If the people of Chatham Island were hardy, then those few living on Pitt Island were even more so. Although not far apart, the Pitt Islanders were reliant on a weather-dependent tourist plane from Chatham Island squeezing in the odd lightweight supply, or a supply boat that sailed from the mainland of New Zealand taking days to get there. I was eager to visit, and having come all this way, I would have been gutted not to make the trip. I was assured prior to my arrival on Chatham, that I was booked on a trip there during my week’s stay, as long as the weather allowed for it. I was travelling solo which gave me the advantage of being able to squeeze into a last space, so I was grateful to get confirmation of not just a space on the tiny plane, but also that the weather window was looking to hold for me to get there. The group of guys I was sharing the motel with were not so lucky. They unfortunately got mucked around quite a bit by the team at the Hotel Chatham and were overlooked for a spot, leaving them a tad disgruntled.
But none of us knew that at this point, and they bade me a good day as I got taken to the airport to wait impatiently for the plane to be ready. And boy was I impatient. Our departure time came and went and the plane was showing no signs of going anywhere. I paced back and forth, until finally we were invited down the steps to board. I calculated things just right and scored not just a window seat but the co-pilot seat for the journey over the Pitt Strait. We took off heading east, flying out over the large lagoon that takes over a large chunk of the island. Turning south I could see Lake Huro that I’d walked around a couple of days prior, and then as we reached the south coast, I was shocked to see tall cliffs dropping off into the ocean. From everywhere I’d been so far, Chatham Island looked low-lying and relatively flat, but it appeared now that the southern portion rose up somewhat, creating a coast line of dramatic cliffs.
Due to the size of the plane, we’d been given aviation life jackets to wear, and looking down now over the Pitt Strait, it looked uninviting and deadly. After a while though, we flew over the supply ship which sat a little off shore, and then we were over Pitt Island, and I immediately noted the contrast as it was more hilly than its neighbour, with one rather dominant mound near the coast. Soon we were banking and landing on a grass runway in the middle of nowhere. If I’d felt remote on Chatham, I felt excitedly isolated on Pitt. The pilot readied to head off as we got picked up by our guide for the day, and we watched as the plane left us behind.
There’s only one accommodation on the island, and the host there was who was running our tour. He drove us first towards the large mount where a track could be seen weaving up the side. If you stay overnight on the island, it is possible to go up to the summit, but there was no leisure time to attempt it on this day. Instead, we stopped nearby at a fenced woodland which offered a predator-free spot for the local wildlife. Even out here, several hours away from the rest of New Zealand, introduced pests have wreaked havoc on the wildlife, and like elsewhere, the unique species out here have also suffered. What was special about this area though was that deep within the trees, were some artificial nest boxes for the endangered Chatham Petrel, a seabird that came on land to breed here.
On route we spotted a Pitt Island tui, a rather scruffier version of the mainland variant, and a few of the local fantails also flitted about the branches around us. When we came out into a small opening, our guide lifted the top off one of the boxes half buried in the ground, and a startled and confused petrel was exposed as we all craned in to have a look. I’m quite a bird enthusiast now that I’m older, and I find tube-nosed birds like petrels fascinating. They spend a lot of time on the wing using their nose to sniff out food. As this little one moved around in slight agitation, a white egg was revealed, a sign of hope for the species. After a short few minutes of our collective ogling, the lid was replaced and we retreated away, so as not to cause the bird to abandon it. We followed the trail out the far side of the wood where we got a brief glimpse of the coast and a small, pointed offshore island that looked like a shark’s tooth. In the chill of the grey day, we soon retreated back to the van.
It was a bumpy and hilly drive across the middle portion of the island, leading us up and over and down towards Flowerpot Bay where the lodge was situated a little back from a beach and the pier. The island was otherwise predominantly used as farmland, and we came across some hardy looking sheep which reminded me of the hill breeds from back in the UK. We passed some angry looking rams with their thick woollen coats and curving horns, and as we approached the main building, we were joined by the farm dogs who barked their way alongside the van. The local school was right next door as we bundled out, and after dumping our layers of clothing at the entrance, we headed inside at the lodge into a cosy and very homely grand living space, complete with bar, fireplace and large vista windows looking out to the coast.
We were given a delightful buffet of food, including some locally caught fish, and as we hung around enjoying lunch, we watched as the supply ship, which was moored at the entrance to the bay, unloaded onto a little metal boat which zipped into shore delivering a tractor amongst other things. A jeep sat atop some containers back on the ship, and I wondered how much extra it cost to get vehicles brought out here. Quite a lot I’m sure. But with the sea air blowing in from every direction, the threat of rust probably affects the life expectancy of any machinery or vehicle in these parts.
Heading down to the beach, I strolled away from the pier to the far end where I found a perfectly carved man-made cave in the cliff. It had the air of a prison cell from the inside (and was in fact used as a jail for slaves), and on the wall the year 1878 was carved into the soft rock, a sign that this was no new structure. Creating space for others to nosy, I headed back along the beach to the pier where the few locals were busy unloading from the ship. I chuckled at the large quantity of beer that was stacked up at the end of the pier, which on first thought made me think they were perhaps a bit alcoholic, but in reality it probably has to last them quite a long time with the unpredictability of deliveries around the weather and seasons. I wandered into the shed that was nearby to be greeted by several children who were clowning around on the large mounds of tyres that were piled up inside. I’m generally very introverted with strangers, but these kids took great pleasure in asking me lots of questions and chatting away with me until somebody from my tour group yelled at me to come back to the van.
The unloading would take all the hours of daylight, and we had other parts of the island to explore. We headed back up onto the hilly spine of the island, this time heading west through large fields full of sheep. Eventually we found ourselves at a dramatic coastline where the green pasture had faded away to reveal a stark red clifftop that contrasted dramatically with the grey sea and sky beyond it. Offshore, Mangere Island sat among the waves, a tall high-cliffed lump of rock that is now a predator-free sanctuary, and one of only two islands where the rare Black Robin still resides. I could not get enough of the view here. The exposed red cliff formed a myriad of shapes and structures, some of which reminded me of the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Just south of us was a bay which was also framed by the exposed and eroding red cliff edge.
A bird of prey circled overhead as we wandered along the cliff top while down below I spotted some sheep on lower land underneath the cliffs. As we bundled back into the van and trundled across the hilly farmland I spotted the same harrier hawk perched on a bush. Heading across to the east coast and then turning south we stopped at the airport. Due to the small size of the plane and the flight time, each day’s tour group was split into two. The first group had flown ahead and whilst we had waited back on Chatham for the return of the plane, they had gone on to do the part of the tour that we would be doing next. As such they were to now head back whilst we went on to the final stop. We sat at the strip of grass whilst they boarded the plane and it took off, then we headed south where we had a view across an equally wild coast and this time across to Rangatira Island, another predator-free island and the only other place in the World to spot the rare Black Robin.
