2011 is almost through. It seems I wrote my last year’s newsletter decades ago. So much has happened during 2011 that I simply don’t know where to begin.
Continuing on the tradition to tag every departing year with an appropriate adjective, I admittedly struggled this time. 2009 went off as the “quickest”, but, with approximately 1,569.5 activities to choose from, 2011 decidedly didn’t seem quick. It could easily qualify as “exciting” – but I had hastily assigned that very title to 2010 already. My thinking process continued until, this morning, I opened our corporate intranet page – the page carrying a thick “An eventful year” on top. The half-dormant bell at the back of my head rang out in joy. Eventful. Yes, 2011 has certainly been EVENTFUL.
Speaking of events, my friends positively impressed me with the number of weddings held and children born this year. Congratulations to all! Some have taken it to the next level with the second offspring while one or two unfortunately went through a divorce. I guess I am officially of that critical age (28, to be precise) when most start taking it easy with the travelling and focus on the family matters instead.
In which case I have most certainly disappointed them that created the rule. Even versus its predecessors, 2011 in the life of anjči has been marked by some unprecedented globetrotting. It seems like I barely set my foot in London, and rightly so: at the close of the year next week, I will have spent 128 days outside the UK in altogether 25 different countries – of which seven were first-timers. Now it’s just lucky I am not applying for British citizenship yet. Or indeed, for any other.
I rush to admit a certain degree of cheating on the country count: for the purposes of this post, Svalbard, Faroe Islands and Scotland are each counted separately and not within their respective kingdoms. This has partly to do with the remote setting of the former two (thus making them destinations in their own right), partly with the likely eventual independence of the latter (I just hope they get to keep the oil) – and ultimately with the author’s attempt to beautify the statistics. It is MY blog, after all.
Enough of this banter though – let’s proceed straight to the chronological recap of this year’s events.
My New Year “celebrations” a year ago would not win any prizes for creativity: the changing of the clock found me sound asleep on a moving Vietnamese train, crouched on the top berth of a 6-berth compartment where every other berth had at least two locals sharing. After 19 hours aboard, I was understandably thrilled to arrive in Danang at 4am on New Year’s Day. The check-in at my hotel and the shower that ensued – after 48 hours of bath-free tripping – closely compete to make my top 2011 highlight.
The first nine days of 2011 saw me continue that epic rail journey through Vietnam. Touristy Hoi An, windy Nha Trang, bustling Saigon and stretching Mekong delta all rushed in front of my eyes, leaving a distant memory of a myriad smells, faces and images. Vietnam was exactly what I had expected and more: the further south my journey took me, the more pronounced the contrast between the country’s communist and western influences became. Possibly thanks to the socialist mindset of the locals, I left Vietnam thinking I had never seen happier people anywhere else – putting to shame my own, sometimes excessive, desires in life.
The return to London brought some good and bad news. The good news was that I was given the first promotion of my career, discovering that, bar interns, I was no longer the most junior member of the team. The bad news – the complete failure of my beloved washing machine – seriously dampened my ardour though. I went on to use my friends’ laundry facilities for a full month before Her Majesty the Landlady finally emerged from the opposite end of the world and gracefully agreed to sort me out with a replacement. Apologies to all friends and neighbours for all the inconvenience caused in the meantime.
February came, bringing with it the fulfilment of a long-term dream: seeing the Northern Lights, for which I travelled all the way to Tromsø, Norway’s largest city inside the Arctic Circle. The unearthly sight will stay in my memory forever. Most fortunately, Tromsø also happened to host the Nordic Championship in reindeer ski-joring as part of the Saami National Day festivities that same weekend. It is not every day that one gets to watch numerous reindeer rush along Tromsø’s main street; my first visit to the Norwegian Arctic was overall a huge success.
Quick visits to Copenhagen, Madrid, Riga and Dubrovnik followed before spring – the highlight decidedly being wading 500 meters inside a half-flooded cave near Dubrovnik. I will not go into long explanations how the activity was related to my banking work; you’ll just have to take for granted that it was!
2011 IN REVIEW: SPRING
Come late March, and the first wedding of the year was on. My friends Fernanda and Federico were tying the knot in Rio de Janeiro, and most guests had planned their holidays in Brazil around the event. Not yours truly, though: since I couldn’t leave work for too long, the choice was really between (a) missing the wedding altogether or (b) coming to Rio – a 13-hour flight from London – for a long weekend.
