Our jeep on the Chain of Craters road. Photo by David Alward

Thar she blows… A day trip to Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawaii

Before tourists came to Hawaii for the stunning beaches, there was the lure of the volcanos. There aren’t too many places on this planet where you can walk on brand new land and see steam leak from deep inside the earth, but the Volcanoes National Park is one of them. It’s fascinating, it’s terrifying, it’s a great reminder of the wild power of the earth beneath our feet. It’s geography in action. In another word, it’s unmissable…

The smoking Kilauea Summit caldera

The smoking Kilauea Summit caldera

Our Hawaii itinerary initially didn’t include a trip to the Big Island, but using Adventure in Hawaii, we booked a day trip (airfare and car hire) from Honolulu Airport to Hilo (you want to make sure you go to Hilo as it’s only a 45 min drive from the National Park). A word of warning for those driving in and around Honolulu – the traffic can be terrible! A 25-min drive to the airport from Aulani turned into almost an hour, even at 6 in the morning. It’s worth leaving plenty of time to get to the airport just because of the traffic.

Hilo is a sleepy little airport that seems to cater mostly to helicopter tourists! I wish we could have flown over the island by copter, but as there isn’t any live red lava flowing into the ocean at the moment, it didn’t seem quite worth it. We did upgrade to a bright red Jeep (when in Hawaii) and we were on the road a mere three hours from leaving our hotel in Aulani. Now that’s service!

Our jeep on the Chain of Craters road. Photo by David Alward

Our bright red jeep on the Chain of Craters road. Photo by David Alward

We stopped off at a local Walmart to pick up essentials we couldn’t bring with us on the plane: water, snacks, sunscreen and PONCHOS. This is one of the wettest places on the planet and a theme of this holiday seems to be that whenever I choose to take us on an adventure, it rains! It was tipping it down as we entered the park, and everyone was glad for their wet weather gear. There isn’t much choice for food and drink inside the park either, so well worth bringing your own snacks.

We probably only had around six hours in the park in total, so we had a jam-packed itinerary. We arrived at the Kīlauea Visitor Centre at 10.30am, which was perfect timing as we joined a park ranger guided tour called “Exploring the Summit”. This was the perfect way to kick off our visit, as we learned a lot about the origins of the park itself, the special flora and fauna that we would see (I love the Ohea trees, which can ‘hold their breath’ when a volcano spouts sulphur into the air) and about the huge cultural significance of the volcanoes. Hawaiian myths and legends are deeply intertwined with the land – especially the legend of Pele, the goddess of fire, who makes her home in the Volcanoes National Park. We also got a great view of the Kilauea summit caldera (the giant smoking cauldron you can see in the first picture). He showed us things we definitely would have missed – like strands of Pele’s hair (really, rock that has been blown into strands as thin as hair by the power of the volcano) and the ‘fuzz’ that grows on the great ferns.

Beautiful Pele, goddess of fire

Beautiful Pele, goddess of fire

Following the ranger tour (which took about an hour) we drove straight to the start of the Kilauea Iki hike. This was definitely the highlight of the day, despite the driving wind and rain! We headed counter-clockwise around the Kilauea Iki crater through lush rainforest and a few steep steps, until stepping out onto the crater floor itself. Despite the rain, it felt like we had arrived on another planet. The lava itself was surreal – it looked like the top of freshly baked brownies, or the inside of an Aero bar! (Or maybe we were just hungry…) The lava changes from crumbly spatter to a smooth lava lake. Steam vents burst out of the ground, making the lava feel hot to the touch – and this was enhanced by the cold, windy day we had (there were some benefits!).

Crossing the Kilauea Iki crater floor

Crossing the Kilauea Iki crater floor (Photo by David Alward)

It looked like the surface of another planet

It looked like the surface of another planet (photo by David Alward)

Steam vents in Kilauea Iki crater

Steam vents in Kilauea Iki crater

The hike finished with a stop at the Thurston lava tube, much different compared to the lava tube we walked through on the road to Hana! It was huge and very eerie. In total, with lots of stopping for pictures and a walk through the lava tube, the walk took us about 3 hours.

Thurston Lava Tube entrance

Thurston Lava Tube entrance – as you can see, I am soaking wet!

