Are some risks good for your health?

Oh hi, remember me? It’s been a while I know. Let me explain.

Somehow, one of the most eventful months of my life just passed me by. Whoooosh! Gone! I didn’t consciously decide on a digital detox (although it has been rather nice in some ways). Nope, I accidentally used up every teeny ounce of spare time on getting my life back on track after my sneaky six-month stint of unemployment. New job, new home. That sort of thing. My poor little blog (and therefore my sanity) has taken a back seat. But all for a good cause. Promise.

I’ve only just taken a minute to consider that this wonderful, crazy, busy time in my life is a product of the challenge I set myself to follow a dream. Last year, I quit my job to travel, and the positive repercussions of taking that chance are still resonating right now. Taking the time, saving the money and having the confidence and determination to act on a dream you’d deeply regret ignoring is surely what it’s all about? I’ve ticked a huge thing off my list, but if anything, the satisfaction gained from pursuing a dream comes from the chase itself. The freedom. The gamble. The excitement. Last year, I took a huge risk and won, and I want you to you do the same.

I’m not saying that you should drop everything and go travel. It’s on the list for some people but it definitely isn’t the answer for everyone. I’m not advocating shirking your responsibilities either. Only you know where they truly lie. This post is to encourage you to follow your dream, challenge yourself, and live outside your comfort zone – whatever those things may mean for you. I embraced my biggest fear. I ventured into the unknown. And it quite literally changed my life.

You know the story by now. This time last year, I was in a permanent state of panic. Things weren’t going right, and I couldn’t bear the lack of control. My family experienced massive upheaval and sadness. I felt worried, lost, anxious and scared. My OCD reared its ugly head, and suddenly the entire world frightened the shit out of me. Leaving the house each morning became a bit of a challenge.

Think, for a moment, about doing something scary. Like public speaking or a terrifying roller-coaster ride. You feel unstoppable afterwards. So, picture embracing your BIGGEST FEAR. Actually standing up to it. Imagine how euphoric you’d feel then? Now imagine spending 6 months deliberately doing things that terrify you. Imagine how you’d feel then. Good things happen when you challenge yourself in the right way, and amazing things happen when you learn to see things from a different perspective. It becomes so much easier to see the positives in everything. It’s cheesy as hell, but changing your life can’t happen unless you do something that profoundly changes your mind.

My blog has always been about sharing life lessons, because learning from the hardest challenges and the darkest moments is one of the best ways of getting the most out of your life. Your one precious life. If my legacy as a writer could be anything, it would be getting people to squeeze every last bit out of the time they’ve been given, to reassure everyone that the bad stuff isn’t supposed to hold you back, it’s supposed to help you grow into something more beautiful and more inspiring than you would have ever been without it.

So what’s the key to success? Look. Forward. Never back. Life moves in one direction, and if you want to be successful, you have no choice but to move with it. When something goes wrong, you can wallow in self-pity for a while. But when you’ve gathered a bit of strength, you have to fight back and move on. Survival will kick in eventually, and when it does, use the adrenaline to actually thrive, doing something you love.

Remember that everyone you know, even the successful, happy people, are ‘going through something’ right now. Everyone. In some shape or form. Because absolutely everyone has to deal with life. You are not different or unlucky, you are alive. Everyone is born into more or less fortunate circumstances, sure, but that doesn’t mean you are predestined to win or lose. Your happiness, your progress and your attitude are completely your choice. And your responsibility.

Look at TV presenter Katie Piper for example. I am so inspired by her. Something evil happened to her and she refused to let it win. It isn’t luck that’s made her a successful, hugely inspiring person; it’s will power and an incredible amount of passion for what she does. She wasn’t about to let getting acid thrown in her face get in the way of her dreams, so what’s stopping you from following yours? If you want something badly enough, you have to fight for it. You have to be strong and brave.

I’ll allow myself this little break from blogging because since the last post I wrote, I have spent proper time with my family, started a new job, been to the most memorable festival with friends, moved into a new house in a new area that we love, and actually got round to throwing an engagement party. And I did all these things because in December 2015 I left my job and followed my dream – my dream of living a full and exciting life. To look forward no matter what.

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The best books I’ve read this year

Summer solstice is fast approaching, provoking, as always, nostalgic thoughts of the year so far. As well as travelling, writing and getting engaged, I have thankfully found the time to read some bloody good books. So whatever your plans are for the next six months of 2016, I urge you to reserve time in your diaries for these life-enhancing reads.

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

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After I fell helplessly in love with The Goldfinch last summer, I decided I had better read Donna Tartt’s hugely successful first novel, The Secret History. The plots couldn’t be more different but there is the same strong undercurrent running through both novels: how far is too far? How necessary is it to push moral boundaries? And what are the consequences? The story is told by Richard, who unexpectedly finds himself as part of an elite, mysterious group of misfits in his first year at Hampden College. He becomes the otherness he used to observe, and is heavily involved in the brutal murder of a friend as a result.