Nestled on the grassy bank at Glory Bay was the bright red Glory Cottage, a restored wooden building that was originally used for shepherds tending the land. The bay itself is named after the shipwreck that occurred within it in 1827, from where survivors rowed 1280km to Northland on New Zealand’s North Island in a small boat to raise the alarm. I was on Pitt Island on a relatively calm day, but even then the birds that rode the thermals were being blasted by the Pacific winds, and I could only imagine how harrowing that journey must have been. The inside of the cottage gave a little respite from the chill in the air, but outside an old boat and tractor were slowly degrading in the elements, the harsh sea air having rendered them useless.
I was sad to leave here, as our next stop was back at the airstrip again for our own flight back to Chatham Island. We pulled in just as the plane was on final approach, and I watched the skill of the pilot come in to land smoothly despite the wind and despite the roughness of the grass strip. A local joined us on board and this time I was sat in the back, but still by the window. Whereas the flight in had been direct in order to get the tour going, the return leg was a scenic trip that was to follow the Pitt Island coast, giving us an aerial view of the island itself, the dramatic cliffs that make up the south-western corner, as well as the various offshore islands that scatter the sea around it. We flew low enough to appreciate the scale of the cliffs and we could make out places where sea birds were nesting.
We made short work of Pitt Strait and hugged the southern cliffs of Chatham Island on the other side of the Strait. I still couldn’t believe how high this end of the island was, and the cliffs continued to be the predominant portion of the view as we worked our way up the coast. The elevation shallowed as we approached Waitangi and then the great expanse of Petre Bay opened up below us. From up here Lake Huro looked massive, and by now the large lagoon was back in view. We began our descent as we worked our way north alongside the island until before I knew it, we had landed. Pitt Island was a highlight of my week out here in the Chatham Islands and I was eager to get back to tell the guys all about it, unaware that their trip wasn’t going to go ahead.
After the van returned us to Waitangi, I took a walk along the beach, soaking up the colours of the setting sun, before heading to the Hotel Chatham for dinner. Toni, the owner of the establishment, was quick to make a beeline for me, eager to know how my day had been. Toni knew everybody and made a point of getting to know guests as best as she could. She’d already sussed out my job early on in my stay and having been warned by a regular visitor that if your job was of use to the islanders, word would get out, I wasn’t surprised when I was asked to look in on an animal the next morning that seemed unwell. I was promised free car hire as a thanks for doing an islander a favour, and despite having absolutely no work-related equipment or supplies on me, I agreed to do so. In the meantime, I headed back to the motel where the guys were in good spirits having had a very successful fishing trip. I opened the door to be greeted by a plate full of large crayfish, but I was too stuffed to have any. We sat for a while sharing stories of our respective day before I retired to bed, unaware that the following day wasn’t to turn out as I’d planned.
I’m in the enviable position of having a job that I can take abroad. It can be highly stressful, highly frustrating, but also highly rewarding and often challenging. It’s also a job that I enjoy doing on a voluntary basis for charities on foreign shores, and to some extent I enjoy it more as a volunteer than when I’m employed to do it. But as money doesn’t grow on trees, I spend most of my working life running the rat race like everyone else, but I’m always on the look out for the next volunteering adventure. On the way to my new life in the Southern Hemisphere, I took a slight detour to help at one such charity in Rarotonga, the main island of the Cook Islands.
Having quit my job, given up my flat, and sold as much of my possessions as possible, I set off in December 2011 from a cold and dark Glasgow, bound for London, then Los Angeles, then finally on to Rarotonga, where it was overcast and hot. For miles, there is nothing visible but the Pacific Ocean, then suddenly on the horizon, there appears a small island with a central cluster of mountains, and I could barely contain my excitement on the descent. Inside the little airport, we were greeted by a man in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, sitting in the middle of the baggage carousel serenading us on his ukelele as we waited to get our passports stamped. Apparently he has greeted every incoming flight for the past few decades this way. What a fitting welcome to island life.
My reason for being on the island was to volunteer with the Esther Honey Foundation (www.estherhoney.org), the only veterinary care available at the time on the archipelago. It is a charity run by a dedicated team of full time staff and the hundreds of international volunteers that have offered their time and knowledge to care for the country’s animals. I was met by the local director and whisked to my island abode. The volunteers live on site, on hand to help out with all sorts of patients, suffering from all sorts of health problems, not to mention the stray animals in need of a new home. On arrival, the clinic was in full swing, with people and animals everywhere I looked. After a quick tour and a shower, I had my first day to myself to explore.
That first day was muggy and overcast. The island’s landmark volcanoes were shrouded in clouds, hiding their true glory, but the vegetation in the centre of the island was thick and lush, a sure indication of the island’s pronounced rainfall. I meandered along the beach down the west coast, looking out to the waves crashing on the lagoon wall. This was truly an island paradise, and as always, I walked around with an immense grin on my face, excited for the month ahead. After around 36hrs in transit, and an afternoon walking in the muggy air, my body gave up and I fell asleep on the couch.
I was awakened early by the noises that would be my wake-up call for the whole month I was there. First the resident chickens would cluck, then the roosters would crow, followed by the dogs in the hospital barking, and lastly the noise of the islanders zooming past the clinic on their scooters. I didn’t get an uninterrupted sleep for the entire time I was there.
Each working day at the clinic started and ended the same: feeding and mucking out all the patients and animals on site. Most of the patients were cats and dogs, but from time to time, the odd pig, goat or wild bird would need treatment. Aside from neutering for population control, there was a varied case-load of health problems, similar to a working vet clinic in another country, however, the one disease that was relatively specific to the Cook Islands was also one of the hardest diseases to watch afflicted animals battle through. Fish poisoning, or Ciguatera poisoning, is caused by fish eating specific toxins, which accumulate up the food chain as bigger fish eat the little fish, until either people or animals eat contaminated predator fish at the top of the food chain. The toxin accumulation ingested by dogs results in paralysis, and an inability to eat and sometimes swallow, and they are hypersensitive to touch, making simple sensations extremely painful. Without medical attention, these cats and dogs would die of starvation, dehydration and in a lot of pain. It is sad to watch these animals go through this disease. Thankfully, most of the dogs recovered with fluid and nutritional support, strong pain killers and dedicated volunteers spending a lot of hours over several weeks rehabilitating them. There was nothing more thrilling than watching these dogs regain their ability to walk and play, and go home happy and comfortable. The recovery with cats unfortunately seemed to be much more variable. Throughout the whole month I was there, there were several patients suffering from this affliction; it was an unfortunately common problem.