Inside the Thurston lava tube (photo by David Alward)

Inside the Thurston lava tube (photo by David Alward)

We were pretty hungry at this point, so we drove back out of the park to the aptly named Volcano Village where we stopped at the Lava Rock Cafe for lunch. I had loco moco, which I’m going to describe as Hawaiian poutine! It’s rice, a hamburger patty, a fried egg and gravy. It looks disgusting and tastes… pretty damn delicious! The perfect comfort food after a long hike 🙂

Loco Moco, traditional Hawaiian comfort food - aka Hawaiian poutine

Loco Moco, traditional Hawaiian comfort food – aka Hawaiian poutine

Back out on the road, we drove the impressive ‘Chain of Craters’ road. As the name suggests, this road winds its way down to the ocean through different flows of old (and relatively new!) lava fields. There were lots of places to stop and turn off to get a view of the destruction caused by the lava – it’s hard to believe that a lot of this land was once thick forest – although you can see the evidence in little islands of trees that survived the lava’s onslaught.

Lava flowing down the cliff

Lava flowing down the cliff

This road has been covered by lava and redirected many times! At the moment, the end of the road is for emergency access only, and you have to turn around at the sea arch at the end of the trail.

Sea Arch at the bottom of Chain of Craters road

Sea Arch at the bottom of Chain of Craters road

Oops, the road has been eaten up (photo by David Alward)

Oops, the road has been eaten up (photo by David Alward)

By this time, it was starting to get a bit dark and we really wanted to get to the Jaggar Museum before we had to leave for the airport. Unfortunately, because of our flight timings, we weren’t able to wait to see if the caldera would ‘glow’ as it sometimes does after dark. I would recommend booking the latest flight back to your home island if you’re only doing a day trip out to the national park so you can leave as late as possible.

Pretty coloured lava

Pretty coloured lava

In order to maximise our time in the park, we arrived at the airport probably the latest that I’ve ever attempted – maybe 15 minutes before our scheduled boarding time! It worked out absolutely fine at an airport like Hilo because there was no queue for security and you simply stroll straight onto the plane from one of only a few gates (obviously, we had no checked luggage) but I wouldn’t recommend it if being late really stresses you out 🙂

Overall, I wish we’d had a night in Big Island but the day trip was totally worth it – not too stressful, and we packed a lot in!

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Surviving driving the Hana Highway, Maui

620 curves. 59 one-lane bridges. And a full-on 13 hour day. 

It is actually quite tough to think about leaving our villa in Kapalua on the north-east coast of the island. We have a beautiful beach at our feet and we can whale watch over breakfast (yes, it’s a tough life). But for many people, the Hana Highway is one of the highlights of a trip to Maui and I wasn’t keen to miss out, so I dragged every out of bed bright and early!

For what seems like such a small island, it sure can take a long time to get around Maui. Don’t be fooled by what the map looks like – if you’re coming from the Kapalua region then getting to the bottom of the island then prepare for a full day of driving and adventuring to get to Hana.

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A grove of painted eucalyptus trees

We were up and out the door for 5.45am, cruising the blissfully quiet road through Lahaina to our first stop, Paia. Luckily, Anthony’s Coffee Shop was open for us to grab a quick breakfast – although unluckily it was also pouring with rain at this point – not the ideal start to the journey! The optimists within us hoped that the bad weather would put people off today as their ‘Hana highway’ day – and I think it worked. There were several stops where we had the place all to ourselves and the weather brightened and darkened all through the day – only adding to the atmosphere.

I’m just going to take a moment to shout-out to the GyPSy app for the Hana highway. I’d done a ton of research before going (very typical of me) and written down the specific mile markers of things that I wanted to see. However, I’d read a little bit about this app and thought it worth a risk at £3.99 – and it definitely was worth it. We christened the friendly voice of the app ‘Jeff’ and he became our tour guide for the day. When you only have a day to do the Hana highway, it was really great having him point out the most worthwhile stops at the exact locations (his commentary was tied to our location via GPS – no data required) and saved us a ton of time and aggravation.

Our first stop was Hookipa Beach lookout, where we watched surfers as the most perfect full rainbow appeared.

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A full rainbow over Hookipa beach

 

After Hookipa beach, the famous section of the Hana highway really begins, and the roadside flora changes dramatically from windswept coastline to lush rainforest and the most beautiful trees (our favourite were the painted eucalyptus). I’ve never seen so many Jeeps and Mustang convertibles as on the road to Hana – they must be the most popular rental cars on the island!

