals left, right and centre. I hear you all laughing as I type this, but I remain optimistic.

I remain optimistic: jumping for joy on the rooftops of Sucre, Bolivia


To sum up, I am not yet convinced that the time is right to give up my job to travel. I am not ready to drop everything and take flight into the unknown – which leaves me as a full-time office worker for the foreseeable future.

That said, I am a great believer that full-time employment and an active travel life are not mutually exclusive. And even with a full-time job, I do not exactly suffer from a lack of travel. Without saying that the below combination would work for everyone, this is what I do to maximise my time on the road – while maintaining a full-time job.

1. I MAX OUT MY HOLIDAY ALLOWANCE


My holiday allowance is quite amazing, especially by UK standards. Currently I get 29 paid days off a year, with an option to take up to 5 unpaid days off. Needless to say that I always take the unpaid days in full: life is too short not to. And we usually get a "gift" of an extra 2 days off around Christmas.

Add to that the UK's 8 public holidays per year, and I arrive at 44 working days off every year to spend as I please. Together with adjacent weekends, this equates to around 9 full weeks available for travel before we even start taking into consideration all those other weekends scattered throughout the year.

NINE weeks of travel, folks! It is 2 full months on the road, or one-sixth of the year when I am not required to be working. This is nothing compared to the self-proclaimed "digital nomads" out there, but quite a respectable allowance nevertheless.

Putting my salwar kameez to great use in Tehran, Iran


I do understand that not everyone has as much holiday as I do – vacation days in places like the US are famously limited – but I recommend, if given a choice, paying close attention to holiday policies at your employment options and making an educated choice. And don't be afraid to ask for unpaid leave! I am the first person to break this as I have never summoned up the courage to ask for a sabbatical in my 10-year career, but I know I will get there one day.

2. I USE MY HOLIDAYS FOR TRAVEL AND TRAVEL ONLY


It is very easy to lose days on unimportant things. Some of my colleagues take days off here and there to do gardening, shopping, running errands and – something that sends shivers all the way down my spine – chilling at home because they "simply have too much holiday left”. There is absolutely nothing wrong about taking holidays to stay at home – I am a firm believer that everyone's holiday choice is right for them – but this is simply not who I am.

I make a conscious effort to dedicate holiday time to one purpose only: travel. Every single day matters! I have never not travelled on a holiday in my 10 years as an office worker. In fact, when my flight to Hong Kong way cancelled because of a volcano eruption in Iceland in 2010, I went on to cancel my time off altogether. What was the point in a holiday when I couldn't travel? I already spend about two thirds of my time in London and don't need holiday time to do (more of) my laundry.

Speaking of that Icelandic volcano eruption, I ended up seeing it live!


Another way to maximise holiday? Do shorter trips on weekends! I do not travel every single weekend, but, in the past few years, have averaged about 20 weekends away (not already included in longer trips) per year. That is an extra 40 days away, or about 5.5 weeks available for travel. Again, it is no match for the fully location-independent individuals, but it sure is a nice way to break up an office routine.

Finally, I often plan my leave around public holidays to be able to travel longer – and further away – for "less" holiday spent. My favourite time to travel is Easter, when both Good Friday and Easter Monday are bank holidays in the UK. I normally leave on Thursday night, arrive in my destination on Friday and do not return to London until a week on Monday morning. This means a 10-day holiday for merely 4 days off spent. I am smiling just thinking about it.

3. I PLAN HOLIDAYS A LONG TIME IN ADVANCE


The relative stability in my day job allows me to make travel plans at least a year in advance, including booking flights during airline sales and planning activities early. Especially for obvious festive seasons like Christmas, I plan my holidays as early as possible to strike better travel deals. This allows me to plan much more holiday than if I was coming up with my trips spontaneously (I have written about my obsession with booking holiday early here: Holiday addict).

At any point in time, there are usually dozens of destinations in my wish list, and picking a few destinations for the year ahead is never a problem. Depending on my current travel interests, I may decide to prioritise one or another destination in a given year, and book to visit it immediately. Not everyone has the luxury of a stable job with amazing employment security, but planning a little ahead is really not that difficult. And this way you always have a trip to look forward to!

A long weekend in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil was one of my very few spontaneous trips, to a friend's wedding (not held in a favela, of course)

4. I USE BUSINESS TRAVEL TO DISCOVER NEW PLACES


Until recently, I used to go on business trips around 3-4 times per year. Because I cover the power sector, such trips would often involve site visits to future sites of power facilities, often in unusual, interesting locations way off the beaten track around Eurasia and North Africa. Thanks to business travel, I have explored a patch of dusty desert near Aswan in Egypt, visited a picturesque lakeside village in the vicinity of Dubrovnik in Croatia, enjoyed staying in the historic centre of Belgrade, Serbia's bustling capital, and watched mist rise on the Danube on a frosty winter morning in the middle of nowhere in Hungary – to name but a few.

My favourite business destination of all time though is Georgia. I have worked extensively on Georgian projects and travelled to Georgia several times, always ending up in a different part of the country. Georgia is rich in hydroelectric potential, and site visits would nearly always involve stunning mountain scenery so favourable to run-of-the-river hydro projects. In-between meetings and technical discussions, a group of us would enjoy monumental feasts on Georgian specialities, wine tasting and, in one instance, even a 7am schnapps with an Orthodox priest heading a church in the vicinity of the power plant we were financing. Indeed my visits to Georgia felt more like a holiday than a business trip (view my photos of Georgia here and my write-up about my first business trip to Georgia here).

