A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Clammy Clemmies

Okini, Kyoto and arigato, Japan


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After six days in Tokyo we were ready for a rest, and decided to spend two nights in Nikko, a small edo-era town in the mountains north of Tokyo. The Japanese have a saying about Nikko: 'Never say "kekko" until you've seen Nikko', 'kekko' meaning 'beautiful'. We spent a day taking in the fresh air, walking around the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in the lush wooded hillside. There was a light rain and a murkiness which added to the magic of the surroundings. We tried the local delicacy, yuba (beancurd), in all its guises, and felt refreshed and ready for our next trip: a brief stop back in Tokyo, and then on to Kyoto by shinkansen (bullet train).

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We spent our first few of days in Kyoto wandering around the city. We explored Nishiki Food Market and ogled the marvellous goods on display. We slurped ramen, and we went to Kura-Sushi, a casual kaiten-zushi restaurant, where you order using an electronic screen and your dish comes zipping along a conveyor belt. All the dishes are ¥100, which is about 50p, so you can imagine how much we ate.

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Our favourite place to go in the evenings was Pontochō, an alley lined with traditional restaurants, teahouses and bars, just across the Kamo River from Gion, the district famous for its geishas, and immortalised in Memoirs of a Geisha. Having been in Japan for over a week now we were feeling much braver and took a gamble, choosing a restaurant at random – one we couldn't see into and with no English signage outside. We ducked under the curtain and fortunately the staff were quite welcoming, though we did get laughed at for not being able to walk in the clogs they provided. We sat outside on tatami mats, overlooking the river as the sun set behind the Minami-za kabuki theatre. We ate what we were given: aubergine in miso; white fish and pickles; lobster with edamame, wasabi and sesame; tofu soup; tempura prawns; frozen yoghurt, and washed it all down with sake. After nightfall Pontochō really comes into its own. There are red lanterns outside the little establishments, and the curtains over the doorways sway in the breeze. We found a dark and smoky 1930s whisky and jazz bar where we enjoyed a nightcap more than once.

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As hard as it is to believe, it wasn't all food. Kyoto is famous for its temples and shrines, which we explored in between fattening ourselves. One of our favourites was the Kinkaku-ji Temple (the Golden Pavilion), which shimmers in the sunlight and creates a beautiful reflection on the lake. We also loved the Fushimi Inari-taisha, the Shinto shrine known for its iconic orange torii (arches). We hiked the trail through the torii to the top of Inari Mountain.

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Having seen the hectic, modern side of Tokyo, and reading In the Miso Soup, I wanted to see another side of Japan. The Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Nikko and Kyoto gave me a taste for tradition, and I started reading Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki, to learn more about Zen Buddhism.

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I'm already open to the idea of meditation and mindfulness, and one thing I really wanted to do when we planned our trip was to stay overnight in a Buddhist temple, to see what I could learn from it. Matt was also willing to give it a try, so we turned up at Shunkōin Temple in the peaceful Myoshin-ji Temple complex, which was beautiful to cycle around at dusk. Our room was basic, with futons laid out on the tatami mat floor.

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After a quiet night, we rose early in the morning to take part in a Zen meditation session with Rev. Takafumi Kawakami, the deputy head priest of Shunkōin. There were about 15 of us in the group and we sat in a small room looking out at the temple's zen garden. The priest talked about Buddhism and zen meditation, and explained some of the principles, reaffirming what I’d read so far in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. We then practised a 20 minute and a 10 minute meditation. After the session we sat looking out at the zen garden, learning that Japanese gardens are made to be viewed from inside, at eye level when sitting down. It was a great experience, and I definitely need to refresh my meditation practice: I find it very useful in everyday life.

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The other experience we wanted to try in Kyoto was spending a night in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese guest house. We found a not-too-pricey one in Gion (most of them were well out of our budget, though I can imagine a stay in the £467 a night Hiiragiya, which counts Elizabeth Taylor, Charlie Chaplin and the Japanese royal family among its former guests would be incredible). Our ryokan room had tatami mat flooring with a table in the middle, which was moved to one side and futons laid out after dinner. We were welcomed with green tea and Japanese sweets and we took turns using the pine-scented onsen. Fully relaxed, we put on the yukatas (like a kimono but made of cotton) we'd been provided with and awaited dinner.
 