We pulled over at the Twin Falls – unfortunately, this is where we had the worst of the weather and we were completely drenched only halfway to the falls. We gave this one up and ran back to the car to wait it out. When we arrived at the Waikamoi Ridge, the weather cleared and we stopped to hike the trail. This was really beautiful and took us through a gorgeous bamboo forest – but if we had to do the Hana highway over again, I would skip this and save more time for the end, as we ran out of time (and daylight) to do the brilliant-looking hike called the Pipiwai trail.

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Bamboo forest

 

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Stunning trail through Waikamoi Ridge

 

Our next point of interest was the aptly named Garden of Eden. Although our guide ‘Jeff’ recommended waiting for the (free) Keanae Arboretum, we paid (£15pp initially, but the lady at the front let us off with two ‘children’ in the backseat so we paid approx £10pp) to be allowed into these absolutely stunning gardens. This was completely worth the fee as not only were the gardens immaculate but also informative – and we learned a lot about the different plants we would see through the rest of our journey. My favourite were the bright orange African tulip trees and the myriad types of bamboo. We also saw the rock from the opening scene of Jurassic Park. I’m not sure how impressed I was about that – but the boys loved it.

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Jurassic Park rock view from Garden of Eden

 

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Staring intently at the Jurassic Park rock

 

It was now about 10.30am and we were definitely hungry for some famous Hana highway banana bread. Again, I’d done my research and found that the best stop was ‘Aunt Sandy’s’ on the Keanae peninsula. When we arrived there was already a bit of a queue and we had to wait 15 minutes… but that was plenty of time to look around the peninsula with a wild and wet lava rock beach and a tiny little lava rock church. When we returned to Aunt Sandy, we had loaves of banana bread waiting for us, hot straight from the oven. Oh so delicious.

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Home of delicious banana bread

 

Lava rocks no the beach, by Evan George

Lava rocks on the beach, by Evan George

Now we came to a secret place that even Jeff didn’t know about. If you’re reading this and about to head to Maui (lucky you), make sure to make note of this little stop. Just past mile marker 23, two turnouts on the left, park your car. You’ll see a little hole on the side of the road – it doesn’t look like much. But it opens out into an awesome (secret…ish) lava tube. I think all my passengers were impressed with this! It really opens up once you’re inside so there’s no tight places to crawl through – and you come out into the jungle which leads right around to the main road where the car is parked. Perfect!

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The start of the lava tube, by the side of the road

 

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Entering the lava tube… dun dun dun

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And out into the jungle

 

Although it didn’t seem that long from the banana bread, we were all getting a bit hungry. The Nahiku Market Place was the perfect place to fill our tummies (especially as the rain started again) with fresh island fish tacos and delicious Maui coffee. There were some men who were cycling the highway – now that’s impressive!

We lingered at the Waianapanapa State Park, which would be an ideal place to stop and camp if you were doing the overnight version – as the sights just got better from here on out! We wish we had reserved more time for the latter end of the Hana highway, but there are just too many things to see. Waianapanapa had some very cool caves, but they were crowded with swimmers – I suppose it was one of the few places that you could swim that day, because many other of the waterfall pools were completely overrun with rain water and flash floods from the mountains. There was also a black sand beach here, which was very cool, and a sea arch. We watched one brave little boy snorkelling the black sand beach as waves pounded the rocks around him – I’m not sure that I would have dared.

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Cave in Waianapanapa

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Black sand beach, Wainapanapa

 

Past Waianapanapa is the town of Hana, but we didn’t stop – we carried straight on through. We turned off to view Koki beach and Hamoa beach – and we really lucked out as some professional surfers were catching some waves on Koki beach! They had an entourage of photographers with big long lenses – but even with our little point and shoots (and our phones) we got some good snaps. There was a lot of skill on display!

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How professional surfers wipe out!

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Pro surfers on Koki beach

 

The final stop on the Hana highway for us was the Haleakala National Park, and the Oheo Gulch (or Seven Sacred Pools – the more romantic, though inaccurate, name – there’s apparently nothing sacred about them). These are a series of (ordinarily) gentle pools running down to shark-infested ocean waters, but today they were raging waterfalls fed by the rains. No swimming permitted! If we’d had more time, we would have hiked the Pipiwai trail up to the Waimoko Falls but it was already 3.30pm by this time and we wanted to be back to Hana by 4pm to avoid travelling in the dark.