Unbelievably, I'm on a business trip: near Akhaltsikhe, Georgia

One of my favourite tricks on a business trip is to arrange it around a weekend and use the time to explore more of the country. After a business meeting in Istanbul, I would spend a weekend in Cappadocia; before a Monday site visit in Ljubljana, I would bus it to Slovenia's Adriatic coast; and, after days of zooming around potential hydroelectric sites in Georgia, I would unwind during a weekend in Tbilisi. You get the idea: I have extensively used business trips to broaden my travels.

Since a change in my role last year though, my business travel has slowed down significantly. I no longer work on new projects and instead look after a portfolio of over a hundred existing transactions. A less sexy role on paper, it also involves substantially less travel – unfortunately – but I remain optimistic.

5. I DO NOT LET WORK DEFINE MY LIFE


In an ideal world, I would turn off my work computer at 5am sharp (or even earlier), go about my business and not think about work until the next morning. In reality, as much as I am tempted to (and legally allowed to) do just that, some stupid sense of responsibility forces me to answer emails late into the evening – though I try to keep actual work outside working hours at a minimum.

And the tension isn't just coming from within. I constantly feel an almost intangible pressure to demonstrate that work is my top priority, far ahead of personal interests and relationships. This can involve being criticised for leaving work at 6pm (which used to be perfectly normal years ago), an expectation, by default, that I cancel a lunchtime gym appointment at short notice for an unimportant meeting to discuss nothing in particular when pretty much any other time slot would do, and being contactable during holiday. I also feel judged for taking my holiday allowance actively during the year, with some colleagues almost priding themselves on having accumulated 30 or more unused days. The horror!

I should stop waving that Greek flag and think instead of all the work I could have accomplished in place of this holiday

I know that I am very privileged to have a great job and absolutely do my best when I am working. However, I do not think that work should become somebody's main focus in life. Work is something I do to pay bills and finance my personal interests – travel, photography, fitness and language learning, to name but a few – while always making sure to do a good job. If someone is actually passionate about their day job, I think it is wonderful. However, I will never truly understand the people who consistently sacrifice their lives to work. Will their final thoughts be of that exciting project they signed at work – or a spectacular personal experience, be it travel-related or not? I think the answer is clear.

And remember: if your employer didn't want you to take holiday, they would never have given you all those days. Happy travels!

Saturday, 14 January 2017

2017 travel plan and resolutions: Let the globe-trotting continue

Happy New Year to everyone!

Just two days ago I returned from a very busy 16 days in New Zealand. The journey took me from Auckland to lakeside Taupo, Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Napier and Wellington, where I met Alan. We then crossed the Cook Strait together to South Island and embarked on a very rushed journey south: from Picton, we travelled to Nelson, Greymouth, Franz Joself and Fox glaciers, Wanaka, Cromwell, Tekapo and Pukaki lakes, Mount Cook (Aoraki), Queenstown, Te Anau, Doubtful Sound and Invercargill. We then flew all the way back to Auckland to catch our two long-haul flights back to London. Let’s just say it was busy!

Striking a ridiculous Instagram-inspired pose near Mount Cook, New Zealand

In short, despite my earlier promises to take it easy in New Zealand and limit myself to only one of the country’s two main islands, I (perhaps unsurprisingly to many) failed this miserably.

And the same can be said about my aspirations, exactly one year ago, to slow my travels down during 2016 (read my last year's travel plan here). It was perhaps the massive amount of work I was facing at the time that led me to dream, subconsciously, of an easy year. I had been almost buried under the intense pressure in my day job and was seriously considering slowing my travels down dramatically.

However, I quickly learned (yet again) never to let my personal life be dictated by work. Early into 2016, I was moved to another position at work, with substantially less demanding hours and much more flexibility to travel for leisure. It came with numerous disadvantages (which I will not discuss here in detail), but I did appreciate the reduced pressure.

This year brings a lot of uncertainty in my day job. A certain separation scheme for staff was announced a few days ago, and some ongoing operational "improvements" are likely to change the scope of my work yet again. As tempted as I am to give up, I am ready to fight for a little bit longer – as well as incredibly curious about what the near-term future will bring. Sometimes it is exciting to be part of an organisation at the time of crisis and falling staff morale.

Rather than dwell on the inevitable, I have decided to make 2017 my most active year ever – both for travel and self-improvement in other areas. In travel, I plan to put a conscious effort into visiting over 10 new countries this year, bringing my tally to over 90 countries and closer to my intermediate goal of visiting at least half of all the countries in the world. And as for other aspects of life, I would like to remember 2017 by working on the skills I use in my hobbies: foreign languages, photography and writing.

But let’s start with the travel bit! Below is the list of some places I would like to visit in 2017, in no particular order, followed by some non-travel resolutions for the year.