Mrs Hemmingway, by Naomi Wood

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If you have ever loved been obsessed with someone you know is bad for you, please read this book. Played out between Ernest Hemmingway’s four incredibly different wives, Naomi Wood focuses sacrifice, identity, power, and all the cloudy areas in between for her chosen account of the character’s real-life intimacies. She unveils the human heart as the most complicated contraption. I spent most of the book loving to hate Hemmingway, and then I accidentally fell in love with him myself.

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

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As someone who frequently experiences déjà vu and whatever the hell the actually is, I found the concept of Life After Life quite fascinating in a ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ kind of way. It depicts Ursula Todd, who lives her life over and over again every time she dies, with the added benefit of ‘knowing’ what might come next, without really knowing at all. The result? Killing Hitler, of course. I absolutely loved this book. It’s so clever. The heroine is such an inspiring character. She reminds us of the good we are capable in darker times, and that the unknown is not always something to fear.

A God In Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

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Not a sequel but a ‘sister book’ to Life After Life, A God In Ruins tells the full story of Ursula’s brother, Teddy. I would definitely still recommend reading Life After Life first; the juxtaposition between Teddy’s character as a boy in the first book and a (sometimes elderly) man in the second is too stark and purposeful to ignore. This book contrasts mundane routine with the ‘glory’ of war, reminding us of the discomfort and detachment there is to be found in both. Atkinson no longer plays God, but continues to play with time in a slightly unnerving way.

Reasons to Stay Alive, by Matt Haig

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Reasons To Stay Alive perfectly expresses all the things you wish you knew how to say to someone suffering with depression, as well as to yourself. It also addresses and includes anxiety, bi-polar, OCD and many other mental conditions in the same breath. Acclaimed author Matt Haig wrote this book about his battle with depression and anxiety as a way of proving to other sufferers that a) talking about depression and anxiety is the first step to controlling it, b) there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, and c) you are never alone. Even if you think you know it all, reading this book will change the way you think about depression and anxiety. It is honest, funny and beautifully written.

The Last Act of Love, by Cathy Rentzenbrink

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Easily the best book I’ve read this year, purely because it’s the bravest. Brace yourself before you embark on this incredibly moving journey with author Cathy Rentzenbrink. She wrote this book about love out of the purest love there is. She wrote this book about her brother, Matty, and how a car accident turned their lives into a living nightmare. Cathy Rentzenbrink is my newest idol. I suddenly saw sense in the ‘bad things’ in my life; the painfully uncontrollable things. Reading this book encourages you to accept more than you’re think you’re capable of, simply because the possibility of a love as strong as Cathy’s exists.

I would love to know your reading recommendations for the rest of the year! Comments below welcome, as always.

How would you spend 3 weeks in South East Asia?

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I don’t know about you, but before I went away, 3 weeks used to pass me by like that. Blink and it’s gone, with not an awful lot to show for it. Numerous hangovers and some new shoes from Zara. My break from the clock-distorting rat race has thankfully taught me this: I was wishing time away, and not really considering what I spent it on. Never, ever do this. Time is our greatest asset. The more we have the better. I’ve had the absolute priviledge of doing something amazing for the first half of this year. I turned all my money into time. 6 months away from my life. The result? I know full well how much you can do with your time if you spend it wisely.

Now, there’s the small fact that most of us have a job. This takes up a great deal of our time, I know. I really do. I might have been unemployed since January, but once upon a time I had a real job. Time and your weekends are literally the most precious things in the world. Which is why I struggle now more than ever to understand the relationship we have with our phones, the TV and the internet. Myself included. If time is so valuable, why do we spend hours scrolling through Instagram and watching ridiculous videos of things that may or may not be real pandas? We might not be able to hike to the nearest waterfall, but surely there’s still a whole world out there to explore? Even if it’s just a stroll along the river and dinner with friends.

So anyway, as you know, our time away was cut short when we sadly flew home for my dear Grandad’s funeral in May. Our weeks away suddenly felt finite and we realised that if we flew back to Asia (which we did) we could only afford to go for just under 4 weeks. Having already travelled for 4 months, we knew full well just how much you could see of the world in that short space of time, so we repacked our backpacks and flew back to Bangkok.

I’ve written this post to demonstrate how much you can see and do if you really put your mind to it, and to show that it is possible to ‘go travelling’ for less than a month, which is much more achievable for most people. Last year Joe and I spent close to £2000 on a week in Ibiza. This year we spent roughly the same on 10 days in Northern Thailand and 2 weeks in Vietnam. Here are some of the most memorable things we were able to do in that time.