Outside of work, there was a whole island to explore. As a Zumba enthusiast, I managed on that second day to convince some people to attend one of the island’s zumba classes. We headed to Avarua, and sweated our butts off to Zumba island style. Island dancing is all about hip swaying and wiggling so it made for an interesting take on some of the classic Zumba moves. The evening was rounded off with a trip to one of Rarotonga’s most famous eateries. A trip to this island is not complete without tasting a fish burger from Palace Burger, near the wharf on the main street of Avarua.
The following day after work, a few of us spent the evening at Coco Putt near Aroa. On Wednesdays they did a special involving a burger, beer and a round of mini-golf which was made into a competition night. The island’s lush volcanic centre loomed over the golf course, and this was my first real chance to see one of many stunning sunsets on the island. Even though my team was last at mini golf, I won a dance-off, and it was a great night.
The next evening I had the joy of swimming in the lagoon for the first time. The whole island is surrounded by a natural lagoon extending outwards to a reef before sloping steeply down into the depths of the Pacific Ocean. Within the lagoon is a plethora of colourful fish, and right across the road from the clinic was a good spot to go for a swim or practice snorkelling. On this first occasion, I didn’t have a snorkel, but the water was clear enough to see all sorts of fish darting about my feet. After being warmed by the sun all day, the water was lovely and warm in the evening, and it was a great way to relax after a day of sweating in the clinic. Later on, a few of us headed south to the Crown Beach Resort, which had a gorgeous outdoor seating area near the bar which was nestled amongst palm trees with hammocks. They had the most amazing cocktails and mocktails, and the view from the bar overlooking the sandy beach, the lagoon beyond and the setting sun was pure heaven.
After a busy day neutering and operating at the clinic, I headed down to the lagoon again with a snorkel and my video camera on hand. This time I got a much better view of the many reef fish in all their technicolour glory fleeing in and around the rock reefs that littered the lagoon floor. The Picasso Triggerfish became my nemesis, racing towards me, and chasing me, threatening to bite if I strayed too close to its shallow ‘nest’. This was my first weekend on the island, and that night I got to experience the nightlife of Avarua. Starting off at Trader Jack’s on the waterfront for pizza, we moved on to Hidie’s bar for a few drinks and a bit of dancing, and then finally we headed to Whatever! bar. This was my first experience of dancing under the stars in a roofless bar. I loved this place, despite my heels always getting wedged in between the floor boards, and the DJ’s terrible mixing. It was refreshingly cool in the open air after yet another hot and humid day. Unfortunately, thick curly hair is not a friend of humidity, and I spent most of my time on the island having a terribly bad hair day – not exactly what you want when you are out socialising!
As a charity, the clinic is heavily reliant on donations of money, food, medicine and supplies. These come from locals, tourists, and the many volunteers, and fundraising is an important event. That weekend there was a car and dog wash organised on site. I blinded everybody with my Scottish pallor in between treating the hospital patients, but the sun shone strong, and the wash proved very popular, a great credit to the volunteers that had organised it. After another swim in the lagoon, many of us headed to Tumunu Garden bar for dinner and darts to celebrate the success of the day. My lack of skills in the darts department meant I came in last in the tournament.
One of the clinic dogs Mama, had succumbed to fish poisoning during my stay. Despite her limbs not working properly, she always remained ecstatically happy and eager to please. After days of only moving with support, I was excited to wake the next morning to find her desperately trying to come into my bedroom to keep me company. It took a lot of effort on her part, and a lot of encouragement on my part, but she made it to my bedside to be rewarded by a well-deserved cuddle and a belly rub. Myself and one of the other volunteers had that day off, and we decided to hike the Cross Island track, the most commonly walked track venturing deep into the forest and up one of the volcanic peaks in the centre of the island. On the bus ride to Avarua where the track starts, we met a tourist who was also heading to do the hike, so the 3 of us kept each other company. The inhabited and farmed land all rings the perimeter of the island, but the centre of the island is thick with lush vegetation. The track starts off gentle and meandering through the lush bush, allowing us to get to know our German companion. Then the hard slog began. The summit may only be just >400m, but it is a near vertical ascent scrabbling up tree roots in the heat and humidity of the morning. We were constantly watched over by skinks and centipedes, eventually reaching a view point at the base of the distinctive ‘Needle’ rock promontory. It was slightly overcast when we got there, but we got a dazzling view across the surrounding peaks, including Te Manga the highest peak (653m) and north to Avarua below us, as well as the west coast of the island. From our vantage point we could see the Pacific Ocean breaking on the wall of the island’s lagoon, and several fishing boats out at sea. For a while, the path continued at altitude before descending back into the bush, and we tramped on surrounded by more skinks scurrying about our feet. Finally, after a few hours tramping, we arrived at Wigmore waterfall. This, we had been told, was a great place to take a dip after the hike. Unfortunately, the waterfall was a mere trickle, and the pool of water at it’s base was discoloured and still; not in the least bit enticing. We parted company with our German companion at the ringroad and headed south looking for somewhere to eat. Eventually we happened upon the Saltwater Cafe in Titikaveka which quickly became my favourite cafe on the whole island. Their iced coffee was so sublime that I easily devoured a couple of them before the tasty food even arrived. After a week of being left alone, by the end of the day, I was head to foot covered in mosquito bites. Obviously my foreign blood was suddenly a lot tastier after a week of dining on local cuisine, and I spent the next 3 weeks covered in a myriad of red lumps, trying desperately not to scratch myself to pieces.
After a few uneventful days of neutering animals and tending to wounds, a few us went to the Roadhouse Bar & Grill for some karaoke. I usually need a few drinks or to be surrounded by close friends to have the confidence to sing, but I got so swept up in the enjoyment of island life that I didn’t need too much encouragement to sing a few of my favourite songs, as well as a couple of duets with one of the other volunteers. The Roadhouse is a regular supporter of the Esther Honey Foundation, and like many people on the island, the owners were exceedingly grateful for all the work the clinic has done. Prior to 1994, there was no veterinary care on the islands, and the animals were left to breed with gusto, leading to large numbers of dogs and cats wandering loose on the island, and causing a threat to the traffic on the island. Since its inception, the clinic has treated over 34,000 sick animals, and sterilised over 13,000 animals resulting in the dog population reducing by two thirds.