TRAVEL PLAN

1. Pristina, Kosovo: I have explored former Yugoslavia in depth, spending several holidays in the region and visiting six out of seven ex-Yu countries to date (read about my shenanigans in ex-Yu here). Yes, you have guessed it: I have visited all ex-Yu countries (some not once and not even twice) except Kosovo. I am not sure why I never got around to popping just that far across the border. It was possibly influenced by the many people who persuaded me tirelessly that Kosovo had absolutely “nothing to see”, or the fact that, unlike across the border, I could not practise my Serbian language skills in Albanian-speaking Kosovo. The fact remains, however: Kosovo is among only four countries in Europe that I have never set my foot in.

The closest I have been to Kosovo to date - having Macedonian salad in Mavrovo, FYR Macedonia

And it is high time to change it! In late February, I will fly to Skopje in FYR Macedonia and hop across the border to Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, for a weekend. I will not claim to have explored the country in any sort of detail – but I hope to have gained at least some understanding of its history and culture. I have heard that Pristina continues to be understated in that it lacks any sort of architectural beauty. I have also heard from native Skopjans that food in Pristina is superior to that of their own and definitely deserves a try. Come late February, I will find out for myself.

2. Europe’s micro states: You might remember from my 2016 Newsletter (read it here) that my favourite weekend of 2016 was spent in a country no other than Liechtenstein (view some photos here). A tiny sovereign state sandwiched between Austria and Switzerland, it turned out to be surprisingly fun. In fact, I was so impressed by Liechtenstein that I have decided to cross off the only two of Europe’s micro states remaining on my list: San Marino and Andorra.

Panoramic view over Vaduz, Liechtenstein: a perfect view

In mid-March, I hope to fly to Bologna in Italy and make my way immediately to San Marino for a good night’s sleep. I have been told, repeatedly, that there is absolutely nothing to do in San Marino after approximately 16 minutes. I stand up to this challenge and have booked a lovely room with a patio in the very centre of the old town. For one whole day and one night, San Marino will be mine to discover: and getting bored would only mean that I have truly discovered it.

And somewhere in July, I am going to fly to Toulouse in France and catch a bus to Andorra. I have heard mixed reviews about Andorra, but remain open-minded. On the plus side, Alan has vouched to be there, and I rarely get bored with him around.

3. Seychelles and Madagascar: That is a big one! My first big adventure of 2017 will take me to lands unknown in southeast Africa. I will fly a combination of Etihad and Air Seychelles to, erm, Seychelles and immediately catch a boat to La Digue island. I hope to spend three days doing little else beyond sampling local coconut curries, exploring the island on foot and enjoying its beaches. And if some snorkelling is thrown my way, I might, just might, agree.

My only Sub-Saharan experience of Africa (besides RSA): Deadvlei, Namibia

At this the “easy” part of my adventure will be over: I will fly on to Antananarivo (best known to locals as “Tana”) in Madagascar and embark on an epic 12-day discovery of the island’s lower half. Having sought bids from several local agencies, I have settled on Ramartour for arranging a driver for my trip (my holiday time is too limited to try and negotiate Madagascar's public transport). After exploring Tana and several sacred hills around it, I will fly the (legendarily unreliable) Air Madagascar to Morondava in the country’s west, where I will explore the Kirindy Forest Reserve and drive down the famous Baobab Alley. By car, I will then continue to Antsirabe, Ranomafana and Isalo National Park before enjoying a day’s break in the chilled seaside town of Ifaty. I will fly back to Tana on Air Madagascar (leaving myself a whole day in case the notorious national airline plays up on me) and depart the way I came.

I know, I know: it should hopefully be an incredible trip.

4. More Greek islands: You are probably tired of hearing me blabber on about the Greek islands by now. As a fluent Greek speaker and someone who has visited 42 Greek islands to date, I have sort of promoted myself to the position of an expert when it comes to that particular part of the world (read here about the six lesser-known Greek islands I recommend all to visit). In reality, there are many islands to go through before I have visited them all, while some islands I have visited deserve a lot more depth than I could give them at the time.

I loved the Serifos island in Greece last year

That said, I have decided to take a couple of weeks off in June to add three entirely new Greek islands to my portfolio: Kythira, Antikythira and Ikaria. Kythira is relatively unknown to foreign visitors: Aegean flies there several times a week but ferries are very scarce even in high season. Kythira’s satellite island, Antikythira is virtually impossible to reach in a rush. I have managed to find a slot to visit there for a couple of days, but the ferry from Kythira is anything but convenient. As for Ikaria, some of you may know it for its population's longevity records. It is listed among only five small areas in the world where the population regularly outlive western standards by around a decade: Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia, the Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica, Loma Linda in California – and Ikaria. I hope that a few days on the island will give me at least some insight into this mystery!

5. Iraqi Kurdistan: I often complain about no longer being able to enter the US on a visa waiver programme despite having two eligible passports. The problem is that I have visited two of four countries that the US government finds suspicious (Iran and Syria, to be precise), which automatically forces me to apply for a full-blown visa before visiting the US.

I made the best of my time in Iran

And, as if to make my US visa chances even worse, in 2017 I plan to visit the third country in the list: namely, Iraq.

If you are about to throw your arms up in the air and exclaim how crazy I am, then I rush to assure you that I am not going anywhere remotely dangerous. Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region in the north of the country, well known for its political stability, democratic order and better gender equality than elsewhere in Iraq. At the end of August, I hope to fly into Sulaymaniyah (famously Iraq’s most liberal city) and travel overland to Erbil. It should be a fascinating destination to visit: I look forward to chatting to locals, haggling for Kurdish mementos at local bazaars, catching my breath in beautiful parks and – of course – drinking lots of tea al fresco.