Now, I thought I was an adventurous eater, but dinner in the ryokan really tested me. The dinner was kaiseki style (as I mentioned in my last post), and began with an array of confusing appetisers, including a small crab which we had to eat whole: shell, eyes, guts, brains, everything. This resulted in some gagging, which is always what you want at the dinner table. There was a variety of other fish, seafood, some jelly-like substances, pickles, sashimi... The courses kept coming and the sake kept flowing for several hours.

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The next morning, we dressed in our yukatas again, our futons were put away and our table laid out, and we were served breakfast: salmon, egg roll, tofu, rice, pickles, miso soup and some other indescribable raw fishy things that were very strong and quite hard to stomach first thing in the morning. I'd definitely recommend the experience – it will test your limits. I draw the line at whole crabs, and raw squid for breakfast.

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One more night back in Tokyo (we resisted the urge to find a karaoke booth, fearing we might never make it to the plane) and we were off again. Goodbye, Japan. We'll miss you and your weird ways.
  
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Posted by Clammy Clemmies 03:56 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

In the miso soup

Six days in Tokyo


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If anyone has seen 'Tokyo Nights', an episode of Anthony Bourdain's TV programme Parts Unknown, you'll have some idea of what our time in Tokyo was like. Alighting from the plane we felt, well, jet-lagged doesn't cover it. Flying from LA meant we had lost 16 hours, arriving 28 hours after we'd left, even though the journey only took 12 hours. Or arriving 12 hours later, when 28 hours had actually passed. Either way, we felt a little strange.

Luckily, Tokyo is the sort of place that jet-lag can work to your advantage if you use it wisely, much like Las Vegas where, on our honeymoon, we went for a jet-lagged nap at 6 p.m., slept through our dinner reservation at Hakkasan, woke up at 3 a.m. and went downstairs to the casino, where we played roulette and got hideously drunk, eventually abandoning a tableful of ill-ordered daiquiris in the all-you-can-eat buffet at midday. It's all part of the experience, right?

So taking our lead from Anthony Bourdain, we jumped straight in at the deep end. After navigating our way through the airport and the subway system, which is almost a whole city in itself, we emerged from one of Shinjuku station's 200 exits into the neon-lit, bustling streets of Kabukichō, Tokyo's major red light district. Our hotel wasn't too difficult to find, as it had a giant Godzilla on the roof, which is perfectly normal, of course.

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Speaking of Kabukichō, I should note that the title of this blog post is stolen from the book of this name by Ryu Murakami. It is a novel about a young Japanese man, Kenji, who is hired to guide an American tourist around Kabukichō. Kenji has a bad feeling about this American, and becomes more and more suspicious that he might harbour murderous desires. I love the title, and it sums up Tokyo for me, as I definitely felt like I was swimming in a bowl of miso soup, occasionally bumping into a piece of wobbly tofu or getting tangled in a string of seaweed.

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So what did we do during the next few days of miso-drowning craziness? The Robot Restaurant was high on our list of priorities, and was conveniently located close to Godzilla's reassuring presence. There are no words to adequately describe this place. First of all, it's not a restaurant. At all. It is a show, and the strangest, most mind-boggling show you'll ever see. Glittery bikini-clad girls on podiums, gigantic robots and electronic snakes, massive flashing video screens, neon battle tanks, an audience waving glo-sticks… it was a live-action power rangers fantasy world that could only exist in Tokyo. I found it impossible to take a good photo of the show, but definitely Google it, and if you find yourself in Tokyo, you must go.

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Next, we decided to make like Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray in Lost in Translation and try our hand at karaoke. We paid for an hour, thinking we’d probably leave after half… Six hours and three bottles of wine later, at 5 a.m., we stumbled back into the street. There is video evidence, available on request. I don't recommend watching it – you can never unsee (or unhear) it.