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The raging Oheo Gulch

 

At this point, there are two options – to turn around and drive back down the Hana highway, or to continue on through unpaved roads around the bottom of the island. I’d normally be loathe to come back the way we came, and we entertained the idea of driving the unpaved path – but the park ranger warned that because of all the rain, it was likely some of the road would be washed out. That finished off that idea – the unpaved road was technically illegal to drive our rental car on so we didn’t want to risk getting stuck. But actually, we were pleasantly surprised by the drive home. You see the highway from a completely different perspective, and you’re able to stop off at any roadside waterfalls that you missed. Since you’re not on the look out for stops and sights, you notice more of the lush jungle all around you, and appreciate every twist and turn in the road, the drama of the volcanic coastline. We loved it!

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Stunning Wailua Falls

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Upper Hanawi Falls

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The road to Hana, cut into the coastline

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A final painted eucalyptus, because they’re awesome

 

Back in Paia, we stopped for some much deserved gelato for the driver, before making our way back to Kapalua. Maui, so far you’ve been top notch.

 

sunset waikiki

Waikiki Beach… the start of two weeks in paradise

It took us almost 24 hours, but some destinations are worth the journey.

Hawaii is the perfect meeting-up point for my family, dispersed as we are all across the globe (L and I, from the UK; my parents from Canada, my sister and her bf from Australia). We started as most people do – with a couple of nights on Waikiki beach. And what a place. Full of life and action, Waikiki is not what I would refer to as ‘chilled out’ (and especially not where my parents were staying, the frenetic and huge Hilton Hawaiian Village) but it is so much fun.

waikiki

How else would I sum up Waikiki?

1) It’s a surfer’s paradise

The time difference between the UK and Hawaii is 11 hours – so long it’s almost meaningless. We were up early the first morning, but still not as early as these surfers – who hit the water at first light.
surfers waikiki

2) It’s a shopper’s paradise

Along Kalakaua Avenue, you’ll find every luxury boutique you can think of (although who wants to wear stuffy designer clothes in laid-back Hawaii? I’ll never know. I’m thinking of permanently ditching all footwear for flip-flops for the rest of the trip). We did do some sale shopping (of course!) in Ala Moana shopping centre, but if you have to shop anywhere, doing so in a bright, breezy open air mall is the way to do it.

3) It’s a foodie haven

We were only there for two days, but we ate some of the most amazing food – and not at ridiculous prices. My highlights were the ahi katsu at Chai’s cafe. Food this good should not be served in a box (but when it does, hallelujah!). Chai Chaowasaree is a world class high-end chef but this restaurant of his is no frills. Perfect for eating top quality food while not changing out of your sarong. Also delicious was the Luau Eggs Benedict from Tropics cafe in Hilton Hawaiian Village with kalua pork and a purple taro roll. Yum.

tuna

eggs benny

4) It’s ridiculously beautiful. 

Who knew a major city could be this gorgeous? With sunsets like this, it’s tempting never to leave. But with Maui ahead, I’m looking forward to some major R&R…

sunset waikiki

sunset waikiki1

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The Oathbreaker’s Shadow & The Alhambra, Granada, Spain

I can’t really believe that next week THE OATHBREAKER’S SHADOW makes its US debut. Hello America! Flux have done an absolutely amazing job with the package – I love how atmospheric and intriguing it looks. They must be doing something right because The Oathbreaker’s Shadow is a Junior Library Guild Winter 2015 pick (yay!) and has had some awesome reviews stateside:

flux - oathbreaker

Buy me on Amazon!

The Oathbreaker’s Shadow is easy to dive into and will keep readers engaged… An excellent choice for those looking for a compelling and detailed fantasy novel.” – School Library Journal

“Middle-school readers looking to get lost in another world will enjoy this adventure-packed read.” – Booklist

“An intriguing start to McCulloch’s planned series” – Publisher’s Weekly

The Oathbreaker’s Shadow has always been inspired by my travels. It feels like so long ago now, but at the end of last year, L & I had the chance to visit the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, which I knew would just be full of inspiration for future books – but also would take me right back to all the research I did for Oathbreaker. In fact, I spent a lot of time looking at windows and doorways that could easily work on the front of my book cover!