Granted that most of you know me well, I will go no further. Let’s just say that the three days I spent in Rio turned out perfect – the wedding venue overlooked Rio’s much celebrated sights and the city itself deserved the most enthusiastic of accolades. Just to contrast it all, I managed a tour of Favela la Rocinha in the company of one of its residents. It was as fascinating as it was educational, and I can’t wait to discover more of Brazil.
After a weekend in Venice – my first visit to Italy’s much trumpeted city – I sat down to rethink Easter plans. In light of the political developments in the Middle East, the 10-day trip to Syria I had sketched did not exactly seem like a good idea anymore. That said, the alternative pastime on offer – sharing London with throngs of royal wedding tourists, to be precise – looked infinitely scarier in comparison. After some hesitation, I took off for Syria – having said all due goodbyes, cancelled all hotel reservations and prepared to flee the country in a flash should the riots escalate.
Amid the tense political situation, my visit to Syria wasn’t entirely worry-free. Increasingly terrifying news reports eventually led me to exit to Lebanon. While certainly not uninteresting, Lebanon reminded me of several places already visited – and Beirut’s reputation as a party capital did little to compensate for its mad traffic and widespread construction works. I can’t say I will be rushing back.
Back in London to my friends’ well rehearsed “Oh, you’re alive?” I was already longing to return to Syria. Be it for the locals’ hospitality, the country’s rich historic heritage, or the fascinating combination of its desert crossed by the stream of life – the mighty Euphrates River – Syria rooted deeply into my heart. I wish it every bit of strength in its struggle and hope to return to a different Syria one day. Inshallah.
Meanwhile, Japan was shaken by the nuclear crisis at Fukushima. Reminded of (admittedly very different) events at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant 25 years ago, I was quick to blow all my hard-earned business air miles on a weekend trip to Kyiv and on to the Chernobyl disaster site. Perhaps the most moving experience was seeing children’s books scattered on the floor of a local kindergarten in Pripyat – the very books that accompanied me through my own childhood. I was three when the Chernobyl disaster happened; the town exactly preserved the mid-80’s Soviet feel, as if the time there had not moved at all since.
After celebrating Azerbaijan’s Eurovision victory and Finland’s reclaimed Ice Hockey World Champion’s title (Santa heard me!), I embarked on my last springtime trip. Ironically, it had little to do with spring proper and took me to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard – an eerily remote destination set about halfway between the northern tip of Norway and the North Pole. Despite its extreme location, the main town Longyearbyen had a distinct Norwegian feel to it, while more Soviet memorabilia (excellently preserved Lenin busts included) awaited me in the Russian settlements of Barentsburg and Pyramiden. Other activities covered dog-sledding with a gun (in case a polar bear is around) and sailing through icebergs (past a walrus with a seal in its mouth). Visiting Svalbard was an unforgettable experience which I hope to repeat in the near future.
2011 IN REVIEW: SUMMER
It was on the way to Svalbard that I lost my luggage for the first time this year, arriving in subzero temperatures in merely a t-shirt. The first day of June brought a new embarrassment: I was heading to Serbia on business when my suitcase – including carefully ironed business attire – went missing somewhere en-route, forcing me to play it casual. At a meeting with the top management of the country’s second largest enterprise. Gulp.
The luggage mishap continued as I went on to visit Macedonia’s lakeside city of Ohrid. This time a regional airline simply couldn’t fit all luggage onto an ancient Dash plane (“autobus sa krilima”, as one passenger insightfully noted) and abandoned half of it in Belgrade. On my third luggage claim form in less than 10 days, I was dangerously close to missing the humorous side of things – when my fate finally reversed. At Ohrid airport, I made friends with a Macedonian family that practically adopted me for the weekend. The taste of their home-made ajvar is something I will be taking to grave with me! Oh, and the luggage was delivered the next day, too.