Watch the sunset over Pai’s famous canyon

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After a night in Bangkok, we flew to Chiang Mai and then took the 3 hour bus to Pai. A notoriously chilled out, tourist-friendly town in the mountains. The scenery is incredibly beautiful and it was so easy to get back into the swing of things.

Look after the elephants

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After our day with Wildlife Friends Foundation at the very start of our travels, I was determined to visit a similar elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, one that stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of actually caring for the animals. So many of the parks claim to be rehabilitation centres when in fact they still let ignorant tourists ride on the elephants’ backs, scaring them into submission. Elephant Nature Park provides a safe haven for rescued elephants, and does a huge amount to educate tourists on the painful and complicated history of elephant tourism in Thailand, particularly when it comes to elephant riding, trekking, logging and shows. None of which are OK.

Learn to cook Thai food

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I’m so glad I did a cookery class in Chiang Mai. I was worried it would be too complicated for someone as useless in the kitchen as me, but it was so easy and chilled. ‘A’, the teacher at Thai Orchid Cookery School made it really fun. We cooked a load of Thai classics: spring rolls, pad Thai, green curry, yellow curry, sweet and sour vegetables and tom yam soup. AND we got to eat everything we cooked.

Visit lots and lots of temples

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Chiang Mai is absolutely surrounded by temples. You can’t walk down the street without spying a looming golden Buddha, turret or passageway.

Drink cold beer after dark

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The thing about it being 40°C in the day is that it turns you into an even bigger night person. I’m not ashamed to say that my favourite part of the day was generally sundown with a beer in my hand.

Spend the night somewhere beautiful

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A must-do trip from Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, we stayed on a boat at Halong Bay with Viola Cruise. We had a really nice room, amazing food, trips to the floating village, beach and cave, lovely company on the boat and the most incredible view as far as the eye can see.

Cycle through rice fields

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You’re never far from scenic rice fields in Vietnam, and some tours include a spot of cycling if you’re after a dramatic backdrop for photos. We went to Ninh Binh from Hanoi, which took about 3 hours by bus.

Always take the scenic route, by boat

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Also in Nihn Binh are local people wanting to take you down the river in their boats. The scenery is astounding and it was a lovely tranquil ride but they did demand more money from us after we’d already paid so be prepared.

Help local students with their English

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We were approached by a group of students wanting to practice their English, but there are opportunities to volunteer with young adults if you’d like to lend a hand during your trip. These particular students study in Da Nang and have a drop in centre…

Find the best views

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Never exactly hard when you’re somewhere as scenic as Vietnam, but sometimes finding natural beauty when you’re staying in the heart of the city is hard. Bach Ma National Park is under 2 hours drive from Hue, and the view from the top of the 300 ft waterfall was one of the best I’ve ever seen.

Trek through the jungle

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Whilst at Bach Ma we also trekked through the jungle, ticking off 5 different waterfalls, each filling a crystal-blue pool. The national park is 2km up in the mountains, so the air feels cool and clean  after the stifling heat and stickiness of the city.

Get caught in thunder storms

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Despite visiting during the start of the rainy season, we only saw a couple of storms. One of them trapped us under the bamboo roof of a beach bar and the other soaked us on an hour-long motorbike ride back down a mountain.

Explore ancient ruins

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We originally wanted to spend a week in Cambodia as I’ve always wanted to see Angkor Wat, so Vietnam’s Mỹ Sơn was a bit of a substitute. Nowhere near the same scale, but a really interesting architectural site none the less, particularly because it was bombed in the war.

Visit a local village

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On the way to Mỹ Sơn from Hoi An there’s a small local pottery village overlooking the mountains. Stop for a coffee and test your skills on the pottery wheel. I was terrible.

Buy a custom-made suit

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We went to a wedding in the Cotswolds the day after we flew home, so it made sense for Joe to get a custom-made suit in Vietnam. Hoi An is famous for it, and it’s shockingly cheap. Joe’s was made by Yaly, and I was so impressed. You choose the colour, fit, fabric etc and they do the rest. £120 for a high-quality suit and shirt.

Eat incredible Vietnamese food

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In Hoi An, we stayed with a Vietnamese family who had just opened their homestay, Flame Flowers. We were their guinea pigs, and every day they served us a different Vietnamese breakfast to see what we liked best, usually consisting of coffee, noodle soup, green leafy vegetables and fruit. It was honestly some of the freshest, tastiest food I’ve ever eaten, along with the Pho, Com Ga, Bun Bo and Bahn Mi street food of course.

