A year of travelling in review – highlights from 2014

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Between us we covered quite some distance this year, making around 250 trips! Here’s a sample of our most memorable experiences and discoveries. Season’s Greetings from all of us in the International Data Research team!

Favourite locations visited in 2014

Nick: Kigali, Rwanda – the ‘land of a thousand hills’ was a real eye-opener. The country is green, the weather was great and it felt safe to wander the streets of the capital. I wasn’t sure whether it would be insensitive to ask questions about the country’s bloody past but the locals spoke openly about the 1994 genocide and seemed optimistic about the country’s future.

St John’s, Canada is North America’s ‘oldest’ city and has some pretty colourful streets!

St John’s, Canada is North America’s ‘oldest’ city and has some pretty colourful streets!

Rachel: St John’s, Canada – North America’s ‘oldest’ city and the location where the first transatlantic radio signal was received. Friendly people, good food, historic areas and distinctive, brightly coloured houses. The city’s George Street reputedly has the highest concentration of bars in North America.

Shona: The Cayman Islands – I love a good beach and Seven Mile beach is pretty close to perfect. Add in the best fish tacos I’ve ever eaten, swimming with stingrays at Stingray City and fairly straightforward data collection, and it was probably my favourite location this year!

Hugh: Yangon in Myanmar is a beautiful city, with incredibly friendly people and surprisingly well stocked supermarkets. Also, I have to mention South Tarawa (Kiribati) – it’s a bit out of the way but if you happen to be passing through the sunset is incredible.

Eleanor: Muscat, capital of Oman. It was my first time visiting the Middle East and I really enjoyed it. Muscat is calm and clean with a beautiful seafront, dazzling white buildings and friendly people. I also loved Gabon. It’s peaceful, prosperous and has acres of unspoilt jungle perfect for gorilla-spotting and other trekking safaris.

Dan: Beirut, Lebanon. The people were welcoming, the food great and the atmosphere terrific. Oh, and the sun was out the entire time!

Mark: Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada. It’s a small but important regional town as far north as I’m ever likely to visit on the American continent. And it has my favourite ever license plates – shaped like a polar bear.


Memorable meals

Nick: Pork chops with grilled plantain and a sweet and sour barbecue sauce at ‘Hotel Rwanda’ – fantastic!

Rachel: During a 6-hour stopover in Buenos Aires bus station I used my broken Spanish to order a hot chocolate. The waiter didn’t understand, until he exclaimed “Ah! Submarino!” and brought me a glass of hot milk and a small tablet of dark chocolate, explaining the chocolate is the ‘submarine’, and should be “sunk” into the hot milk. It was delicious!

Conor: TGI Friday’s in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia – in an austere desert kingdom, I was surprised to find an all-American chain staffed by flamboyant Filipino waiters!

Shona: This is more of a day of eating than just one meal! I joined a food tour in Guadalajara, Mexico, which involved a walking tour of the city while sampling various Mexican delicacies including tortilla soup, tortas ahogadas (a drowned sandwich), and enchiladas.

Chongqing hotpot - a fiery communal broth

Chongqing hotpot – a fiery communal broth

Eleanor: In Chongqing, I went out for hotpot with two local girls. The dish is a fiery communal broth which is kept at boiling point and has all manner of things dipped into it: from crab sticks, tofu, mushrooms to and lotus root, duck gizzards, chicken’s feet. It was great fun but I can’t say I was a great fan of the chicken feet and I literally left in tears the hotpot was so spicy!

Dan: The vegetable biryani at the little green restaurant next to the Taj Club House in Chennai. Definitely a landmark if you like biryani.


Surprising locations

Nick: I wasn’t sure what to expect from Islamabad and was quite surprised to find a well laid out city which appeared, on the surface at least, to be calm and tranquil. The Margalla Hills which loom over the city are beautifully green and everyone I met was friendly.

Rachel: The UAE – it was a place I’d had no great desire to visit, thinking it would be a little soulless and that I would struggle being a woman travelling on my own but in fact I found it a very comfortable place to be and there were lots of interesting places to visit, not just designer shopping malls.

Conor: N’Djamena in Chad – I expected squalor and overcrowding, but the downtown boulevards were quiet and walkable and the garden cafes might have been in Thailand.

Palau in the Pacific Ocean is much more developed than you might imagine

Palau in the Pacific Ocean is much more developed than you might imagine

Shona: Koror, Palau – given its remote location (the Western Pacific), I expected it to be much less developed than it was. It was very tourist-friendly. I was even more surprised to find my taxi driver from the airport, who spoke no English, playing the Disney’s ‘Frozen’ soundtrack in his car and singing along.