One of my favourite days on the island was a trip to Muri to join a Captain Tamas Lagoon Cruise. Muri itself is a postcard-worthy prospect of sandy beaches, crystal blue waters, palm trees a-plenty and several motu (islands) out in the lagoon. Following a stroll along the length of the beach, accompanied by a stray beach dog who frolicked in the shallows along side me, I joined the crew for the day’s cruise. We were serenaded by the team treating us to some traditional music on the polynesian ukelele and drums before we boarded the boat and headed out to the deeper part of the lagoon to go snorkeling. My previous snorkeling trips had all been in chest-deep waters, and the fish were relatively small as a result. In this deeper water, the reef and the fish that lived on and around them, were bigger and more varied. Over 40mins, I floated and paddled in awe at the giant clams and amongst the rocks and coral, and treaded water surrounded by shoals of colourful fish. The Trevelli were huge, and at one point I ended up in the middle of a feeding shoal of fish darting all around my face. After the snorkeling, the boat took us to one of the motu where there was time to wander in the heat of the sun whilst our delicious lunch of fish was cooked on the BBQ. After the delicious food, the crew treated us to a demonstration on climbing palm trees to obtain a coconut, followed by how to dehusk and milk it. After that was an amusing take on sarong tying and finally more music as we boarded the boat back to Muri where I watched the sun drop low accompanied by yet another beach dog who seemed to like the company. I jumped off the bus at the Crown Beach Resort to enjoy a cocktail at sunset prior to heading back to the clinic. All in all, it was a fantastic and very memorable day.
After a few more days working in the clinic, we had a group night out to Kikau Hut for dinner. The food was delicious, and the cocktails were ace, but it was still a great joy to come back to the clinic and spend the evening cuddling kittens. One kitten in particular, named Mango, had grabbed the hearts of many of the volunteers. She had been nursed from a very young age, and was full of character. She seemed to think of herself as a human being, enjoying our company more than the other kittens that were housed with her. That night I fell asleep on the couch with Mango fast asleep on my chest.
The next day was an interesting and exhausting one. Each Saturday morning, the Pu Nangei market ran on the edge of Avarua. It is a great place to buy local produce and crafts, and there was a lot of delicious-smelling food on offer. Unfortunately, I had eaten breakfast immediately before getting there, so I was too full to taste any of it. It was a great place to mingle with the locals, and the charity had a stall there to encourage education and awareness of animal welfare, and what the clinic does. Heading away from the market, myself and one of the other volunteers headed off on another hike on the island. This one was much more challenging, and frustratingly got the better of me. Without maps and against the advice of the tourist office due to a lack of track maintenance, we set off on the recommendation of a resident and with just a vague sense of direction. Through back roads and Taro plantations, we found the path overgrown, and had to fight through the vegetation. Spiders webs spanned the track in places, their owners unnerving me as they dangled in mid-air at face height, or scurried out towards me as I broke through their webs. At one point, the track was so overgrown that I tripped over a hidden rock and bruised my bum. Eventually the trail through the valley came to an end, and the steep ascent began. In many places, the ascent was only made possible by the chains and ropes that previous hikers had set in place. 11 rope ascents later, the path was increasingly following a ridge with a sheer drop either side and the footholds were getting harder to find at times, resulting in a lot of physical power to pull myself up at times. Eventually, with exhaustion and frustrating ‘never-had-before’ vertigo, I couldn’t bring myself to go any higher. The last 4 sections we had convinced ourselves that the summit was nearing, but each time we reached the top we were greeted by another rope, and I couldn’t bare the thought of anymore rope ascents, in particular, I was worried about how dangerous it would be to go back down. Neither of us were fully trusting the ropes, unsure of when they had last been checked or replaced. After a breather on a ridge, we headed back down, only for me to realise how easy the descent was on the ropes and I silently kicked myself for not having made it to the summit. Near the bottom, we were caught up with by a natural historian who had been on the summit studying and photographing dragonflies. It turned out that he had put the ropes up there some 20yrs ago, and maintained them as required. He told us all about the local flora and fauna and gave us a lift back to Avarua where we enjoyed some delicious burgers and milkshakes at the Gourmet Burger Co in town. After walking back to the clinic in Nikao, I went for a lovely evening swim to watch the lagoon fishes. Sitting on the beach at dusk was when the crabs came out of the sand, ghostly pale, and scuttling in masses around the sand.
We regularly received litters of abandoned kittens to either rehome or hand rear depending on their age. It was fairly normal to come home to the clinic to find a crate or a box with some kittens in them. Usually they were weaned, or at least old enough to have their eyes open, but 3 days before Christmas, the other volunteers and myself came home from dinner to find a little kitten just a couple of days old waiting for us. He had a little red nose, and I named him Rudolph. I rose every 90mins through the night to feed him formula, and dedicated the rest of my time at the clinic to raising him. He was adorable, and so tiny and vulnerable.
After a very busy day in surgery, most of us trouped out to Staircase to enjoy a cultural evening. Working for the clinic, all of us as volunteers had been welcomed into the community with open arms, everybody grateful for the work that the clinic has done for the island. We were regularly invited out to join in local groups or nights out, and on this occasion, we had been invited to a night of traditional Pacific dancing. We enjoyed fruity cocktails and champagne whilst sweaty men and women cavorted on the stage in front of us in grass skirts. At the end of the show we headed to Whatever! bar for some dancing under the stars before heading to the main nightclub on the island, Rehab. Rehab is a mix of open air and roofed dance floors and bars, and is famous for its glow-in-the-dark vibe, as well as being the main meeting spot for the younger people on the island. It has a great vibe, but can be quite packed at times, and like everywhere else on this humid island, it is a very sweaty place. At the end of all that dancing, I got back to the clinic and took over my motherly duties with Rudolph, again rising through the night to keep him fed.
So by now it was Christmas Eve. I had spent Christmas away from my family before when I had had on call duties through my work, so being away from home was nothing new. However, we were about 10hrs behind the UK, and it was exciting to think of us as being one of the last groups of people to bring in Christmas and New Year. We had organised a feast of a Christmas dinner for all of us volunteers that were away from home over the festive season. At the last minute, we were extended an invite for Christmas dinner on the day, so we pushed forward our feast to Christmas Eve. After the normal daily duties at the clinic, and a kitten socialising party for the rehoming cats, the practice manager and those of the volunteers that had cooking skills, took over the kitchen and set about making a marvellous meal of roast chicken and pork with all the trimmings. It was absolutely delicious, and we exchanged presents and pulled crackers. The clinic was covered in decorations, and there was a tree in the living room, and despite being in the Southern Hemisphere, and it being summer, it began to feel just a little bit like Christmas. True to form, after the meal, we gathered round a laptop to watch a movie, and several people dozed off on the couch.