Fall in love with a city

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My favourite place in Vietnam, Hoi An is a beautiful, historial, ancient town. Every road is lined with flowering trees and decorated with lights and paper lanterns. French architecture in pretty pastel shades line the walking streets, with plenty of arty cafes, shops and restaurants overlooking the river. It is very touristy though, so we really enjoyed staying a short bicycle ride away from town with the locals.

End on a high

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Ho Chi Minh is either where you’ll start or where you’ll end up if you visit Vietnam. We ended our trip here in the chaos. Once you get over the insane traffic and noise you’ll notice the shopping, museums, bars and restaurants. We went to Pasteur Street Brewery for beer tasting, Hum Vegetarian Restaurant for a lovely last dinner, and Snuffbox Lounge 1920s themed bar for the best gin cocktails.

Whether you’re planning a trip of your own or thinking of ways to make this summer count, I hope this post puts into perspective just how long 3 weeks can be! Making every day count isn’t easy when you’re faced with an all-consuming job and daily routine, so remember to make time for the moments that will stay with you long after.

10 common fears travelling helped me conquer

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Two years ago, when I promised myself I would save up and see the world, I didn’t fully predict the mammoth effect it would have on my future happiness. I felt the weight of the importance to travel, but I didn’t really know why. I wanted to address the other-culture ignorance I was born with as a fortunate westerner, but I wasn’t aware of the sheer impact travelling would have on the way I interpret things. Going away didn’t help me ‘find myself’ (the beauty of travelling aged 26 is that I have a pretty good idea of who I am), rather, it helped me to have faith in the world.

The fear and anxiety I was living with a year ago, and have talked about a lot, always felt very separate to my personality. It was alien to me. Travelling didn’t encourage me to shape my identity, it reaffirmed to me what I already hoped was a myth. That fear and phobias are not truths, and they can be overcome. In short, travelling made me see that I was scared of things for no reason. OCD-induced anxiety is not ‘me’ or a product of a messy world, but an ugly phenomenon all of its own. One that can be confronted with a little will power and courage.

I am the same person as before, only calmer and less worried, with a much better perception of people, politics and environmental affairs. I have learned to look outwards, rather than forever seek for the answers within. I have broken the spell the media and my mind cast over me, that the world is a scary place. So here are 10 incredibly common fears that travelling finally helped me address.

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1. The fear of flying

Very few people actually enjoy flying, and plenty of us are completely terrified by the idea. But, quite simply, if you refuse to board that plane, you will never see the beauty that awaits you on the other side. Yes, there is a minute possibility something terrible will happen. But there is also a possibility that you will be (God forbid) hit by a car today. One is incredibly slim, and the other is even slimmer. It is always, always worth the risk. Which is barely a risk at all. I have boarded a plane every couple of weeks for 6 months. At first I feared the worst, and now a bad thought barely crosses my mind.

2. The fear of losing things

Being fairly (very) absent minded, I often misplace things. I have also been robbed in broad daylight in London. Combine the above with a once very materialistic attitude and you have a pretty persistent worry of objects you love going missing. Travelling makes you more mindful of what you really need, which turns out to be not a lot. As long as you have your passport and some money, you’re ok. When my backpack got  lost on the flight from Bali to New Zealand, I was distraught at first, but soon realised that it wasn’t the end of the world. I still double check I have my phone every few minutes, but more for the fear of losing precious photos, rather than the phone itself.

3. The fear of being attacked

Obviously it’s important to keep your wits about you when you’re in a new place or walking about at night, and there are some places you cannot go alone or even at all, but worrying people are out to get you is a waste of time and energy. I used to convince myself every stranger might want to kill me, which seems ridiculous now. The best way of proving yourself wrong is to compile a load of evidence against your own theories. I must have walked past thousands and thousands of perfect strangers, in hundreds of different neighbourhoods in 10 different countries, and felt threatened by absolutely no one. Not a soul wanted to hurt me, so what was I so afraid of?

4. The fear of embarrassing yourself in front of strangers

People do not analyse and criticise you the way you do yourself. Remember that next time you’re worried about giving something a go. Better to try and do something badly than sit back and watch. Because you’ll never learn anything otherwise. Try saying hello in a new language, play beer pong when you’re rubbish at throwing and never be afraid to ask questions that might seem silly. The satisfied feeling of getting over the initial embarrassment lasts much longer than the embarrassment itself. Travelling and meeting people from different walks of life has taught me that everyone worries about how they’re perceived from time to time, but the the most inspiring people don’t let it get in the way, or give a shit what people think.

5. The fear of not looking your best

My relationship with makeup, clothes and general self maintenance has gone round and round in circles over the last 6 months. I still want to look my best if and when I have the time, but the pressure to look perfect has definitely been lifted. There are so many better ways to spend your time and energy. Yes I still like to shave my legs and brush my hair, but I don’t feel uncomfortable about wearing the same outfit two days running or foregoing mascara. Life is too short for perfection. Look after yourself for God’s sake, but don’t let your day revolve around it.