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The fun didn't just happen after dark. During the day we plucked up the courage to go to a maid café (after downing a few Sapporos). Waitresses dressed as maids make food in the shape of cute animals and draw kittens on top of your coffee. When they bring your food and drinks they do ‘magic’, and you join them in making hearts with your hands and blowing out candles. We unwittingly chose a maid to have photos taken with from a list, thinking we were choosing a photo design. As far as I can see, the idea is that people (and most of the customers were middle-aged men) go there, usually on their own, to feel ‘special’. The maids ask a lot of questions about your life and act very interested and empathetic. Maid cafés, karaoke booths, gaming arcades… they're all a form of escapism.

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Matt's favourite area of Tokyo was Akihabara, known as Electric Town – this is where all the technology and electronic stores are situated, as well as arcades, anime and manga cafés. After spending some time in Club Sega and Taito arcades, where people sat in rows, completely transfixed on the machines in front of them, I left Matt to browse Super Potato and other strangely-named retro games stores while I went to check out a few cat cafés, to practise those crazy cat lady skills that Matt was starting to worry about in Texas. Unlike Lady Dinah's in London you can feed the cats in the Tokyo cat cafés, and before I knew it I had a dozen cats swarming around me.

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When I met up with Matt later, he had bought a suitcaseful of games, which I thought was rather unfair, as I had been told that under no circumstances was I to sneak a cat out of the cat café. Our lack of phone signal and internet access made it quite difficult to continue this games/cat café dual, so we sought a way to combine our interests. Unfortunately there are no cat cafés with retro games consoles installed (future business idea?), but after a bit of research we were delighted to discover 8-bit, a retro games bar. Perfect. Matt could continue his retro gaming, whilst I got drunk on video-game themed cocktails, such as Metroid, Princess Peach and Donkey Kong. I even got drunk enough to be persuaded to play a game of Dr Mario.

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Having been a good wife and pandered to Matt's retro-gaming will, it was my turn to choose a place for an evening's entertainment. So off we went to Golden Gai, an area of six tiny lanes, with about 200 even tinier bars, mostly seating between four and eight people. We sauntered around the lanes first, peering through doorways into the dark, smoky drinking dens, and felt like we'd been transported back to the 1950s, the area having been preserved and avoiding the mass development happening around it. Many of the bars have themes, be it Halloween, Easy Rider or hospitalisation (Tachibana Shinsatsushitsu has cocktails such as Chounai Senjou ('colonic irrigation'), which looks like, well, a turd). After a wander, we decided on a bar called Araku, which we’d heard was a good one for gaijin (foreigners), many of the bars even refusing to serve non-regulars, never mind nosy Westerners. Araku had an Australian theme, in as much as it served kangaroo meat, but it was bigger than many of the bars, and the atmosphere wasn’t quite what we were looking for, so after a sake cocktail we moved on to NaNa, an Andalusian-themed bar with a few seats, where the only other patrons were a Japanese man and a 19-year-old cat called Ojo. The Golden Gai experience reminded us of Ikiru, a hauntingly beautiful 1950s Japanese film by Kurosawa. If you haven't seen it already, you definitely should.

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After drinks comes dinner, and what good dinners we had. We found a tempura restaurant called Tsunahachi, where we sat along a bar and watched the chef dunk prawns, white fish, squid and vegetables into tempura batter, which we then ate with rice, pickles and miso (the standard accompaniments to most meals). We ate fresh sushi at Tsukiji fish market, where tuna auctions take place every day at 5 a.m. There were izakayas, such as Donzoko, an old, ivy-covered, three-storey building with cosy booths and lots of dark wood. I can't remember how many matcha-flavoured goodies we tried: matcha ice cream, matcha kit-kats, matcha mochi, and good old matcha tea. At Kakiden we had kaiseki: a traditional Japanese multi-course meal consisting of beautifully presented morsels of exotic delicacies (more about kaiseki in my next post – it gets scary).