I had expected Christmas Day to be all about the heat and sunshine. In fact, my entire pre-trip perception of the Cook Islands was year round sunshine, and heat. I knew I was going in the rainy season, but in my head I expected 5 minutes of monsoon-style rain and then dryness. The reality was about 2 weeks of heavy downpours lasting for hours or days and the resultant humidity was insane. In fact, on Christmas Day, the sun was never to be seen. It was grey and overcast, the wind gusted intermittently and it rained on and off for the whole day. We had been extended an invitation by the High Commissioner of New Zealand who resided near Avarua, to join him and his friends for a BBQ at his house. This would be the traditional New Zealand way of spending Christmas. His house was beautiful, and his hospitality was endless. Both his family and his friends were fantastic company, and again the food was delicious, and we spent some time by the swimming pool in between the rain showers. The mosquitoes were out in full force, and I was by now used to being a red splotchy mess from all the bites that plagued my arms and legs. After a quick trip back to the clinic to tend to the animals for the evening, we headed out to the cinema in Avarua to watch the latest Twilight movie (Breaking Dawn pt1). It was an old-fashioned cinema with an intermission, and when the second half started, they forgot to turn the sound back on for a few minutes.
On Boxing Day, the weather was again miserable. I spent the day at the clinic tending to Rudolph and playing Bananograms (a surprisingly addictive game) with some of the other volunteers. It was a day of goodbyes as happened every now and again. With so many volunteers through the doors, there was often a day when somebody was leaving, although on the flip side, this meant there were also many days when new volunteers arrived. It was a constantly changing dynamic amongst the volunteers, and it was great meeting people from so many countries, and sharing a short part of our lives. When the weather finally broke, I took a cycle into Avarua to stretch my legs, then later several of us went to Vaima Bar & Restaurant in the south of the island. We had again been invited to a private party to celebrate the local food being used in the menu. What was listed as nibbles and drinks turned into a vast array of over 20 dishes of the most delicious canapes I had ever tasted. With the free bar in full swing, it wasn’t long before a dance-off commenced, and the evening ended in much hilarity. It often is those impromptu nights that turn out to be the best.
The following day, myself and one of the other volunteers spent the day driving round the island visiting patients, or returning them to their owners. In return for treatment, the clinic requested a monetary donation, but from some people, we got food gifts. We regularly received gifts of bread and fruit, and on one of the home visits we were presented with a batch of duck eggs. Never having eaten these before, I made a batch of scrambled eggs. They have more yolk than albumin so it was a very bright yellow dish. We had received the sad news of a poorly dog somewhere on the island. It could be the frustrating side of animal welfare on the island: if an animal wasn’t owned by somebody, it would often be ignored, even if it was clearly unwell. The news was not good. The dog had been spotted lying in the bushes, and had been seen in that position for about 2 weeks before word got to us. We had no specific location, just an area to search, and it took a good bit of tramping through the bushes and undergrowth to find him. He was so small and thin, and so wet and muddy, that we nearly overlooked him. He was soaking wet, and cold, and we had to stare very hard to see him take a breath. Only his eyes moved to acknowledge our presence, and it was very clear that he was suffering from the debilitating disease of fish (Ciguatera) poisoning. We rushed him back to the clinic to start his treatment, and fight the uphill battle to keep him alive and get him well again. It is a heart breaking disease to watch these animals suffer as they do, but with so many cases at one time, it was easy to have a happy, comfortable recovering patient to remind you why you battled so hard with the sick ones.
It had been an emotionally hard and exhausting day, and in the evening, several of us went to the Crown Beach Resort for our sunset cocktails. It was raining hard by the time we got there, so we had to stay inside for the first time, and enjoyed the live music that was playing in the bar. We were invited out for pizza by a friend that we had made on the island, and so we trouped down the road to his family’s holiday home where we enjoyed some great company by the swimming pool. After the rain cleared, we headed down to the beach and sat under the stars surrounded by thousands of scuttling crabs, enjoying some music and relaxing before several of us enjoyed a brief skinny dip in the surprisingly shallow water. Barely getting out to hip depth, it defeated the purpose, and we quickly retreated back up the crab-littered beach. We stayed out till the rain started again, heading back to the holiday home for more food.
I had been looking forward to a trip I had booked out to Aitutaki, the second most inhabited island in the Cook Islands group. It is famous for its reefs, and I couldn’t wait to go snorkelling. Unfortunately, the bad weather prevailed, and I left a wet Rarotonga behind for a rainy and overcast Aitutaki. There was at least enough visibility to see the island as the plane approached, but rather than the clear blue waters of the lagoon, they reflected back the grey skies and looked cold and uninviting. I was collected at the airport and taken to my solitary lodge where I soaked in the silence. As much as I loved working at the clinic, I knew I wasn’t going to miss the queue for the shower or the noise of the animals waking me up in the wee hours of the morning. The lodge was beach front, and took the brunt of the howling wind coming in off the Pacific, but it still managed to remain cozy and dry. In a lull in the driving rain and howling wind, I set off to explore the island. Even in the greyness I could appreciate the beauty and tranquility of the place. The people led a much simpler life than those on Rarotonga, and it was so calm and sedate, and so very peaceful. The east coast was littered with mangrove swamps and giant crabs that lived in between the roots. They would scuttle back into their holes as I passed. At the north of the island is a peninsula which has the airport at its neck, and several resorts. I paddled in the water as it lapped on the beach, and wandered along the beach soaking up the solitude. Just after I left to start the long walk back to my lodge, the heavens opened again, and I was drenched within 5 minutes. I found shelter at the Boat Shed bar & grill, where I enjoyed some marlin and a well-deserved beer, but the light was failing and I had to get back to my lodge, so eventually I set off once again. I was drenched by the time I reached the airport, but despite several offers of a lift, my stubborn streak won out, as I was determined to walk home meaning I would have walked the entire circumference of the island. I limped inside my lovely dry lodge in the gathering darkness and was fast asleep by 9pm.