Granada is one of those perfect city break destinations. Easily accessible from London, full of amazing sights, beautiful hotels, delicious food – and one of the cheapest cities we’ve visited by a mile. As it was partly to celebrate L’s 30th birthday, we splurged to stay in the Alhambra Palace hotel at the very top of the hill. It had the most glorious views and a balcony overlooking the city – not too shabby whatsoever.

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But let’s just take a moment to talk about tapas. Granada is one of the few Spanish cities that still offers free tapas with a drink, and we indulged. We wandered up and down the twisting side streets, stopping for a drink and to eat little plates of wonder. But it was only when we squeezed ourselves into the absolutely packed Restaurante Oliver that we understood the true meaning of tapas. I also fell deeply in love with ‘tinto de verano’ – the on tap red wine and lemonade combination. Take me back there right now!

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Tinto de Verano at Restaurante Olivier & One of the tapas streets

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Iberico ham, a must.

It wasn’t just about tapas, of course. We also strolled around the Albaicin – the old Arab quarter. The Albaicin feels like stepping back in time, to a different era. Market stalls pack the streets, tea houses offer up amazing Arab delights, and – of course – it offers incredible views of the Alhambra itself.

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A market stall in the Albaicin & Me inexpertly pouring tea

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Delicious mint tea

Now onto the Alhambra itself. I don’t think I really knew what to expect when I visited, but it certainly wasn’t the sprawling complex we entered. We had pre-booked our tour slot a few months in advance (this is worth looking into so you don’t worry about not getting in – it’s very easy to do and tickets are picked up from local ATMs). We were then able to walk leisurely around the Generalife – a beautiful palace/villa with stunning grounds.

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A stunning pool inside the Nasrid Palace

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The Generalife and the Court of the Lions and Fountain

The visit to the Nasrid Palaces was the final item on our agenda. And it was everything I could have dreamed of and more. Walking through the highly decorative Moorish Palace, there were delights around every corner. The highlight was the wonderfully evocative Court of the Lions and Fountains. The sheer level of detail of the carvings on the walls made you appreciate just how much work went into building these luscious palaces. I encourage anyone to go and visit if you have the opportunity.

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These windows would fit right in on the cover of my book

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Incredible detail

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The walls of the Nasrid palaces are covered in script and mosaic

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More highly Oathbreaker-y windows

The perfect place to inspire more novels… and to remind me of upcoming ones!

Easter in Edinburgh, with a side trip to East Lothian!

ImageAh Edinburgh. What a fantastic city! And what a weekend for it… absolutely bright blue skies the entire time set the scene for great food, fantastic people and awe-inspiring sights. ImageA panoramic view from half-way up Arthur’s SeatImageThe view from the top!

We had an amazing dinner at The Witchery by the Castle, but can I just shout out to the most excellent breakfasts we had? The Edinburgh Larder made some of the best scrambled eggs I’ve ever had out, and Urban Angel had amazing hot chocolate and eggs benedict. I’m a brunch addict, so this made me extraordinarily happy!ImageThe walk back to EdinburghImageAmy tries to stick em with the pointy end at Edinburgh castle…ImageOn Sunday we left the city centre and headed out into East Lothian, to the Craigielaw Lodge and golf club. We played the 35th oldest golf course in the world (allegedly – how random!) called Kilspindie, which was right along the coast. We were quite lucky that the forecast rain held off, although it was pretty windy.ImageI now just want to see way more of Scotland. In a lot of ways it reminded me of my favourite place in the world (New Zealand) and I’m sure there’s so much more to see and discover.

 

 

Welcome to Myanmar, tiger tiger… or is it?

I’m sitting here covered in cuts and bruises, every muscle aching and sore, having narrowly avoided an awkward interaction with a cobra and picked several leeches off my friend’s body.

No, our plane didn’t crash in the middle of the Myanmar jungle. Instead, I was talked into a 9km ‘Hash’ run with the Yangon Hash Harriers… but that isn’t even the start of our story!

The Myanmar mishaps (or is it Burma blunders?) began at Heathrow airport at 5.15am, where Tania (one half of the couple L and I are travelling with) was refused entry on to the plane. Her passport was only valid for the next 5 ½ months, as opposed to the 6 months “required”… thank goodness she has dual citizenship (and therefore a second passport) so she was able to rush back and get on the flight the next day.