Following a short visit to Stockholm – worth every minute of flight time for one perfect photo I took there – my big holiday to Northern Norway came knocking on the door. Starting in the royal-inspired city of Trondheim, I crossed the Arctic Circle towards the wonderfully craggy Lofoten islands, later moving on to industrial Narvik, summery Tromsø, reindeer frequented Hammerfest and Nordkapp, Europe’s alleged “northernmost” point. While the latter soon proved a fake – set on an island, Nordkapp cannot be considered part of the continent to begin with – the views from the 300-meter cliff over the midnight sun lit ocean were indisputably spectacular.
July went on. Those who remember my last year’s trip to the Faroe Islands will know how much I looked forward to returning there for the Ólavsøka festival commemorating the archipelago’s patron saint. I was impressed by the traditional midnight singing and chain dancing on the streets of Tórshavn – even more so given how perfectly inebriated most of the locals were at that stage. The after-party was still going strong when I visited the Faroes’ southernmost and westernmost islands – Suðuroy and Mykines, respectively. Surrounded by more stunning Atlantic views, I vouched to return to the Faroes for the third time one day – and encourage you all to visit, too!
August was marked by two major reunions, as I travelled to Finland and Germany – two places where I used to live and still know many people. Rainer and Heidrun’s wedding in Frankfurt was wonderfully moving. Many thanks to everyone who found time to see me there as well as in Helsinki and Berlin – I am so lucky to know you all.
2011 IN REVIEW: AUTUMN
Starting September with another visit to Norway – with the total of six trips and almost a month’s worth of stay, 2011 was a Year of Norway, no less – I hiked to the top of Preikestolen, Norway’s best known free standing rock. From the heights of over 600 meters, the views over the surrounding Lysefjord would silence even the most sceptical. As well as dizzy out the most balanced characters – with some people swaying casually on the edge of the cliff, I could barely manage a single glance down in a prostrate position.
Following an unusually warm September – my other trips including Istanbul, Ankara, Copenhagen and Riga – I figured autumn was not rushing to Europe anytime soon and embarked on a mission to Western Canada. A reunion with old friends in sleepy Vancouver gave way to a memorable train journey through several of Canada’s national parks on to Jasper, and later to Banff. I found Canadian nature quite breathtakingly beautiful: the snow-covered peaks of the Rocky Mountains, the eerily cold Columbia Icefield, the multicolour forests reflected in turquoise blue waters of the glacial lakes – all came together to form a truly unforgettable sight. I look forward to visiting other parts of the wild, fascinating country that is Canada.
The rest of the month offered short trips to Oslo – my first visit to the Norwegian capital following the attacks of the 22nd July – as well as Edinburgh, where, despite a couple of cold showers and lack of central heating at my friends’ place, I generally had a blast in their company. Many thanks to everyone else who found time to meet me.
Come mid-November, and I needed another break from the mounting amount of work. My final pre-Christmas adventure of the year was a short but highly effective getaway to Oman. The frequently overlooked country grew on me instantly, not least for its fascinating history, well maintained traditions, excellent infrastructure and warm-hearted locals. Five days in Oman felt much longer than that – such refreshing contrast to my everyday surroundings the little Gulf state made.
To cut a long story short, 2011 has been a great year in every aspect. With the promotion et al, work has been beautifully rewarding. Some of my photos have gone on sale with Getty Images and will hopefully start contributing towards my travel fares – which are decidedly not unsubstantial. This blog is seeing more popularity than ever before, having been referenced profusely by travel industry professionals and regular readers alike. My language skills are improving – slowly but surely – as I continue to attend Norwegian and Greek lessons, as well as practise Serbian with friends. The social side of life could not be better – many close friends have now moved or are intending to move to London, and the shrinking global scale means that the rest are easily reachable, too.
Not to mention that travel isn’t quite over for 2011: India will become my last adventure of the year when I arrive there this very Sunday. And, as far as the rest of 2012 is concerned, I am unlikely to get bored, either: visits to Cuba, Greek island of Chios, Geiranger fjord of Norway, Greenland, Uzbekistan and possibly New Zealand are all on the list. The life of anjči continues to be wonderful! Stay tuned for the recap of those and other trips in this blog and on Flickr.
I would like to thank every one of you for continued support, care and company this year – all the essential ingredients of your wonderful friendship. I am incredibly lucky to have seen so many of you in 2011. I hope that we can continue to meet regularly – or at least keep in touch – in the New Year.
Thanks a bunch. Have a good one!