I was supposed to be going on a lagoon cruise the next day to visit the reef on the lagoon and to go snorkelling. When I awoke to more gusting winds and torrential rain, I knew that that would not be happening. Sure enough, I shortly received confirmation that it was cancelled, and I was at a loose end. Like the day before, there were lulls in the weather that gave me the chance to get outside, so I took one such opportunity to hike to the highest point of the island (a whole 120m!). I couldn’t see far out on the Pacific Ocean, but I could see out to the waves crashing on the reef at the edge of the lagoon, and up towards the airport and the peninsula that I had walked yesterday. After some lunch at the Pacific Resort and a brief snooze, I was taken back to the airport for one of the most amazing flights I’ve ever experienced. The plane was a 14-seater Embraer Bandeirante that looked like it was straight out of the 50s. There was no stewardess, and the open cockpit meant that everything the pilots could see and did was fully visible to the passengers. As we took off in torrential rain, I knew it was going to be a great flight. The cloud formation was the most stunning natural phenomenon I have ever witnessed. There were various layers and structures to the cloud, and it was like weaving between pillars holding up a ceiling. Those ‘pillars’ were generally thick black cloud like thunder clouds, and the colours between the cloud blankets were intense, with rising cumulo-nimbus clouds in varying shades of reds, pinks and purples. About half-way through the flight, there was the most ethereal, mesmerising and stunning sunset that I have ever set eyes on, before eventually the plane was plunged into darkness. We flew alongside a storm cloud before being engulfed in one so thick that the end of the wings weren’t visible. The plane shimmied and dropped as it lunged from air pocket to air pocket, and it was interesting to watch the pilots tweak the controls on the panel to compensate. Eventually we came out the other side, and shortly after as I watched the cockpit instruments, the island of Rarotonga appeared on the screen, before appearing in all its twinkling glory out the window. It was amazing to get the pilot’s view as they lined up their final approach and followed the runway lights home to the terminal. I hurried home to the clinic to see Rudolph who had been in the care of one of the other volunteers whilst I was away. At about a week old by now, I was ecstatic to discover that his right eye had just started to open, and out stared a little blue iris.
By the morning, his left eye was starting to open as well. The clinic was exceedingly busy, and I was exhausted by the end of it all, but as it was my last Friday on the island, it didn’t take much persuading to go to Whatever! bar for a dance under the stars. The following day was Hogmanay, and my first time out of the country at this time of year, never mind in a different Hemisphere. By the time we all set off for dinner and drinks, it was already New Years day in Scotland, and my family would be fast asleep after bringing in the Bells. We painted ourselves in glo-paint in preparation for a night at Rehab then headed to the beach at Muri for the midnight fireworks display. It was a good mix of tourists and locals alike, and whilst being a relatively small crowd (compared to street parties in big cities), it was enjoyable none the less, and the fireworks over the lagoon were a joy. Due to drinking laws on a Sunday though, the New Years parties got curtailed and everywhere shut up very swiftly after midnight. In the end, we headed back to the clinic, and we spent the first hour of the new year marvelling at Rudolph with his newly-opened eyes.
Every Monday evening, the local Hash House Harriers organises a Hash, or fun run. On my last Monday on the island, it was a toga-themed run so I dutifully tied my sarong around myself like a toga, and 3 of us headed off to join in. The High Commissioner of New Zealand was one of the main members, and he mocked me and the other British volunteer for our ridiculous sunburn patterns. That afternoon I had gotten caught out in the sunshine whilst showing some visitors around the clinic, and I was brewing a lovely red pattern across my face and chest. After the run, which was really more of a brisk walk with some locals, we were treated to a beer for our efforts. In recognition of our terrible sunburn, the 2 of us were nominated to wear a toilet seat around our necks whilst skulling a pint of beer. I’m not a fan of beer at the best of times, so needless to say I was last, but we got the moment immortalised with a photo.
On my last day off duty before leaving, the weather had returned to an overcast and windy day. A couple of us had booked a reef sub tour, and whilst we waited for the call to say it was cancelled, it never came, so we set off for Avarua in the drizzle and dutifully turned up at the harbour. After negotiating the waves at the harbour entrance, it became apparent that there was a stronger swell out at sea than was first apparent. The boat rocked from side to side, and the underwater viewing area jolted dramatically above and below the water line. Heading out to the deeper waters where the wreckage of the Maitai provides a home for giant Trevelli and other large species of fish, we sat in the underwater chamber watching the fish swim by, fighting the urge to be sick as the boat rolled and rocked on the waves. Despite this, it was an amazing view, and it was amazing to see the ship’s boilers emerge out of the gloom, and to see how the wreckage had been claimed by the coral life. If it hadn’t been for the developing nausea, I could have stayed there and viewed it all day, but both of us were starting to feel the negative effects of all that bucking, so it wasn’t long before the trip was curtailed and we headed back to the harbour. That afternoon, I headed out with another volunteer and a friend to go kayaking. We kayaked across the lagoon and out to the waves as they crashed against the reef edge. By now the sun was out, and the view back towards the island was beautiful. We headed back to shore and to the Rarotongan to enjoy their swimming pool. The boys had decided to get a fish bowl cocktail, which I assumed we would share, but when I came out of the toilet at the hotel, I was presented with my own fish bowl, as they had decided to get one each. I should have known better, but it made for another fantastic impromptu afternoon.
My last day working at the clinic came and went. I spent as much time with Rudolph as possible, watching him explore the surroundings that he could now see, and watching his little ears respond to the sounds that he could now start to hear. I took my last swim in the lagoon, but the current and tide was kicking up a lot of sediment and I was getting pushed against the rocks so I gave up very quickly. By way of a farewell to me, we all went out for dinner at Bamboo Jacks then onto Hidie’s for an immensely enjoyable session of karaoke. It was a surreal moment to sit in a bar in the middle of the south Pacific to listen to some islanders singing the Proclaimers song ‘500 miles’. From there, we went to Whatever! bar and finally onto Rehab for my last experience at nightlife island style. It was a fantastic night, but also a sad one as I knew I would be heading off tomorrow on my next adventure.
On that last day on the island, it rained for hours, which is probably just as well because it took me several panicked attempts to get my backpack to close. I wasn’t aware that I had bought a lot of stuff, and indeed had less stuff than I had arrived with as I had brought a lot of supplies for the clinic, but it did not want to close! The clinic was very busy, so everybody was out and about, and I spent a lot of time with Rudolph again, giving him a bath, and generally sticking a camera in his face every time he moved. Eventually though, the time came, and having left my mark on the outside of the clinic, I headed to the airport for the long wait, and the flight to Auckland. Before I knew it, I had crossed the International Date Line, and the next chapter of my new life in the Southern Hemisphere had begun.
My hands turned white with the force of gripping the seat in front of me. With nothing but a windscreen between me and the road in front, I held on to the head rest tighter as the speedometer on the taxi climbed higher and higher, and the driver weaved more manically through the busy streets of Athens, ignoring stop signs and chasing red lights. It was the wildest taxi ride I’d ever been on, and even a few clicks on Youtube before the holiday couldn’t prepare me for the crazy driving in this country.