6. Turkmenistan: Having previously postponed Turkmenistan indefinitely due to mandatory organised tour visits, I have finally warmed up to the idea. I have not exactly prioritised the “Stans” in my travels, having only visited Uzbekistan to date (view my photos here). Nevertheless, Turkmenistan has always fascinated me with its rather closed character and, as a result, a relatively low number of foreign visitors. The time is ripe to go and find out for myself – and Alan has even agreed to join me!

Uzbekistan: the only "Stan" I have visited to date

I have been recommended Travel Notoria, and so far have had a great experience planning our trip with them. Alan and I plan to stop over in Dubai for a couple of days and then fly on to spend 14 days in Turkmenistan. We will start in the surreal capital of Ashgabat and travel overland to Turkmenbashy on the Caspian Sea, visiting Koy Ata and Balkanabat on our way. We will then backtrack to Ashgabat by air and travel to the sites of the ancient cities of Merv and Gonur, before backtracking to the capital once again and visiting the jewel in Turkmenistan’s crown: the Darvaza Gas Crater. We will camp on the edge of the crater overnight and visit Kunya Urgench on our way back to Ashgabat. I am quite excited to have this trip shaping up nicely so long in advance.

7. Moldova: Come October, and Moldova will officially be the only European country I have never visited. Luckily, Wizzair flies direct from London Luton to Chisinau at convenient times for a weekend’s visit. I have even already made good use of Wizzair’s sales to book my ticket.

Not sure what photo I should put here: that of Timisoara, Romania?

My plans in Moldova are quite modest. I will take a good look at Chisinau’s hideous Soviet apartment blocks (if there is something else to see, do give me a shout!), enjoy Moldova’s wine and, possibly, cross over to the disputed republic of Transnistria. If I do make it to Tiraspol (currently I don’t see why I wouldn’t), I hope to photograph some quirky Soviet statues and relive the feeling of pure nostalgia of the world long lost in my own former Soviet country, Latvia.

8. Indonesia and Timor Leste: I have nothing booked for this year’s winter break yet, but it is looking likely that I will finally visit Indonesia. I have greatly missed spending the middle of European winter in an Asian country for two years now (having instead visited Colombia and, recently, New Zealand). Frankly, Asia is my favourite place for a winter break and I should stop trying to go elsewhere. Indonesia has fallen off my radar for a long time, and I would love to discover its diverse culture – as well as its warmth and affordability of simple things in life.

I have no plan for Indonesia at this stage, and any recommendations are welcome. For all I know, I would like to avoid Bali altogether. I would also like to discover some of the country’s wildlife, and might visit Tanjung Putting National Park. I would not mind visiting the temples of Yogyakarta, which look truly incredible on other people’s photos. I just need to sit down and plan my visit in detail.

Cartagena, Colombia! It was superb but I did miss Asia at New Year's

And, since I will be so near a whole new country anyway, I very much hope to pop across to Dili, the capital of Timor Leste. A quick look at Lonely Planet’s recommendations for places to see in Dili revealed a list consisting mainly of hawker stalls and various other eateries. I just hope to find a good crafts market to continue filling up my home with too, too many travel trinkets.

NON-TRAVEL RESOLUTIONS

And that's the travel plan! But my life isn’t all about travel (unbelievable, I know). I have a number of other hobbies and hope to take some of the skills involved in those to a new level in 2017.

Languages: I am always trying to learn another foreign language (read here about my long history of language learning) and hope that 2017 will bring an improvement to several of them.

First, I may be fluent in Greek but I still have another level to achieve before I can call myself fully proficient. Last year, I passed the C1 level in Greek with flying colours, but will I be able to achieve C2? I am not so sure but would like to put every effort before early May to prepare myself for a whole new era in my knowledge of Greek. I want to speak the language without the flaws I have today - and I think I can make it happen. Enter a phase of non-stop Greek homework!

Second, I have been taking Arabic lessons for pretty much three years now but am still quite clueless about the many nuances of the language. This is simply ridiculous: I must sit down and straighten out the gaps I still have in the Arabic material I have studied to date. I have booked another term of Arabic learning with SOAS and hope to take my knowledge to a whole new level. I hear we will have a brilliant new teacher (from Lebanon, no less), and look forward to tuning into a new Arabic dialect (my last teacher was Egyptian).

Third, as I have announced on this blog before, I am starting to learn Japanese very soon! I have visited Japan a total of three times to date, and got truly inspired by seeing westerners command the language beautifully. I hope to master the basics of Japanese in Q1 2017; and, should it go sufficiently well, I will sign up for more. I am hugely excited about learning Japanese.

Finally, there are several languages which I used to speak, to varying degree, in the past, and have now hopelessly forgotten. There is German, which I follow wonderfully but stumble upon simple words. There is Serbian, which I should be much better in given I used to write business emails and conduct business meetings in it. And then there is Norwegian, which I studied relentlessly and finally built up confidence to speak in simple life settings, but now got too shy to use. Foreign languages is a great source of pride to myself and I really should command them better. This is my promise to 2017.