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6. The fear of eating contaminated food

Whilst in Asia, do not assume that street food will give you the shits. Some of the best food I’ve ever eaten cost 50p from the road side. Having said that, do not take the importance of hygiene for granted. There is a balance. I would avoid anything that hasn’t been cooked fresh in front of you. Sometimes you might be unlucky, but don’t let the fear of getting ill stop you from trying new foods. Use your common sense. Common sense is much more finely tuned when fear is absent.

7. The fear of being in a fatal accident

When you’re travelling, it’s kind of weird how much you trust your life with strangers. From bus drivers to scuba instructors to tour guides, your knowledge of a situation is often completely dependent on someone you hardly know. The best piece of advice I can give is to trust that it’s better to be in the hands of an expert stranger than fend for yourself, but also to stay alert to any potential danger. Do not assume you are going to die on a choppy boat journey or dodgy drive along a cliff edge. Fear will inhibit your mind. Simply go with it until you feel in your heart something might be wrong. Be open about anything you’re concerned about, and make educated decisions with the help of others in the same situation.

8. The fear of not being in control

One of the most impactful products of OCD is needing to feel constantly in control. This often provokes habits, rituals and ways of thinking as a way of regaining any control that has been lost. Even if you’re travelling alone, you will never feel completely in control. This is a blessing. Your boat is supposed to leave at 2pm but doesn’t leave until 4pm, you’re covered in insect bites even though you’ve rinsed a whole bottle of DEET, you only had three G&Ts but you threw up over the side of a tuk tuk, you lost your backpack even though you spent so long deciding what to take, you burnt your face even though you tried really hard to stay awake, you came straight off your moped even though you were driving as safely as you could, you got caught in a storm but the weather app promised it would be sunny. Shit. Happens. To everyone. No matter how careful you are. The more you stop trying to control everything, the better you will feel. Things can’t go right all the time, where would be the fun in that? Where would be the stories?

9. The fear of heights

When I think of being up high, my toes go numb and a frenzied caterpillar of fear crawls up the back of my ankles. I’m not sure when I developed this. Probably with age. The cure? Jump out of a plane. Go on roller coaster rides, bungee jump, ski and climb mountains. Find enjoyment in fear and learn to interpret the adrenaline as a good thing. Fear makes us feel alive, so we’re lucky to be able to experience such an intense feeling. The feeling of coming face to face with your fear is sometimes enough to make you overcome it. You will feel powerful, alive and in control, but only because you first felt afraid. Turn negative feelings into positive actions, because they’re the strongest of all.

10. The fear of things going wrong

One of the most important and life-changing things travelling has helped me confront, is the need for everything to be a certain way. Before, if something didn’t go exactly to plan, I felt so uncomfortable I would rather go back to bed than face the unpredictable day ahead. As you can probably imagine, during a loosely planned and long trip around the world, things frequently went wrong, or our plans changed, or we had to act very spontaneously. The beautiful thing is that when something went ‘wrong’ or differently to how I imagined, it often worked out for the best. It very quickly became apparent that just ‘going with it’ and not sticking to a strict plan opened the most amazing doors along the way. For example, in El Nido, we booked ourselves onto a ‘party boat’ tour of the islands, only to discover it had been cancelled after we waited around for 2 hours. We were pretty upset. Time is precious and all the other tour boats had left the bay. Then quite out of nowhere we bumped into Tom and Maddie, who owned a boat and offered to take us anywhere we liked for a fraction of the price. We loaded up the boat with food, beer and speakers (and Lydia, their puppy) and sailed off to the most beautiful islands, where we had our own party. It was the best afternoon imaginable and we were so sure the day was ruined just hours before. The lesson? Things can always get better, and sometimes better than ever. But first, sometimes something has to go wrong.

I am not fear and worry free, but I can honestly say have learned the value of acceptance. What happens to you is often completely out of your control, so better to fret less and live more. If I can do that, you definitely can too.

10 must-do things in Japan

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Determined to satisfy an obsession with all things Japanese, we sidestepped the usual travellers’ trail and went from the South-East Asia all the way up to Japan. Best. Decision. Ever. Japan is overwhelmingly different from anywhere else you’ve been before, retaining a rock-solid sense of identity through it’s unique culture, rituals, history and beliefs. There is so much to see, from beautiful artistry to the down right weird. It’s also nowhere near as expensive as I thought, catering for every type of traveller (if you book in advance). Mind blowing architecture, seriously good food, the very latest trends, incredible scenery, technology to make you look twice, gaming, shopping, wildlife and art.  Japan is a Mecca for those who find intrigue and wonder in the very idea of otherness. I’ve narrowed down our 3-week trip into these 10 amazing must-do things.