The heat on arrival in Athens was overwhelming. My partner at the time was an Athenean, and we were met at the airport by his aunt and cousin. From there it was an hour’s drive to his mother’s summer house, and I sat crumpled in the back seat listening to the argument about the air conditioning. Many Greeks decamp in the summer months to their second homes, somewhere in a small town or village, and generally on the coast. His mother lived in an area not officially recognised on a map: a collection of relatively new homes with no shops and little business. But it had a beach and that was all that mattered. I spent those first few days of our 2-week holiday failing miserably at the Greek language, missing out on half the conversation, and awkwardly trying to get along with my potential in-laws. The weather was divine though, and I enjoyed chilling on the balcony, watching some amazing sunsets, and tucking in to locally caught fish and savouring frappes.
One of the fantastic things about my Athenean was that he held a private pilot licence. He had a friend who worked in the Air Force, and on his day off, we arranged to rent a little Cessna and fly out to the island of Skiathos. So we turned up at a little airstrip outside Athens and the two of us, the friend and his girlfriend loaded up and took off. Greece is a beautiful country at ground level, but it takes on a whole new perspective from the air. We flew over forests, lakes, and mountains before hitting the sea. Unfortunately for me, my obsession with filming and taking photos out of the window resulted in an acute onset motion sickness, and I missed a good portion of the view whilst keeping my eyes tightly closed and concentrating on my breathing, desperate not to vomit in front of 2 people I’d only just met. It was embarrassing enough just cradling the sick bag. I managed, thankfully, to regain some composure to witness the approach to Skiathos over a myriad of little islands, and beautiful blue sea scattered with pleasure boats. It felt surreal to pull onto the tarmac next to a large jumbo jet filling up with tourists.
Skiathos was beautiful, but had a few too many Brits for my liking. I like to go on holiday and feel like I’m escaping all things British, so it is always slightly disappointing to travel for hours or days to find the place riddled with British tourists. It was a short walk into Skiathos town, and the place was crammed with locals and tourists alike. Having recovered from my motion sickness, I was starving, and the food was an absolute delight. I’ve often acknowledged how different that holiday would have been if I had not been there with a Greek. My grasp of the language was pathetic, and my stubbornness to avoid speaking English, meant I relied heavily on my partner doing the talking. With a local, the places that you end up going to and eating at are often very different from where the typical tourists go, and I definitely feel the reward is the most amazing food ever. The lunch we had that day in Skiathos was one of my favourites of the whole holiday, and I felt better prepared for the flight home that evening. It was another stunning flight over the islands and onto the mainland. It was very much a shame that large sections of the forest that we had flown over were destroyed in a massive bush fire just a few days later.
After over-nighting in Athens, we caught a bus north heading towards Volos. This time, we were off to visit the father’s holiday home in a little sea-side village, again missing from most maps. This little village round the coast from Volos, quickly became my favourite place in the whole country. The house we stayed in was amazing, albeit riddled with mosquitoes, and it overlooked a beautiful bay with crystal blue water. It was a mecca for seafood, and I loved every night dining out on the waterfront with most of the village people around us, savouring mezzes of all varieties and soaking up the warm evening air. This was a place that no tourist would know to go to, nor find reference to on any map or in any guide book, and yet here was the authentic Greek summer experience, and I adored it. The heat during the day got unbearable at times, and I struggled with the concept of taking siestas, stupidly ignoring advice to stay indoors and insisting on going for hikes round the coast in the heat of the day. My reward was verging on sun stroke on one occasion, and generally being eaten alive by every mosquito in a 12km radius. By the end of that stay, I looked contagious, such were the numbers of wheals all over my body. The language barrier was hardest with this side of the family, but yet we all had an amazing time together, and I was sad to leave at the end of it.
After another long bus ride back to Athens, watching the smoke from the forest fire advancing towards the city, we prepared for our big adventure out on the Cyclades island of Sifnos. We planned on hiking round the island and camping under the stars, and went prepared with hammocks and mosquito nets. Zipping across the Mediterranean in a catamaran, we arrived as the sun sat low on the horizon. By the time we had enjoyed yet another amazing meal, it was dark, and the mountain that we had planned on hiking over was invisible in the gloom. We decided to reverse our hike, and grabbed a taxi to drop us off in the middle of nowhere. The driver was bemused by our request: Greek people don’t hike – what were we thinking? It was a challenge in the dark to know that we were at the right track, but we waved the taxi goodbye and started hiking by torch light. It is amazing how simple noises are magnified in the dark to unknown terrors that may be hunting you down for a meal, and we got a bit of a shock when our torch light detected some pigs at the side of the track in a make-shift pen. The intermittent sound of dogs barking in the distance kept us wary, never knowing if they were loose, and how domestic they would be if they found us. Eventually, we grew tired, and in the dark, the hammocks were trussed to some trees and we fell asleep.
I was woken by rustling and scuffling around me, and peeked out to find us surrounded by a herd of inquisitive goats. With the benefit of daylight, I could see that we had erected our hammocks in a little copse, and the goats were foraging for food. Scrambling out and walking to the path, I was met by a stunning view of a dramatic coastline… and more goats. Following breakfast, we continued on our hike, skirting round to the south coast of the island and following beautiful rugged coastline down to secluded bays and beaches where we relaxed in our hammocks waiting out the heat of the day. Eventually though, a shower called us, and we hiked back to civilisation where we got stared at by the bikini-clad beauties on the beach as we trudged through them laden down with hiking boots, backpacks and hammocks.
The beauty of Sifnos was that it lived in a time that was not our own. Relatively untouched by the buzz of modern life, it was peaceful and idyllic, and reassuringly simple. Goats littered the landscape, and donkeys were still kept for pulling carts. The settlements were quaint, and only just beginning to be touched by the tourism scene, but it didn’t take much of a wander to feel that you were in the Greece of the past, and it was wonderful. We did several day hikes round portions of the island, including up to a monastery on top of the mountain overlooking Kamares, the ferry port. It was the hike that we had planned to do when we arrived, but it was worth the view to do it in daylight hours, and it was hard not to get lost in the blistering sunshine, never mind the darkness when there would have been no landmarks to keep our bearings. It was exceedingly windy at the summit, and it was delightful to get there to find some utensils and some coffee for making a cup of Greek coffee. Anyone who has drank Greek coffee will know that it tastes very different to what the rest of us would define as coffee, and frankly it fails to do coffee justice: it is gritty and very bitter. After a short break, we braved the cross winds to traverse the summit, hunkered down against the ground to avert being blown off the edge, and made our way towards an old mineral mine. The landscape resembled a scene from Star Wars, as we worked our way round the abandoned mine entrances, and picked our way down the unmarked mountain-side. Eventually we picked up a trail again, which took us down a relatively hidden, yet very steep path down the mountainside, and back towards Kamares. We approached the town as the sun was setting, and we treated ourselves to a dip in the hotel pool on our return.