Photography: Many of you enjoy the pretty pictures posted in this blog, but few know that I am actually quite clueless about photography. Despite owning a Nikon D300s and a string of compatible lenses, I regularly end up shooting in automatic mode and have no idea how to adjust most of the manual settings.

This ends now: I have signed up for several classes at the London School of Photography and am determined to be able to lose that automatic mode when necessary and still come out on top. I yearn to understand more about photography and believe the time is right to get on that path.

Exercise: Fitness has become a massive part of my life. I exercise at least nine times a week (of which five are normally swimming, two Anti Gravity Yoga and two Body Combat), and strive for more. I often receive compliments on my command of Anti-Gravity Yoga routines and have started thinking that I could, one day, excel as an instructor. I would very much like to take an instructor training course in Anti-Gravity Yoga in 2017 to broaden the scope of my future pursuits just that much more.

Work: I think it may have slipped through my posts just how unhappy at work I was these days. My promise to myself in 2017 is to be strong and "own" the system to the extent that my being in my day job becomes at least bearable. I used to love my job (in fact, I still love many aspects of it), but certain circumstances have made my work life close to insufferable in the year gone by. In 2017, I hope to have achieved one of two things: (i) accepted my fate and embraced the suboptimal situation I find myself in, or (ii) turned the situation around actively to reach new horizons. I have a feeling that it will most likely be the former.

And such are my 2017 plans! What are yours?

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

2016 Newsletter

‎It has certainly been an eventful year. Between waking up in Colombia on 1 January and getting ready to depart to New Zealand as we speak – where I will ring in 2017 – I can hardly believe the 12 months of 2016 are about to come to an end.

I will always remember 2016 for the very important events in my personal life. In April, I got married to my soulmate, Alan, and registered our marriage in the Falkland Islands, the location we had both wanted to visit since we were little. In June, Alan and I enjoyed a fantastic bridal photo shoot in the Greek islands, again fulfilling a long-standing dream. And in October, my much adored father turned 60; his modest celebration featured only the four of us in an understated venue but was wonderful fun. And he still looks so well for his age!

Alan and I as we do our best to freeze in an unnatural position on Paros

I will also remember 2016 as the year of some of the most interesting travels I have done in my life so far. I spent two weeks in April discovering Chile, which quickly became one of my favourite visited countries to date. In August, I returned to South America and enjoyed exploring Bolivia despite all the altitude challenges. And in November, I was infinitely charmed by the Japanese archipelago of Yaeyama – so little known outside Japan yet endlessly rewarding to every visitor.

Jumping in Uyuni Salt Flat with my cool travel companions: a happy moment

2016 wasn't all rosy, however. For a number of reasons, back in spring I took on a far less popular role in my day job. The following months were sometimes hard and often unbearable, making me question, almost daily, the point of keeping the job which made me so intensely unhappy. On days like this, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and "thought of Chile" – namely, reminded myself of all the holiday allowance and free time I get with my job that I can spend doing something I truly love: learning languages and travelling. That alone is worth sticking around for a little longer.

On the whole though, 2016 was a brilliant year. I got married to the most wonderful man in the world. I stayed healthy and exercised plenty and regularly. Alan and I have made great progress on our flat in Riga, including completing the kitchen and making the first steps towards it feeling more like a home. And every day in my job makes me stronger and patient beyond any belief, despite possibly shortening my total lifespan disproportionately.

As you can see, our bedroom in Riga is my shrine to Marimekko

And travel – the travel!‎ I will have spent 120 days outside London before 2016 ends, visiting 18 countries in total including the UK. I fell well short of my previous records on new countries, only managing four in 2016 including, imminently, New Zealand. One of those new countries, Liechtenstein, was however an important symbolic achievement, as it took my total number of visited countries to 80. It is very modest by all standards, but a nice personal achievement nevertheless.

Without further ado, please join me for a more detailed overview of the departing year, presented below.

WINTER

Alan and I rang in 2016 in Colombia, with an amazing view of Cartagena's Clock Gate (Puerta del Reloj), arguably the best view point in town. The fireworks were going strong, the famous old town was all lit up for the occasion and we could not have been happier to have such beauty in front of our eyes. We spent the next couple of days photographing Cartagena's impossibly colourful doors and windows, drinking fresh mango juice and generally wishing we did not have to leave. Cartagena was one of my brightest memories of the departing year.

What a privilege it was to welcome 2016 to this timeless view of Cartagena

Cartagena agreed with us greatly

The weather all grim and wintery back in London, I was glad to have an exciting business trip coming up in January. I spent four very busy days in Aswan and Cairo in Egypt, during which I, luckily, managed to make several short escapades to explore both cities. I was never a big fan of the sprawling Cairo but Aswan was a completely different story – picturesque and historic to distraction. And I even got to stay at the legendary Old Cataract Hotel on the Nile River with, possibly, the best view I have ever enjoyed from any hotel. Banking jobs do have their perks sometimes.

Aswan on an early morning: the view over the Nile from Old Cataract Hotel

I do not usually travel much in January and February and the rest of the winter was very quiet travel-wise. In the last days of February, I hopped across to Bari, Italy, for a weekend (you can tell I am running out of low-cost weekend destinations). The city itself was lovely, and I managed to explore two other locations in the Apulia (Puglia) region, Alberobello and Lecce. The former's beehive-resembling houses ("trulli") could have descended straight out of a fairy tale!