1. See the bright lights of Tokyo

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That image of Tokyo you have in your head, of neon signs towering up to the skies, as far as the eye can see? That’s Shinjuku (see also Shibuya and Ueno). Go there at night and walk around in amazement. I felt starstruck, like I’d walked onto a film set. We drank whisky with strangers in Golden Gai, a hipster-heaven composition of about 200 tiny bars crammed into a few narrow backstreets. I had one of the moments where you just feel like you’re precisely where you’re supposed to be.

2. Picnic under the cherry blossom

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We chose to visit Japan during cherry blossom season (Late March to April), which is one of the most beautiful times to go. Soft pink confetti fills every other tree and what was just a plain grey street is decorated with paper lanterns and treated as a premium picnic destination. There are loads of great places to see the cherry blossom in its full glory. My favourites were the Meguru River and Kanazawa Castle grounds, which are both spectacularly lit up at night.

3. Ski the Japanese Alps (and see the snow monkeys)

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Exploring Asia for 6 months, we didn’t exactly expect to see snow, let alone go skiing, but realising we’d catch the end of Japan’s ski season, we spontaneously made our way across to Yudanaka and rented absolutely everything from a hotel in Shigakogen’s Inchinose ski resort. It was amazing to have such a massive change of scenery and we pretty much had the slopes to ourselves. Whilst in the area, we also went to visit the snow monkeys, you know the ones on snowy nature programs that bathe in hot springs? Definitely go and see them in real life.

4. Spend all your time (and money) in Kyoto

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Whether you’re looking for fine dining, hip wine bars or a bit of serious shopping, Kyoto has got you covered. This fashionable city has a really cool vibe and there is so much to do. Get drunk with the locals down buzzy Pontocho Street, raid the vintage wonders of Three Star retro clothing and eat the best Ramen of your life at 1000 winds (just opposite). We also spent the day wondering up and down Philosopher’s Walk, bathed in the beauty of the golden pavillion and found the most amazing bakeries along the way.

5. Take in the temples of Koyasan

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A train, cable car and bus ride away from Kyoto or Osaka (roughly 3 hours), you’ll find the spiritual mountain town of Koyasan. An area completely dominated by beautiful temples and home to many Buddhist monks. Some of the monks run their temples like guest houses, giving you the opportunity to spend the night. We stayed at Fukuchi-In, which is the most incredible Japanese building and felt very much like sleeping in a museum. We were served a huge Vegetarian dinner and breakfast in our rooms, relaxed in the lovely Onsen and attended the morning prayer ceremony at sunrise. Be sure to walk through Mount Koya’s woodland cemetery.

6. Walk with wild deer in Nara

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In Japan, deer are considered messengers of the gods. In Nara, they are everywhere. It was a really surreal wandering around the temples, being followed by wild deer. You can buy crackers and, believe it or not, the deer bow for you, asking to be fed.

7. Pause for thought in Hiroshima

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A volunteer tour guide took us around the Peace Park, and I’m so glad he did because it gave the attack on Hiroshima and the significance of the park the proper context, hearing the story and facts from an older Japanese person. I wasn’t quite ready for the horror of the museum. The remnants, memories and actual artefacts from the bombing are chilling, but essential for really driving home what happened. The park represents the importance of never letting something so awful happen again.

8. Take the ferry to Miyajima

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Just 10 minutes by boat from Hiroshima, Miyajima is undoubtedly one of the prettiest places in Japan. Deemed a world heritage site because of its natural beauty, the floating shrine and famous temples sit in harmony with the surrounding, somehow managing the enhance the landscape even more. We followed the three-hour walking trail to the top of Mount Misen and took in the astounding views of the mainland from across the sea.

9. Spend the night in a Ryokan

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If you’re looking for an authentic Japanese experience – the slippers, the kimonos, the onsen, the futons, the tatami mats, the tea – book yourself into a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese guest house. Be prepared to sleep on the floor, change your slippers every five minutes and bathe naked with strangers.

10. Eat ALL the food

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Obviously the food is what attracts most of us to visiting Japan. We didn’t have a single bad meal. Even supermarket sushi is amazing. Ramen from Ichiran (Tokyo) and 1000 Winds (Kyoto), conveyor belt sushi, Tako-Yaki  (octopus pancake balls) on Dontonburi Street (Oskaka), deep fried oysters, grilled eel, green tea ice cream, yakitori (meat on a stick), tempura, Udon from Omen (Kyoto), yakiniku (cooking your own meat at your table), shojin (vegetarian buddhist cuisine), just to name a few favourites.