We didn’t know that, however, as we unhappily said goodbye to Tania to go through security. Two six-hour flights later… we landed in Yangon, one person missing but happy to have heard that Tania had managed to secure a flight, which meant we could relax a bit into our journey.

Yangon/Rangoon is a beautiful city, much calmer than any other place in South-East Asia I’ve been in terms of traffic and people. It has the most number of colonial buildings of any city in SE Asia, which lends it a really gorgeous, lost city-type of vibe. We are so lucky to be staying with a friend who works for the British embassy in Myanmar, so we have lots of great local knowledge on our side!

We walked on a lovely boardwalk across Kandawgyi Lake in absolutely blazing heat, spotting some temples along the way. The three of us were very knackered during lunch, so it wasn’t long until we were ready to head back for nap.

At the start of the Yangon hash

At the start of the Yangon hash

Then began my real adventure. The boys were too tired (read: they wimped out) but I tagged along with Nick for my Hash Harrier adventure. ‘Hash’es are organized runs that happen throughout the world, led by ‘hares’ who mark the run with shredded paper. Hash runners are known as ‘runners with a drinking problem’ or ‘drinkers with a running problem’, depending on how you look at it! The runs can be any length and can take you through any part of town – ours was quite rural, which was lovely, and also quite long! I definitely didn’t expect to be running 9km, but I was already there so why not?

The first half of run felt like more of a bush walk. We headed straight out into fields and long grasses, filled with thorns and uncertain footpaths – not really your ideal running route! I quickly fell to the back of the group, and thought I was dead last – but it turned out I was just dead last of the people who managed to keep up and not get lost! I was determined not to get lost, so even if I felt tired, I wasn’t going to lose sight of the person in front.

Spot the runners...

Spot the runners…

We ran through some quite deep mud (about mid-shin – and it might not have been all mud, if you get my drift), which led to leeches! Thankfully I avoided them, but Nick wasn’t so lucky with three of the buggers latching on. I did spot the cobra though, slithering through the grass ahead of me, so I think I won! Nick jumped about a mile after I spotted it…! No picture, unfortunately, as it was moving too fast.

The second half of the run was much easier – through little villages where I could see a slice of country life. We finished the run in a brewery (natch) called Dagon beverages, where I collapsed – sweaty and exhausted – but actually feeling way more energetic before. Turns out maybe the best jet lag cure is a whole lot of exercise! I had my Hash induction – downing an entire beer in front of the 60-odd runners – and came back home, tired but happy.

*

We were up early the next morning  to meet Tania, who finally made it to Myanmar! The group was complete!!

My legs and ankles were pretty sore from the run, but we had a jam-packed day ahead. We started out at Nagar glass factory, which had been completely destroyed by the cyclone in 2008. The family who runs it has been creating blown glass wonders for years, but not since the cyclone. While their kiln and buildings were ruined, the glass – which had always been stored outside – has remained, in a surreal jungle-like atmosphere. It’s like an Alice-in-Jungleland type glass menagerie, a forest floor that sparkles and glitters with coloured glass sculptures. They don’t have the money to restart the kiln again, but there are wonderful glass treasures to be found, which can be polished up to mirror shine. Needless to say, we spent plenty of kyat there, and spent an age chatting to the knowledgeable owner.

The 'natural warehouse', a glass wonderland

The ‘natural warehouse’, a glass wonderland

For lunch, we had our first taste of Burmese food – which was absolutely delicious. Where I would almost immediately turn my nose up at ‘salad’ (especially while on holiday!), Burmese salads are amazing, especially the tea leaf salad, tomato salad and aubergine salad. We also shared some curries and Bago coconut noodles – all scrumptious. Burmese food, thumbs up!

In the afternoon we wandered around downtown Yangon, looking at all the colonial buildings. Afternoon tea at The Strand filled us all up with amazing cakes and snacks, while feeling very posh despite our traveller wear.

Then came the absolute highlight of the entire trip (yes, even more than the 9km run!): Shwedagon Paya. This might be the most beautiful temple complex I have ever seen, shining like a golden crown above the city. We arrived just before sunset, watching the sky change from blue to indigo to black, and the temple change from bright gold to burning orange as the monks and worshippers lit candles that illuminated the riches all around. It is a full moon tonight, which meant the temple was packed with people. Even so, it was a magical place.

