- Posted by:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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?).
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.
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…
… 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.
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!).
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!).
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.