If you’re planning a trip to Japan and need any more tips, please don’t hesitate to ask!

Finding light in the dark

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‘Six months is nothing’, they said. ‘When you come back, everything will be exactly the same.’

March 2016 was easily one of the happiest times of my whole life. I was in the Philippines, my boyfriend proposed. I was so tanned, so healthy and had absolutely everything to look forward to.

In April, everything changed. Well, not everything. One thing changed enough to make all the good things look different. Once upon a time I would have seen this as a sign that maybe I didn’t deserve to be as happy as I was. Now, I simply refuse to feel sorry for myself. What good can it possibly do? I still have all of those wonderful things (apart from maybe the tan). It’s so important (and often so bloody difficult) to focus on what we’ve been blessed with, rather than fixate on the negatives.

I wrote this post to comfort others as much as myself. Because sometimes terrible things happen. And the only way to make them less so, is to find the strength to interpret them in a positive way. A while back, I made a decision to have faith in the world around me no matter what, so I really have no other choice.

It’s something I worried about over again and again, without ever truly believing it would happen. That I would receive that heartbreaking phone call when so very far from home. Losing someone is never, ever easy, but finding out when I was minutes away from boarding a plane from Kuala Lumpur to Japan is one of the most painful experiences of my life.

What happens when you’ve assigned a limited amount of time and all of your money to fulfilling your dreams, and something happens to make you wonder why you ever wanted to be away from home at all? Because everything you really care about is a million miles away. You can plan every detail of your life six months in advance, only to find out repeatedly that you will never have full control. On 8th April 2016, my wonderful grandad died, and we made the decision to fly home.

Although I could talk forever about the strength of my family, or the beautiful send off we gave him, what I want to share is the light I’ve managed to salvage from the dark. That even though I’ve lost someone too soon and my family are suffering, I will not crawl into a corner, angry and afraid. I will be strong for them and for myself. Because that is the least we can do for the people we love.

There is so much hope to be found when it’s least expected, if only we discipline our minds and hearts enough to find it. Death is the only reason our lives mean anything, and grief teaches us so much about love. I said this in another post about death; that being prepared to grieve for someone is the same as being prepared to die for someone. They are the bravest declarations of love we can make. They prove that you believe in something much bigger than the constrains of life and death.

Be open to the possibility of a force affecting the order of things, and you’ll realise how much you want it to be true. If a bird of prey circles my head the day my grandad dies, and then again, in a different country, the day of his funeral. I will believe it means something. I don’t care if it’s just a coincidence, because I believe enough to make it true to me. I found something lovely in something very sad, and that means I know I’ll be ok.

In fact, lots of my family members experienced weird and comforting coincidences around my grandad’s death. He had dementia, but knew everyone’s names and played the harmonica during his last days. I even spoke to him on Skype. I keep seeing the Ferguson tractor he had and was handed free samples of his favourite drink (Baileys) at a food festival. It doesn’t matter that I’m probably just more tuned into these things now he’s all I can think about. All that matters is that my grandad’s death is shrouded in meaning. There is so much comfort to be found in that small, simple fact. That a random case of life and death has so much definition and significance in the minds of the people who loved that person. People live forever with us that way.

‘The ghosts of the people we love live inside of us, and like that we keep them alive.’

So it will probably come as no surprise that even though our money pot is dwindling and our plans have gone completely out of the window, we’ll be flying back to Asia tomorrow, having spent two weeks at home. Determined to finish our travels on a positive, and to continue to have faith in life, we’ll be spending the next couple of months in Northern Thailand and Vietnam, before volunteering on an organic farm in Spain. Because if there’s one thing death teaches you, it’s that you only have one chance to tick all those things off your list. Just one.

I was so fortunate to have known my grandad for 26 years, and will remember him by continuing to make the best possible memories I can for myself and my family, just like he always did for us. Having a positive reaction to a negative thing is really fucking hard, but I hope this story inspires you to be brave enough to do the same.

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Where to go in the Philippines

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Despite the English-speaking natives and famous white-sand beaches, the Philippines still hasn’t quite found its way onto the typical travellers’ route. This is a good thing. Spanning over thousands of islands, there is still so much untouched, untainted paradise to discover. As with all less-trodden paths however, navigation and knowing what to expect is still a little harder to grasp than tourist-friendly Thailand. Planning a trip to the Philippines demands time and research, but I promise it will pay off in the end. Whatever you’re searching for, whether its the chance to experience traditional village life, see some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, be amongst a buzzing crowd of inquisitive tourists or find a secluded island of your own, this fast-rising country has more than your imagination is capable of. I was lucky enough to spend a month there, so here’s my recommendation of where to visit and why.