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There is so much I haven't mentioned: the famous Shibuya crossing (the 'scramble'); Hamarikyu gardens, where a floating teahouse provides a tranquil escape from the city; Senso-ji Temple, the largest temple in Tokyo; the plastic food in most of the restaurant windows – such an important business that factories employ actual sushi chefs to make the miniature food exactly to scale; and the girl we met in an izakaya, who was carrying around a bearded dragon (real) on a white tiger (not real). Tokyo is a beautiful, crazy city of extremes, and we'll miss it.

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Posted by Clammy Clemmies 08:17 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Cats, cowboys and conspiracy theories


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Another week, another flight. This time just a short hop from Louisiana to the next-door state of Texas. As in New Orleans, our time in Texas was punctuated with extreme weather; we arrived in San Antonio to flash floods and tornado warnings. Luckily, we escaped the worst of the weather, as we followed it up to Austin, and finally, Dallas.

But never fear. His'n'hers cagoules at the ready, we headed to the main sights on our agenda, including the Alamo Mission, where Texas fought for independence in 1836, and the San Antonio Paseo del Rio (River Walk), which starts in midtown and ends as the river joins the larger Guadalupe River to the south before flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.

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Texas is definitely made for cars, making my ideal of being a flâneur, wandering the streets and sitting in cafés more difficult. But in both San Antonio and Austin we had found neighbourhoods to stay in that we enjoyed exploring, even if they were spread out and on a Texas scale (cue the saying, 'Everything's bigger in Texas').

Southtown in San Antonio had a great selection of casual outdoor bars. Our favourites were the Friendly Spot and B&D Icehouse, the latter known for its excellent barbecue. We ate brisket with pickles, mac'n'cheese and Lone Star beer, whilst watching the sunset and playing with the local stray cat, aptly named Brisket.

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Despite the meat feast I've just mentioned, by this point we had realised that eating all our meals out every day was not going to be sustainable, neither for our wallets nor our stomachs, unless we wanted to sell all our belongings to buy extra seats on the plane. So we found a supermarket and bought healthy breakfast and lunch supplies, vowing to continue this practice for the rest of our trip. Our hosts in San Antonio had also given us fresh eggs from the chickens in the garden, another incentive to eat in.

Our bungalow in San Antonio really felt like home, not least because of Zorro, a formerly-feral cat adopted by our hosts, who made himself at home with us on the front porch. When I said I wanted to skip dinner to hang out with Zorro Matt became especially concerned about my increasing crazy cat lady ways, and the prospect of Japan's cat cafés did nothing to alleviate his fears.

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A few hours on the megabus and we were in Austin, in another AirBnB bungalow, this time just off South Congress Avenue, or SoCo (trying to be the cool kids again). SoCo is the home of the 'Keep Austin Weird!' movement, and the main strip houses an array of vintage clothes stores, trendy eateries and food trucks such as Ms P's Electric Cock.

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In Austin, there was another huge storm, just as we were getting ourselves lost looking for the Bullock State History Museum. Our timing was impeccable, though we were not, as we dragged our soggy, cagouled selves into the museum. Fortunately they took pity on us and let us in, which was just as well, as the museum taught us a lot about the history of Texas (I didn't just enjoy it because it was interactive, despite what Matt will tell you). Once the rain had stopped, the sun was blazing, and we took a turn about the gardens of the Texas State Capitol.

From Austin we took the Amtrak to Dallas, a mere six hours (twice as long as it would have taken by car). On the journey I watched The Last Picture Show, having just finished the book by Larry McMurtry, a well-known Texan author (most famous for Lonesome Dove). The book, and the film, gave me a good view of small-town Texas in the 1950s, though I'm trying to forget some of the more disturbing scenes involving cows. Don't let that put you off.

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With our arrival in Dallas, summer returned, and though you could see the damage left by the storms, the sun was out and the sweat was back on (not that we'd really stopped, as the storms just increased the humidity). Our hosts for the next few days were Stuart and Erica, a couple we had met just once before, on a drunken night in Marrakech last year. Our first night in Dallas went very much the same way, and we didn't envy Stuart and Erica having to get up for work the next morning.

Once our hangovers had subsided we decided, with two days in the area, to spend one day in Dallas and one in Fort Worth. In Fort Worth we spent some time in the Kimbell Art Museum, and then headed to the stockyards for a taste of cowboy culture. After the cattle drive, I managed to rustle up my own longhorn. Yee-ha!