SPRING

Quite the opposite of winter, spring was ridiculously busy. It started on an extremely low note, with multiple issues at work on which I will not elaborate here: let's just say that I was finding my new, notably less interesting, position extremely boring and my work life generally hell. The stark contrast between the unbearable office life and the rosy developments elsewhere in my life was especially hard to stomach. I have never come so close to quitting my job (and even drafted a few applications) but convinced myself to give it another try in the end. Anjci does not give up so easily.

Here I am having lunch at my desk on a happier day in the office

On the brighter side, March was spent in preparations for Alan's and my wedding day in the Falkland Islands, which was quickly approaching. Although we were not having a ceremony (or any guests, for that matter – read here about the other marriage myths we mercilessly ignored), there were still numerous documents to prepare beforehand. And, since the Falklands were so ridiculously remote, even DHL took two weeks to deliver anything there!

By far the biggest highlight of the departing year was my 3.5-week jaunt to Chile and the Falklands in April. I descended upon Chile like a storm, squeezing as many locations as possible in my (very tight) itinerary. From the understated capital city of Santiago to the surreal Easter Island – the closest I may ever get to visiting the mysterious Pitcairn – and on to the rugged beauty of Patagonia, Chile was diverse and intensely fascinating for a traveller. I was particularly pleased with myself for booking a 2-day visit to Puerto Williams, a settlement in Chile's extreme south in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, which turned out every bit worth it.

I was among the first hikers to reach Mirador Los Torres that cloudy morning

Even simple sights like this at Torres del Paine National Park were spectacular

From Chile, Alan and I continued to the Falkland Islands with an important mission in mind. I was almost screaming with excitement as our plane landed in the place where I had wanted to visit since I remembered myself. The Falklands turned out to be as amazing as I had hoped: the highlights included driving around the East Falkland island for two days (encountering little else beyond stark wilderness) and flying off to Pebble Island for a couple of days of disturbance-free existence and wildlife watching (read more on our Falklands visit here).

We entertained multiple gentoo penguins on Pebble Island in the Falklands

The Falklands turned out to be surprisingly sunny

And oh! We got married in Stanley's registry office on 12 April 2016. Our witnesses were the assistant registrar and Norman Clark, a retired British marine who doubled as our photographer. The whole process barely took 10 minutes: it was a perfect wedding (read a more detailed account here).

Our first (albeit hopeless) selfie as a married couple

The rest of spring went by in a flash. In May, Alan narrowly missed his flight to Greece, but caught up with me in time to celebrate Orthodox Easter on the island of Angistri. I sat a ridiculously difficult Greek proficiency exam for the C1 level later in May, and, miraculously, passed. And even later in May, I wrote my annual summary on the Eurovision Song Contest (Ukraine won: read it here), had it reprinted by my employer's weekly paper and almost caused a political crisis among my Ukrainian colleagues who chose to take offence; I am still not entirely sure what offended them most.

SUMMER

I welcomed summer in the most suitable of locations: Greece, where I visited the Aegean islands of Serifos, Paros and Antiparos. I chose Paros because Bernard Pretorius, a talented wedding photographer, was living there at the time. Serifos turned out much more than a convenient stopover from Piraeus (it has landed among my top 5 favourite Greek islands of all time) and Antiparos, Paros' "satellite" island (hence the name), was unusually peaceful at this time of year. Meanwhile, Alan and I had an absolute blast stuffing our faces with fried squid and feasting on the combination of Greek salad and ouzo almost daily.

Spectacular view towards the harbour from Serifos' main village

One of many little chapels in Antiparos

But of course the biggest highlight of our visit to Greece was the photo shoot with Bernard. Alan had convinced me to buy an actual wedding dress for the occasion (at Amanda Wakeley's, no less) and had a kilt made for himself (for which we took a day trip to Edinburgh earlier in 2016). My tight bridal shoes nearly killed my feet during the 3-hour shoot, but the result was incredible. Why oh why do people still get married and have bridal photos taken on the same day? Pleasures like this should be extended.

In case not everyone is tired of these, here is one more bridal photo of us in Greece

The rest of the summer consisted of weekends away, plenty of theatre visits in London and, unavoidably, working to finance it all. I travelled to Riga a whole of three weekends to track the progress on our kitchen (never, ever try to get any construction work done in the summer!). It was eventually completed to reveal a fantastic, modern kitchen where we could finally unpack all the Iittala items I had previously purchased to fulfil an old dream as a broke student in Finland. It feels great (and different!) to be able to afford pretty things and put them in the property you own.

In June, I was extremely lucky to embark on (what was probably my last) business trip to Slovenia. I combined it with a weekend's stay and visited an entirely new part of this small but sight-rich country: the Istria region on the Adriatic coast. Istria's history is closely intertwined with that of Italy, and both Italian and Slovene languages are official in the province. I visited the cities of Piran and Izola, and was spoilt with amazing food, excellent Venetian architecture and sunny skies.

Piran's main square: Slovenia's coastline is short but well worth visiting

I spent more time in London than usual during the rest of the summer, dedicating plenty of time to cultural and sports events. I absolutely loved the open-air performance of Jesus Christ Superstar musical at Regent's Park, and my single favourite day in London last summer was the day out at Lord's Cricket Ground, watching England's third day of test match with Pakistan and enjoying a massive hamper thoughtfully ordered by Alan. Few things can beat a sunny day out at the cricket!