Shwedagon at sunset...

Shwedagon at sunset…

In Buddhist culture, it is best to pray to the specific animal which corresponds to the day of the week you were born on. Lofty, born on a Friday, is a guinea pig. Lucky him! Adam and Tania were both Hinta birds (or garruda birds). And what was I? A tiger, of course! I am also a year of a tiger in Chinese astrology, which makes me a Tiger Tiger. This, clearly, made my entire day.

After Shwedagon, Nick took us to a bar that must have one of the best views in the world: overlooking the golden temple at night. A few cocktails later, we agreed this was one of the best starts to a trip ever – missed flights and scratched up legs included.

View from the best bar in town...

View from the best bar in town…

Bring on more, Myanmar! We can take it…

 

 

#Inspiration series… Travelling, part 2

Travel has always formed a big part of my life. My parents were not the sort to leave their children at home, or who avoided long travel until we got older, and we often went to distant places together as a family. They trained me well – even now, I can’t get on moving transport without falling asleep almost immediately (it makes it awkward on those long tube journeys home, though).

So two things were prevalent in my life: travel, and carpets. The latter won’t be a surprise if you’ve been following the blog, but for those of you who don’t know, my parents own an oriental carpet store in Ottawa, Canada, and when I was a child he worked as the carpet buyer for Harrods, and later Bentalls department stores. As a result, my sister and I spent a lot of time playing hide and seek through stacks of carpets. And, yes, dealing with all the requisite high school jokes later on.

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Me and my sister, hanging out at my parent’s store

There’s no doubt that accompanying my parents on trips while I was young shaped and influenced me as a writer. One of the most influential trips I went on came in 1995, when I was 9, and we had the privilege of being invited to a huge, 10-day wedding celebration in New Delhi, India.

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At a Hindu wedding in New Dehli, 1995

The wedding was lavish and spectacular, and my sister and I both loved dressing up for the occasion in our saris chosen especially for the colour of each particular day. But India also equalled enormous culture shock. It was the first time I can vividly remember witnessing extreme poverty: we were driving in the car from the hotel to the wedding venue, and when we were stopped in traffic, dozens of children surrounded the car, banging on the windows and begging. The driver just pulled away. After that I remember being shocked into stunned silence – partly fear, but also partly curiosity. I asked my parents why children had to live like that. Children ask the most difficult questions, I feel.

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All the bangles you could ask for!

But there were other abiding memories too – the wedding was also a riot of colour and ritual and amazing food. I wore bangles up to my elbows, and had henna designs drawn on my hands. I managed to irritate the woman doing mine, and so I was bestowed a (what I remember to be) hideous henna pattern, with thick blobs like a chessboard, where everyone else had delicate vines and flowers. The jealousy still stings.

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During the mendhi session, having henna painted on my hands

We managed to see some of Northern India too – taking the train down to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. There, we spotted snake charmers lining the street up towards the beautiful marble building. I was obsessed with snakes at the time (so much so, that even now when it came to killing a snake in a scene in my book, I couldn’t do it!) and so I watched on, intrigued.

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Okay, maybe I look a little bit scared… But look at that rocking jumper

We also visited places like the Red Fort, which no doubt subtly planted the seeds in my mind of a vast, red castle, surrounded by heat and sand.

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My sister and me at the Red Fort, New Delhi

But no greater moment stayed with me longer than the main wedding day, where we walked alongside a procession of musicians, dancers and – wait for it – elephants, as the groom rode astride a beautiful white stallion covered in red and gold cloth. There were garlands of flowers everywhere, all in deep, rich colours: marigold, crimson and indigo. The bride was absolutely stunning, and both my sister and I watched with mouths agape throughout the entire ceremony.

When I look at the below picture, I can picture exactly a scene from The Oathbreaker’s Shadow, right near the end – so I won’t spoil it by saying too much more. It makes me wonder just how much I was influenced by what I had seen as a child, and why it was so natural for me to want to set my book in that particular environment. I’m going to be exploring this even more in a later post, but for now, I leave you with a painted elephant…

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Beautiful painted elephant during the Hindu wedding