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In Dallas, we visited the Sixth Floor Museum, and before we knew it we had spent over four hours in there, absorbing every panel, photo and video. From the window next to Lee Harvey Oswald's (alleged) sniper's nest, we tried to get our heads around the view below, where a large 'X' marks the spot on the road where Kennedy was hit by the fatal bullet. The obsession now in full swing, we both started reading Crossfire, Jim Marrs' hefty tome, and are cultivating our own conspiracy theory. The film JFK, which I mentioned in my last post, is based partly on Crossfire.

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On our last night in Dallas we attended our first ever baseball game: the Texas Rangers versus the Chicago White Sox, at the Rangers stadium in Arlington. Donned in the kit, I felt we might have become true Texans, but alas, it was time to move on. We're very grateful to Stuart and Erica (and Nora, the fluffiest, floppiest labradoodle) for welcoming us into their home, introducing us to their friends, showing us around their city, being our taxi service and providing us with some wonderful home-cooking, which was much needed. Our stay was the perfect end to the first half of our trip, and we left refreshed and invigorated, ready to face Japan. Just a short 24 hour stopover in LA and we were on our way across the Pacific.

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Posted by Clammy Clemmies 19:27 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Out of the frying pan, into the fire


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Back to civilisation… sort of. I'm not sure New Orleans, or at least the French Quarter, can be considered 'civilised'.

We arrived in the muggy heat of late evening and went straight to the oldest bar in New Orleans: LaFitte’s Blacksmith Shop on Bourbon Street. There was a heavy downpour and the rain steamed from the pavements. At a break in the storm, we left the pub and explored the French Quarter and Frenchmen Street. There was live jazz and blues floating out of every doorway, which made a nice change after the cheesy pop that seemed to be the norm in Nicaragua. On Elysian Fields, Matt tried not to be too annoyed at my dramatically shouting 'Stella! Stella for star!' on every corner.

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By the time we landed in New Orleans we were into the third week of our trip, and it was around then that it stopped feeling like a holiday and became 'travelling'. As such, we had to start thinking about doing some chores, such as laundry and stocking up on toiletries. Ah, the glamour. We took our laundry to Suds dem Duds and waited for it whilst drinking mint juleps in Napoleon House, an old, dark drinking den. (We later discovered that it features in the film JFK – see the next blog post on Texas.)

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The Quarter made Soho look conservative. Bars such as Huge Ass Beers sold 'go-cups' of beer and lurid daiquiris, and the bars and clubs start blaring out music early in the morning until, well, I don't think the party ever stops. There was a 1930s bar next-door to a heavy metal bar, dainty women in nylon stockings and finger waves chatting merrily on the street to leather-clad bikers.

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In between the important tasks of laundry and boozing, we found time to sit in Washington Square (technically still boozing, with our frozen neon daiquiris and huge ass beers. You know, when in Rome…). In the park I read a $50 fifth edition copy of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, which I'd 'accidentally' bought earlier from Dauphine Street Books, a wonderful second-hand bookstore with narrow aisles and books to the ceiling. Although the book is set in the 1960s, the essence of the French Quarter is the same today, and there are definitely still plenty of Ignatius J. Reillys wandering around.

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Of course, we also ate a lot. In the space of a few days we managed to cram in local dishes such as jambalaya, gumbo, po-boys, crawfish étouffée and blackened redfish, from places such as K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, Johnny's Po-boys, Coop's Place and Mr B's Bistro, where I had the best barbecue shrimp. There was a smoky scent of cajun in the air that we just couldn't resist.

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Our eating frenzy culminated in a particularly hearty brunch at the Ruby Slipper café on our last day. As well as eggs, cheesy grits, pulled pork, muffins and gallons of hollandaise, we decided a hair of the dog was necessary. I had a couple of bacon bloody marys, which each had at least three rashers of Canadian bacon in them, along with green beans and olives. This resulted in a dizzy spell and a need to lie down immediately. Matt wasn't feeling any better after his bottomless mimosas.