Watching England vs. Pakistan live at Lord's was one of my best memories of 2016

Amid all the unicorn existence though, two major dampeners occurred last summer; one immeasurably more serious than the other. First, LOT officially became my least favourite airline after ruining my (free, booked for miles) weekend visit to Greece. I had to cut my visit extremely short but did enjoy a wonderful few hours on the island of Poros (my 42nd Greek island visited to date) in the Saronic Gulf.

And the second? Brexit. I still shudder to think how many futures changed overnight after that unnecessary voting exercise. And the purchasing power of my pound-denominated income shrank dramatically abroad. Thanks a bunch, Little England.

AUTUMN

Autumn was arguably my favourite season of the departing year. At the end of August, I flew to Bolivia for a 2-week adventure-filled holiday. I travelled from the massive city of La Paz to the quiet shores of Lake Titicaca, the architectural jewel of Sucre, the harsh climate of Potosí, the picture-perfect cowboy landscapes of Tupiza and – the best part – Bolivia's vast Altiplano region full of endless high-altitude lakes, steaming geothermal fields, surreal rock formations and timid llamas. I have written about Bolivia extensively on this blog (view the series here). The photos do not even begin to do justice to the country's spectacular, diverse terrain and beauty.

Before and after visiting a silver mine in Potosí: not my favourite experience

I was obsessed with taking photos of llamas in Bolivia

No matter how good, I was also extremely grateful when my time in Bolivia came to an end and I was able to cross the border to the (infinitely more superior) comforts of Chile. My visit to San Pedro de Atacama was short – only two days – and, in this short time, I felt most lucky to watch the sun set over the Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna) and rise over the El Tatio Geyser field. I dream of Chile almost daily and hope to return in the near future to visit everything I have missed.

Selfie Number 50 with the Chilean border sign: something tells me I was happy to be there

The activity of El Tatio Geysers is best observed in the early (and chilly) morning

Back in London, I reunited with Alan and immediately fled as soon as the weekend arrived. We flew to Alderney – our third ever Channel Island – on a tiny Trislander aircraft, where I got to wear the co-pilot's headset and nearly scream with excitement. We loved the relative remoteness of Alderney and managed to walk almost the entire island in two days. It was spectacular.

My favourite memory of 2016: flying to Alderney on a Trislander

In early October, we flew to Riga to score another bridal photo shoot, this time in a decidedly autumnal backdrop. With the wedding dress and the kilt being rather expensive, I was determined not to limit myself to only one set of wedding photos! We also celebrated my father's 60th birthday in a cosy family setting (at Lido on Krasta iela - I mean, where else?).

Working hard to make that wedding kit worth it

Celebrating Dad's 60th with my favourite men (incidentally, husband and Dad)

A string of fantastic weekends away followed. First, I was off to Romania for a quiet weekend of late autumn sun and effortless beauty in the multi-cultural city of Timisoara. The following weekend Alan and I visited Liechtenstein where we walked almost the entire length of the country by foot and posed for photos in the middle of the Rhine river (which marks Liechtenstein's border with Switzerland). Finally, I flew to Corfu in Greece for my third (and probably last) ever weekend there; I have now visited both northern and southern parts of the island and infinitely preferred the former.

Vaduz Castle is perched on a hillside above the Vaduz City

I got very lucky with the weather in Corfu

Come November, and it was time for another long-haul holiday. Alan and I took our first ever flight on the massive Airbus 380 (where we got to sit on the top floor, though sadly not in Business), to our good old Hong Kong. It is by far my favourite city in Asia, and I could well see myself living there one day. We managed to visit Lamma island and the historic neighbourhood of Stanley before flying a short distance to a relatively unknown part of the world…

Yet another emotional selfie from Hong Kong (as always, featuring beer)...

...and a quintessentially Hong Kong shot of a junk boat floating on Victoria Harbour

… Japan! Well, not Japan proper but a small drop of its territory much nearer Taiwan: the Yaeyama archipelago. This group of islands lies the farthest from "mainland" Japan and is known for its distinct culture, language and unusual (for Japan) subtropical flora. We stayed on the main island of Ishigaki and visited three outlying islands of Iriomote, Taketomi and Kohama. It was definitely a feast for our stomachs: the archipelago is celebrated for its soft beef and exotic fish. This trip greatly inspired me to sign up for a Japanese language course starting January 2017. One day I would like to return to Ishigaki and write a book on its cuisine and restaurant scene - hopefully understanding some Japanese along the way.

Ishigaki's north coast is full of empty paradise beaches like this

This could be the world's most ridiculous pose (but I like it)

My last weekend trip before New Zealand was to Granada, Spain. I used to spend weekends in Spain on a yearly basis, ticking off individual low-cost destinations, but Granada was my first visit to the country in two years. I loved the city's superb Moorish architecture and Arab heritage, and even managed to book a visit to Alhambra Palace at an extremely short notice. I was also lucky to meet Nellie Huang, whose travel blog WildJunket I have followed for years (hopefully I will no longer feel like a stalker now that we've met!).