Our final hike on the island took us round the west coast, past monasteries, both used and abandoned. It was surprising how remote some of the active ones were. We camped overnight hanging in an orchard, and both the sunset and sunrise were stunning from the hammock. I was rather sad to board the ferry and leave the island behind. For nearly 2weeks, my partner had been encouraging me to speak to people, forever lamenting that everybody in Greece spoke English and I would be perfectly understood. Waiting in Kamares on the ferry, I had decided to use my well-rehearsed Greek phrase for ordering a frappe (Greeks love their frappes!), only to be met with a response I wasn’t anticipating. I stared at her blankly, then looked in despair at my partner who just laughed at my misery. I felt particularly ashamed to discover that our waitress was Swedish, and was fluent in both English and Greek on top of her mother tongue. Another example (there are many from several countries) of my lament at being British and so poor at foreign languages. On the ferry back to Athens I gave in and decided to order (yet more frappes) in English. I went to the counter and addressed the guy in his early-20s, only to be met with a blank stare and a look of desperation directed towards his colleague. Thankfully his friend spoke fluent English, but I blushed none the less, and sheepishly pointed out to my partner that not everybody speaks English. Apparently, I found the only non-English speaking Greek in Greece!
Arriving back in Athens, we were bundled into a taxi with 2 other strangers, and taken for that most interesting taxi ride through the night-time streets of Athens. We had already experienced an interesting taxi ride in Volos where the driver told us not to fasten our seat belts (because Greeks don’t do that apparently), and then proceeded to drive us for an hour, mainly facing sideways conversing in Greek with my partner, and paying only vague attention to the road ahead, all the while maintaining a good amount of pressure on the accelerator. This time in Athens, I was squashed in the middle of the back seat with no seat belt, and only the head rests of the 2 front seats to grip onto whilst our madman of a driver negotiated the busy streets of the city at high speed. Apparently stop signs and red lights do not apply to taxi drivers, and any gap in crossing traffic was a challenge to push out. It was vaguely reminiscent of India, only the cars get up to a much faster speed than the tuk-tuks ever did. I worried with every emergency stop that I was just a hand-grip away from being sent flying through the windscreen onto the tarmac.
The last 2 days in Greece were a very rushed affair, trying to get round some of the historic sites of the city, mainly focusing on the Acropolis and the surrounding area. It doesn’t matter how much I travel, but I will always get excited to find myself at some well-photographed landmark, and have that pinch-myself moment of comprehension that I’m actually there! It was the same at the Parthenon, although I was slightly disappointed at the amount of scaffolding marring the site. One whole side of it was hidden behind immense steel scaffolds and platforms. That aside, the view from the Acropolis over the old and new sections of the city was amazing. It was bakingly hot, and there was a constant shimmer on the surface of the ground. Spending hours in the intense heat was hard going, and it was refreshing to finally sit down in the shade with a beer. By this point, I could understand enough Greek to freak out my partner. When he was chatting away to his friend, he turned to translate for me and before he got a chance, I related pretty much what he had just said. Incidentally, Greek, like many languages, is easy to learn on the ear, but the written language is a whole other ball game. Having said that, once you master the alphabet, it suddenly becomes a whole lot easier to read and write (I subsequently took several Greek classes in an effort to be more competent on any future excursions there).
I love wandering through foreign cities after dark and marveling at the similarities and differences to those Scottish cities I grew up in. I watched in awe at the controlled way that Greeks drink alcohol, a stark contrast to the rowdy, drunken behaviour that tarnishes the British social culture. Bars were packed out to the pavements, and drink was a plenty, but yet no matter how many streets and lanes we walked through, nowhere were there the signs of passed out drunks, or people peeing against every wall they could find. It was refreshing to find coffee shops open as late as the bars, something which I have always dreamed of in Scotland: somewhere social to go at night, that doesn’t revolve around alcohol. It was a fun place to be, just a pity the Athens stop-over was so rushed. I could have easily spent a lot longer immersing myself in local life, and the history of the place.
Looking back, it would have been an all together less satisfying holiday without a Greek at my side.
If my life was a story being written, then I’m on the cusp of chapter 7. I remember very little of the events of chapter 1, and chapters 2 & 3 were a non-event, that only served the purpose of progressing to chapter 4. As for 5 & 6, well, they have brought a thousand smiles to my face and a thousand tears. It’s been a fantastic ride…
In 6 weeks time, I’ll be on a plane, cruising at 35,000ft above the Atlantic Ocean. I’ll possibly be eating some airline food right now, watching a movie perhaps. Maybe I’ll be cursing the screaming child sat in the row behind me, or quietly fuming about the overweight man in the seat next to me spilling into my personal space. I’m an ‘aisle seat’ person. I love the window seat if there is anything worth seeing, but as most long haul flights are too high up for any kind of view, or generally over oceans, or during the hours of night, I prefer to feel that perception of space that is afforded by sitting at the aisle. Being stuck in the middle or window seat of a long haul flight is the closest I will ever come to feeling claustrophobic.
One of the worst flights I experienced was on a London to JFK flight, where I was stuck in the middle seat. To my right was a man who did nothing to dispel the well known stereotype about American’s waistlines. As such, I couldn’t get my arm rest down, and therefore I had nowhere comfortable to rest my right arm. I naturally spent a lot of time leaning to the left. Unfortunately, on my left side, was a full-grown, broad shouldered man. Whilst not overweight, his stocky dimensions meant that in order to avoid touching the flab of the man on my right, I was practically lying on his shoulder. I’d never before been so crooked in a plane seat. Mealtime was even worse. I couldn’t get my laptray down fully, and there was much awkwardness trying to politely make out like his belly wasn’t the problem. It was an extremely smelly and uncomfortable flight.
Μy most favourite flight on the other hand was another trans-atlantic, this time from Glasgow to Toronto. It was my first time heading out of Europe, and I was travelling solo. Clearly I looked pathetic and vulnerable to the ground staff, because without knowing it, I had my seat exchanged at the last minute. I knew no different when I was seated in the second row from the front, and it wasn’t until half way through the flight that it finally dawned on me that I wasn’t in economy class. The space was luxurious but boy did I feel the difference on the flight back to Scotland!
The long and the short of it is: I love to travel. I love travelling around my own country just as much as I love travelling to and around other countries. It doesn’t define me, but it is part of my story, and it plays an integral part to chapter 7 in my book of life.