Luckily, our AirBnB accommodation, a quaint Creole cottage on the border of the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny, wasn't far away.

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It was a fleeting visit, and New Orleans is definitely on our list of places we'd like to visit again. Next time we might even make it out of the French Quarter.

Posted by Clammy Clemmies 02:18 Archived in USA Comments (0)

La victoria o la muerte


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We spent the rest of our time in Nicaragua in and around Granada, basing ourselves at the Hotel con Córazon (Hotel with a Heart), which invests 100% of its profits in local education projects. With several days here, we really got to know the streets and absorb the atmosphere. Whenever I go on a trip, I like to find a balance between sightseeing and pretending to live there. I like to get a ‘feel’ for a place rather than just running around museums and following a tourist trail all the time.

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So, whilst we made sure we saw all the major historical sights, and we loved learning about the colonial architecture, particularly the iconic Catedral de Granada and the Convento San Francisco, we also spent a lot of time sitting in cafes, reading and writing.

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Being the book geek that I am, I put a lot of thought into my travel reading list before we left the UK. Whenever I visit somewhere new I always choose a book (usually a novel) that is somehow related to that place. I find it really enhances my experience, and it will have a large bearing on my time there. I've read Hemingway in Cuba, Hideous Kinky in Marrakech, Miss Garnet's Angel in Venice, and Dracula in Transylvania.

During our time in Nicaragua, Matt and I both read the same two books: The Country Under My Skin, the autobiography of Gioconda Belli, an inspiring woman who joined the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) and played a big part as an intellectual revolutionary in the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979, as well as juggling another life as a wife and mother; and The Jaguar Smile by Salman Rushdie, which he wrote after his visit to the country in 1987. Without turning this blog into a history lesson, both books really helped us get our heads around this beautiful and strange country, and made it easier to understand how it has become the country it is today.

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Having read these two books, we were able to get more out of our visits to places such as the Cementerio de Granada, Central America's oldest cemetery, where six Nicaraguan presidents lie in grand, white tombs and mausoleums. There are also a lot of (smaller) stones with two flags painted on them: the blue and white Nicaraguan flag, and the black and red flag of the Sandinistas. These stones all had very similar dates of death, in the early 1980s, during the Contra War.

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Of course, sitting in cafes with a book or pen and paper often (well, always) goes hand in hand with eating and drinking, another of our favourite pastimes. Aside from an incident with an accidental avocado in an organic greens smoothie, which we won't talk about, the food we ate in Granada was excellent, with highlights including chicken tamales, fish tacos, tender steaks, and so much gallo pinto and fried cheese. Meals were usually washed down with coffee or cocktails, my favourite being the 'Macuá', Nicaragua's national cocktail, made with the national rum, Flor de Caña.

By far our favourite meal, though, was vigorón. In each corner of Parque Central, the main square, there is a colourful little kiosk selling this traditional Nicaraguan dish: a hearty pile of yuca (cassava-n appetite) with fried pork rind, pickles and cabbage, served on a banana leaf. This should be eaten with chicha de maíz, a bright pink corn-based drink, which is definitely more delicious than it sounds.

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After several days of enjoying the cuisine, we felt pretty slovenly, and regretted our pre-holiday laziness, realising that a few sessions of badminton had not turned us into Bear Grylls. So we hit the gym. Yes, the gym. I can't believe it either.

The local 'spa' was pretty shabby, and much of the gym equipment was broken. The gym was also outdoors, where a giant turtle called Snoopi roams the grounds. Working out in the almost 40 degree heat was definitely a challenge, and didn't help with the clamminess of the Clemmies. But after a workout (okay, ten minutes on the treadmill and a bit of yoga), we felt wholesome and smug, and finished off our health kick with kombucha – a fermented mushroom drink full of vitamins and good stuff (it actually tastes of ginger beer).

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Two weeks in, and a quarter of the way through our adventure, it feels strange to be getting on a plane to the US, and not back home. But as the sun sets in Central America, we're ready for the next stage of the journey.

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Posted by Clammy Clemmies 02:37 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

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