Hugh: I was quite surprised by Apia in Samoa. Everybody was really friendly and it had a great, laid back atmosphere.  Driving through the little villages you see welcome banners made by the local schools with bunting hanging from the trees. Also, the policemen wear skirts.

Eleanor: Dushanbe in Tajikistan – I didn’t really know anything about the country before I went, but imagined it to be stark, grey and bleak. It’s true that it’s one of the poorest countries in the world and does have an element of ex-Soviet-ism about it, but I will never forget the sheer joy of arriving to find a backdrop of green Alpine mountains and a quiet city filled with tulips.

Mark: Kampala in Uganda – I was expecting a run-down, disorganised, clamorous, dirty city, typical of much of Sub Saharan Africa. However, the locals were possibly the friendliest I can remember ever meeting and the tree-lined avenues of the Kololo area were a joy to wander.


Favourite journeys

Nick: The taxi journeys in beat-up old cars through both Alexandria and Cairo were pretty terrifying, and crossing the road in Egypt takes a bit of practise.

Rachel: On a night flight home from Curacao opening the window blind to peek out and seeing Ursa Major (aka the ‘plough’). Plus the air hostess gave me a goodie bag full of treat-size chocs because I’d given up my seat so a couple could sit next to each other.

Conor: I like to explore cities on foot, but this was next to impossible in Saudi Arabia because of the 40-degree heat, urban sprawl, speeding traffic and lack of footpaths. The many security cordons criss-crossing downtown Manama didn’t help matters in Bahrain either!

Shona: The journey from the airport in Freetown, Sierra Leone – the airport is located across the estuary from Freetown so it’s necessary to get on a boat to reach the city. I arrived just after sunset so it was a slightly unnerving experience handing money over, climbing onto a boat and sailing off into the darkness.

Hugh: I’ve had my fair share of hairy taxi rides but one in Algiers stands out. The driver seemed to enjoy watching me squirm when undertaking cars along the hard shoulder at a ridiculous speed. I found myself praying for a traffic jam!

It's really quite surreal zooming through the countryside at over 300kmh in a Japanese bullet train

It’s really quite surreal zooming through the countryside at over 300kmh in a Japanese bullet train

Eleanor: The short train journey from Chongqing to Chengdu, is gorgeous. It passes through China’s amazing rural scenery – green fields, narrow conical hills and tiny, remote villages – which look like something from an ancient painting.

Mark: My favourite journey has to be travelling on the famous Japanese bullet trains. It was my first visit to the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ and was quite surreal zooming through the countryside at over 300km/h.


Great for expat shopping

Nick: The tiny ‘Rue 9’ in Cairo is tucked away in a corner of the affluent Maadi district and stocks lots of forbidden fruit (pork and alcohol!), as does the Qatar Distribution Centre in Doha.

Rachel: The El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookshop in Buenos Aires – one of the ‘most beautiful bookshop’ in the world, and I can see why. Laid out in a former theatre, it really is splendid.  I wish all our expat bookshops were like that!

Conor: The Saudi shopping centres were impressive. Enormous, immaculately clean and with a product selection rivalling anything in Europe – except alcohol or pork.

The supermarkets in Port au Prince, Haiti, are surprising well stocked

The supermarkets in Port au Prince, Haiti, are surprising well stocked

Shona: Port au Prince, Haiti – I was surprised by how well stocked the supermarkets were compared to other Caribbean locations especially because Haiti is so associated with extreme poverty. The number of expats in the country ensures that the supermarkets are filled with international goods and remain very clean.

Hugh: The small port city of Lae (Papa New Guinea) appeared quite run down with not much going for it. I was therefore surprised to find Andersons Foodland, which had a great selection of imported groceries, and a better choice than was available in the capital, Port Moresby.

Eleanor: Bamburies in Bangalore was definitely my most exciting shop of the year. Pork and beef can be tricky to find in India but, after days of no luck, I walked into this unassuming butcher’s shop and found all the pork, beef, fish and good quality meat an expat could ever want. The owner was a bit nonplussed by my enthusiasm!

Dan: Esajee & Co in Islamabad, Pakistan. Tiny place, stocked with all sorts of expat comforts. Unfortunately, from a research point of view, not a price in sight!

Mark: After spending a couple of days in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, and finding little in the way of home comforts for expats I came across Le Café Gourmand. Stepping into it away from the chaos of the dusty, noisy city centre I found myself surrounded by expats and locals with their laptops making use of the free public Wi-Fi. Also, it surely has the finest pain au chocolat to be found on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.


About wanderingmark

World traveller, researcher, photographer, collector of interesting facts and cost of living data research for ECA International (www.eca-international.com).
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