It may seem like I have a clear idea about where to travel to next.
I wouldn’t blame you if you thought so. I do publish a reasonably elaborate 12-month travel schedule in the beginning of every year. By the time it is published, I would normally have booked long-haul flights as far ahead as the summer. And I have a colourful Excel file where I block out the days I plan to take off against my holiday allowance, often a couple of years in advance. It is easy to believe that I am uber-organised about travel – not only from the perspective of timing, but also in relation to which destinations to visit next.
In reality, a lot of my travel decisions are fairly random. The Excel file only exists so I could shuffle and reshuffle destinations around, delete them and introduce new ones on little more than a whim. And my travel posts are in fact a carefully disguised attempt of self-discipline: having to announce my travel plans publicly is a great incentive to sit down and finally decide where I would like to travel to in the near future.
I booked my flights to Colombia a whopping 11 months in advance – possibly the sole reason I travelled there as announced
Importantly, I change my upcoming Christmas plans several times during the year, often to end up in a destination drastically different from the one originally advertised. I first vouched to visit New Zealand in 2012 but didn’t make it there until 2016. I swore I would be returning to India in 2013 but headed to Cambodia and Laos instead. 2014 had me plan a trip to Chile and the Falklands, but I replaced them with Myanmar and Sri Lanka within days.
And I am already biting my elbows for announcing (only two weeks ago) that I was going to spend the next winter break in Botswana. I am almost certainly going to visit Japan’s remote Miyako islands and something else in the area instead (Palau? Yay island living! Papua New Guinea? Expensive but possible! The list goes on). I am sure you all see a pattern here.
The remote islands of Japan enjoy a far milder climate than its “mainland”. Here I am seen relaxing on Ishigaki island in Yaeyama archipelago (don’t worry, nobody was looking up my dress).
ASIA CALLING. OR IS IT?
And my recent trip to Nicaragua wasn’t any different. In fact, it wasn’t meant to happen at all. In my last year’s travel plan I banged on and on about “missing Asia” around Christmas and how Colombia and New Zealand both turned out to be sub-par to an “Asian” winter break. I had missed the vibrant colours of India, the glistening domes of Myanmar, the never-ending train rides of Vietnam and the crowds of Cambodia (fine: I didn’t miss those). Most of all, I had sorely missed the impressive variety of flavours most Asian cuisines boast so effortlessly. My favourite dish of all time is still that divine shrimp coconut curry I had on three nights in a row in Ngapali, Myanmar.
I don’t seem to have a photo of the shrimp curry anymore, but here is my true piece of paradise in Ngapali, Myanmar – where I enjoyed some of the most relaxing moments in my travels
After cheating on Asia for two consecutive Christmases, in 2017 I decided I had had enough. I was heading to the vastness of Indonesia to spend two weeks getting overwhelmed by the chaos of Jakarta and clambering up volcanoes in the anti-social hours, all while trying not to get bitten by a komodo dragon. I know you are all impressed by my insider knowledge of Indonesia.
But I lost my thrill for Indonesia halfway through the year. The European winter is actually a rainy season in the parts of Indonesia I was interested in, and the number of tourists around Christmas and New Year is high. I honestly don’t know how I was voluntarily considering heading into the rain accompanied by a myriad of fellow backpackers – and calling it a holiday on top.
I have to make a disclaimer here. The weather is an important consideration in my travel planning. There are days when I try to convince myself that it is not a factor: I cannot change it, there isn’t bad weather at all, etc – but it has never worked. I get a limited (albeit generous) holiday allowance from work and one rainy day on the road means one precious day off when I am not able to do quite as much as hoped. I am a keen walker, a passionate swimmer and a mad photographer. Yes, I have been known to be all of the above on a rainy day, but it quickly gets old – and wiping rain off my camera all day is incredibly demoralising.
And so it was back to square one: I didn’t have any travel plans for Christmas.
FROM INDONESIA TO COSTA RICA… TO NICARAGUA
I have to make another disclaimer here: I like to stay warm around Christmas. After living through approximately 20 winters in North-Eastern Europe and 10 “winters” in London (the grey/wet variety), I am honestly done choosing freezing holidays for a while. This doesn’t mean that I dislike cold weather: I have visited Norway in the winter several times and enjoyed hiking in Patagonia mid-spring (and their mid-autumn, with snow proudly decorating mountain peaks). I also regularly visit Latvia in the colder months and find certain charm in running from shelter to shelter (read: pub to pub) in the best traditions of a Baltic winter.
But, when it comes to choosing where to spend two weeks away from the greyness of London after the mad year-end rush at work? Sorry, I want to be looking way beyond Europe and, ideally, packing my flipflops. It doesn’t help that I have adopted this ridiculous frame of mind that I must visit a new country every time I head out for a long-ish adventure, which prevents me from revisiting, say, Myanmar – my utmost Christmas paradise.
Which is how, at the click of a button, I dropped Indonesia and headed to Nicaragua.
Wait, it isn’t: I first booked a return flight to Costa Rica, quickly realised that everybody else had done the same and booked an onward flight out of the country to the nearest airport there was: Managua. After which I rolled my eyes and erupted in a rant about how I was never going to make it to Asia for Christmas again.
Oddly, Central America wasn’t even my region of choice. Some parts of the world truly steal your heart, while others remain a bit meh – places very low on your wish list where you may nevertheless be brought to thanks to a combination of circumstances. The places calling my name are, hands down, Central Asia, Caucasus, Japan, ex-Yugoslavia and Greece. Chile is one of my favourite countries of all time, but, somehow, South America as a whole doesn’t entice me like it does some travellers. And Central America is simply nowhere near my top 20, yet I nonchalantly ended up booking a flight to Nicaragua.
After sleeping in the Bolivian Altiplano for four nights (involving one decent shower), I was understandably excited to reach the Chilean border (and associated comforts!)
DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY
The morale? Nicaragua proved to be a perfect choice. Arriving with very low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised by every aspect of the country. The locals were wonderfully friendly, the natural setting was superb (give me more volcanoes every day!), and the food – shrimps, for every meal – didn’t disappoint. It was certainly a less exotic choice than Indonesia for someone based in Europe, but it was a fantastic destination in its own right.
Ironically, just weeks before I had originally planned to leave for Indonesia, a volcano erupted in Bali, disrupting local life and setting chaos to travel schedules. It would have been a pain to re-route my tight itinerary around Bali where I was planning to celebrate the New Year and from where my return international flight was departing.
I sighed with relief. Sometimes spontaneous travel decisions are the best ones.