I was smiling so hard in Granada my eyes almost disappeared

Finally, towards the close of December, I remembered I was really a banker and signed my first solo-led lending project. Symbolically, it was for a small hydroelectric power plant in my favourite country to work in, Georgia. Hopefully this marked the beginning of a brighter future in my day job (2017, I am looking at you!).

TRAVEL "AWARDS"

To whoever made it this far, I am pleased to present my first ever "travel awards" - my best (and worst) travel experiences of 2016 across several fairly random categories. I hope this list can be entertaining, if not particularly useful, to someone.

  • Best weekend away: The competition was tough, but it has to be Liechtenstein. The autumn colours were intensely photogenic and the forest hikes were superb in mid-October – and we were in an entirely new country after not even managing to notice an international border had been crossed! I recommend visiting Liechtenstein from Zurich as the nearest international airport.

Everyone should visit Liechtenstein, if only for that cute donkey

  • Best swimming spot: I could award this to anywhere in the Aegean by default, but would be lying to myself. My best swim in 2016 was off the Star Sand Beach ( 星砂の浜, Hoshizuna-no-hama) on the island of Taketomi, Japan. The Yaeyama archipelago's waters are often extremely shallow at low tide, and I was nearly singing with joy to discover the paradise-like Star Sand, perfectly swimmable in the late afternoon hours. Numerous fast boats serve Taketomi from Ishigaki; beware of the extremely strong underwater currents.

Myself being swept away by currents of ridiculous speed: not pictured

  • Best meal: This was a very close call (Mitora restaurant 三虎 in‎ Ishigaki being the runner-up), but creativity won: my top meal of 2016 goes to Djapa, Hong Kong. The restaurant opened relatively recently and has already earned accolades for creating a superb fusion of Japanese and Brazilian ("Nipo-Brasileiro") cuisines. Highly recommended! Wan Chai is the nearest MTR station.

On Djapa's first floor: graffiti is supposed to symbolise the art of Brazil's favelas

  • Surprise discovery: ‎When I visited Slovenia for work in June and spent the weekend in the country's Istria province, I never expected to like it quite as much as I did. Although the sea was rather unimpressive for swimming, I couldn't speak more highly of Piran's stunning old town and superb Mediterranean cuisine (I particularly recommend the Pirat restaurant where, hilariously, I befriended the chef!). Piran is a 2-hour bus ride away from Ljubljana.

Seriously, could Piran look more Italian?

  • Best travel decision: Back in April, I was torn between visiting Chile's north or spending a couple of days in its extreme south. I chose the latter, travelled to Isla Navarino and ended up falling in love with Puerto Williams – possibly as far south as one can go in the world without giving up modern comforts. You think that Ushuaia is the "end of the world"? Puerto Williams is even further south and claiming the title of the world's southernmost city. Fly there aboard DAP from Punta Arenas.

On top of Cerro Bandera near Puerto Williams: across the water is Argentina

  • Worst travel incident: After infamously getting my drink spiked in Colombia at the end of 2015 (read about it here), I have, admittedly, been spared big incidents this year. My worst travel experience of 2016 would have to be something relatively mundane: my award LOT flight from London to‎ Athens via Warsaw was over 5 hours delayed in July, I missed all sorts of connections and had to spend the following day catching up with my itinerary. And instead of 40 hours in Greece, I only got 30 (first world problems, I know). Here goes the undisputed truth: when in a rush, always fly direct.

I smile with relief as I finally reach Poros mere hours before leaving again

  • Single best moment: I used to be scared of flying, but managed to overcome this fear just in time for two of the most scenic flights I have ever taken, both in 2016: Stanley to Pebble Island in the Falklands on an Islander aircraft in April and Guernsey to Alderney aboard a Trislander in September. The latter was probably my best ever travel experience: I got to wear the co-pilot's headset and cried with excitement as our destination emerged closer and closer. The Aurigny airline ("Aurigny" is actually the French name for Alderney) flies to Alderney from Guernsey.

Those ecstatic eyes of a co-pilot won't lie

  • Soundtrack of the year: I cannot believe I lived 33 years on this planet before hearing Soda Stereo. The trio no longer plays together (their frontman is in fact dead), but Soda Stereo remains Latin America's most famous band ever. I first heard a song of theirs play on a car transfer to Calama airport in Chile, and suddenly every passenger (but me) was singing along! Soda Stereo's songs have been lightening up my life ever since – yes, it is that serious.

On this positive note, I would like to wish everyone a year of superb travel and personal experiences! May all your cherished dreams come true in 2017.

Stay tuned next year! I already have a few exciting trips planned, including a road trip across Madagascar (with a stopover in the Seychelles en route), a long weekend discovering Iraqi Kurdistan, ticking off the micro states of San Marino and Andorra, spending some quality time in the remotest of the Greek islands and, hopefully, finally reaching the long-coveted Turkmenistan (more details coming soon). I am also currently in the process of giving this blog an entirely new look (including migrating to Wordpress and a sexy new logo!) so do revisit next year.

For less text and more photos, take a look at my annual 2016: Year in Pictures post. As always, all photo albums from my travels can be found on Flickr @anutele. I also try to post regularly on Instagram @anjciallover.

HAPPY NEW YEAR! HAPPY NEW YEAR! HAPPY NEW YEAR!