 
CEBU CITY
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We flew from Singapore to Cebu in order to make our way through the mainland and up to the islands of Bantayan and Malapascua. We stopped over in Cebu City for the night and despite appearances (chaotic roads and concrete slums), we had the best evening at what looked like a seedy bar and turned out to be the best live cover band I’ve ever heard, at El Gecko Bar.

We stayed at Tropical Hostel, which was amazing value with really lovely staff.

BANTAYAN
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The very epitome of traditional island life, Bantayan is yet to succumb to mass tourism despite offering the most incredible beaches. We paid a tricycle driver to take us to ‘Paradise Beach’, which we had entirely to ourselves, and ‘Virgin Island’ which is another level of perfection, a short boat journey away. We bought fish from the local market which our boat driver prepared for lunch. The town, Santa Fe, comprises a few narrow streets of shops, food stalls and bars hidden beneath rows of Palm trees and pink flowers. It is such beautiful island.

We stayed at Sunday Flower Resort, which is right on the beach and feels like you’re living among the locals rather than staying as a guest.

MALAPASCUA
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We took a tiny boat that had no seats and kept filling up with water from Bantayan to Malapascua. It was terrifying and took 3 hours but is so much quicker than going back to the mainland to get the ferry. The water is really calm in March, otherwise I would have chosen the longer route! Malapascua is a tiny island with pure-white sand and incredible mountain views, built up solely for diving. The strip of dive centres doubles as beach-front restaurants, bars and hotels. We did a day trip with Evolution Divers, who have the biggest boat, and saw sharks, sea snakes and sea horses.

We stayed at Blue Corals, which has its own sunset bar out to sea and a private sun loungers on the beach. Although, we did have to shower using a bucket!

 

KANDAYA
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Kandaya isn’t an island or region in the Philippines, it’s a luxury resort on the northern coast of Cebu. It isn’t cheap, but it is the perfect option for a very special occasion. Joe proposed to me here, and it will forever be my ‘happy place’. Think ultra-modern villas on the beach, private infinity pools, horse stables, golf carts to ferry you about and a absolute tranquility.

BOHOL
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Bohol is famous for two things: Chocolate Hills and Tarsias.  Chocolate Hills is a unique formation of huge coral-rock hills covered green grass that turns brown in the dry season, resembling a box of chocolates as far as the eye can see. Tarsias are the world’s tiniest primate and can only be found in Bohol. You can easily see both and much more in a one-day tour. I would also suggest the river cruise for lunch and Panglao’s lively Alona Beach for dinner and drinks.

We stayed at Villa Juana, just down from Alona Beach, and the hosts were so friendly. They drove us around to see the sights, feeding us sweets and satsumas.

 

PEURTO PRINCESA
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We flew to Manila to meet friends that had travelled all the way from the UK to meet us (that’s love) and the next day took another flight to Palawan. Peurto Princesa is the capital and is worth sticking around for before doing what most people do and heading up to El Nido. We did the Honda Bay island hopping tour which was amazing. Snorkelling, a beautiful sand bar, BBQ lunch and a pristine white beach (with added banana boat ride) to finish. We also did the underwater-river tour, which is astounding  to see but very touristy and long-winded as a day trip. Head down to Rizal Avenue or The Bay Walk for dinner (we loved La Terrasse).

We stayed at Julieta’s Pension House, and Julieta herself was the loveliest lady. We also stayed at the Acacia Tree when we passed back through, which is a beautiful hotel with a pool and clean, comfy, modern rooms. Probably my favourite hotel in the 4 months I’ve been travelling.

 
EL NIDO
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Located in the north of Palawan, El Nido has a reputation as one of the most beautiful places in the Philippines. The rumours are true. It’s stunning, and although busy, it’s also a lot less built up than I thought. A traveller’s paradise. The best beaches are off the mainland, so you’re completely dependant on sorting a boat for the day. We skipped the crowded tours and found a really lovely couple (Tom and Maddie who run Pink Pirate) that would take a different route to avoid the crowds. We were rewarded with having El Nido’s infamous ‘Big Lagoon’ to ourselves, dropping anchor right in the heart of it for a BBQ on the boat. Las Cabanas Beach is on the mainland, and has wonderful views of the Bacuit Archipelago (surrounding islands). It’s also home to a couple of beach bars with surprisingly good music, snacks and cocktails. The best thing about El Nido? The sunset. Grab a table and some tapas early doors at Republika Sunset Bar, or sea kayak your way across the horizon.

We stayed at Islandfront, which was right on Corong Corong beach and a short tricycle from Las Cabanas and El Nido Town. The views are incredible, which just about makes up for the lack of running water. We really embraced ‘island life’ here, and then we all got sick. So worth it though.

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If you’d like more information about any of the places we visited in the Philippines, please don’t hesitate to comment below!