Wednesday 28 October 2015

Leaving Utila - our island paradise in the Caribbean Sea

Having finally caught up with posts on this blog - and after three months of being here on our island paradise, Trav and I are preparing to leave once more!

Our bags are packed...

Our 90 day entry visa has almost expired and the rainy season has begun so we are flying back to Glasgow Scotland - for a period of just less than 48 hours in order to catch up with our family - and then we are taking a flight from Edinburgh to Bangkok Thailand.

We plan to follow the sunshine and do some island hopping down the Andaman Sea on the south-west coast of Thailand all the way down to Malaysia and from there we hope to fly on from Kuala Lumpur to the Philippines. This will be a four month trip and our most ambitious to date.

Here on the island of Utila it is still incredibly hot - around 30 deg C most days - but the rain and the increased humidity makes it hard to be outside as the damp weather brings out all the biting mosquitoes and sandflies - and if the electric supply goes off as it did this morning then not having the fans whirling overhead makes it hard to be inside too.

So we are flying away and plan to return to Utila directly from South East Asia at the end of February. When we get back here we will be given another 90 day entry visa. It is possible to get an extra month extension on the island - but most people who call Utila their adopted home leave to do a ‘visa run’ to the USA, Mexico, the nearby Cayman Islands, Guatemala or Belize and then come back in again to claim another 90 day entry. We'll plan to do a visa-run ourselves in 2016 as we hope to spend most of the summer season on the island, right through until mid-September when we hope to return to Scotland for a few weeks to catch up with family and friends.

This trip was our third visit to Utila and we have now spent a full nine months here on the island. This year we were here for the months of March, April and May and then we returned for August, September and October. Last year, in 2014, we spent three months on the island during July August and September. Utila now feels familiar and like home to us.

Utila - an aerial view

Back on Utila and on the dock at our beloved Gunter's Ecomarine Dive Shop

We have made lots of friends here from all over the world. Trav dives at a fabulous and fun PADI dive shop called Gunter’s Ecomarine in the Sandy Bay area. We absolutely love the laid-back, no-shoes, island-time lifestyle and we have at last, after trying out four different rental properties, found a ‘casa’ that perfectly suits us and that we can rent long term.

I have blogged extensively about the island of Utila and how much fun we have had here but you might wonder what it is – when Trav and I have travelled to so many other islands all over the world –what makes this small island so extra special?

On the website Utila the island is described as ‘the Caribbean as it used to be’ and ‘Key West of 20 years ago’ and I feel this is a true description as it certainly feels retro and timeless here. But I’m sure that it is only a matter of time before the rest of the world will discover Utila or Utila will catch up with modern commercialism and it will change. There are already cruise ships visiting the neighbouring and larger bay island of Roatan.

Happy to be back on Utila celebrating with our island friends

Where is Utila? Utila is the smallest of the three Bay Islands situated in the Caribbean Sea just off the coast of Honduras in Central America. Utila is unique, quaint and unspoiled, some may call it basic, with no chain stores or fast food businesses. There are reportedly less than twenty cars on the island and people get around on foot (bare or flip-flopped) or on a scooter or golf cart.

The infrastructure on the island, electric and internet, is patchy at best and fresh water is a precious commodity. We buy our drinking water every other day in five gallon drums. Fruit and vegetables are brought to the island by boat from the mainland (Honduras) on a Tuesday and a Friday and shops sell out quickly so the advice is to buy a good-looking vegetable as soon as you see it or it will be gone in the blink of an eye. There are limited health care facilities on the island; there is a clinic and a pharmacy but anyone needing hospital is taken to the mainland by boat or plane. There is opportunistic crime here, just like anywhere else, so you have to be aware of it without letting it make you edgy. The one small bank on Utila is visibly guarded by armed police both inside and out but half of the time, just like the electric supply, the banking systems are down and you can’t use your plastic to withdraw money. Things happen. Things don’t happen. It’s all part of island life. One thing, of which I am sure, is that there is nowhere in the whole world quite like this beautiful crazy laid-back piece of paradise.

Laid back... no shoes...

It is said that once you have experienced life on Utila you may not ever want to leave. Sure, there are nuisances, like mosquitoes and sand flies and power outages, but none of that stuff can ever blight the bliss of truly living in the moment, of waking up to sunshine every day, of not having to wear many clothes or worry about fashion or hair styles. Erm… maybe that’s just me?! The scuba diving here is the best in the world (Trav says so!) and there are many dive centers on the island. But if you don’t dive then the snorkeling is fantastic because the water is warm and clear.

The snorkeling and diving is fantastic... as is my new full face snorkel mask!

There are lots of activities to get involved with on land too. Sun worshiping on the island and particularly on The Cays (tiny tropical islands just off the coast of Utila) and relaxing in a hammock with a good book are favourite pastimes of mine and so is yoga practice, which I discovered here for the first time last year. There are also social groups that welcome people to help with animal welfare, nature and wildlife conservation and beach clean-ups, etc.

On Utila, the days pass effortlessly into evening but do be warned (see the uTube videos I’ve suggested you might watch at the end of this post!) that Utila has a bit of a party reputation with the young diver/backpackers that come here and so Utila by night can be a noisy affair, as there are lots of bars selling very cheap alcohol and playing music. But it doesn’t have to be ‘party island’ - if you prefer to watch the sun going down from a quiet chair with sea-view and with a rum in your hand - you can certainly do that too!

Our last few days on the island are about saying ‘bye for now’ to all the lovely people who make island life here so special – until we return for the new season in 2016.

I’ve picked out a few YouTube videos you might be interested in viewing as they show off this special island of Utila from the fun stuff to the amazing stuff.

Fun video on why 'I Love Utila'

Dancing happy peeps on 'Happy Utila!'

Tiny tropical islands off the coast of Utila 'Utila Cays'

Craziness in this now famous Marty and Ginsky video! 'Come To Utila'

Take a look at Revolutionary diving with Gunter's Ecomarine Dive Shop - 'Revolution'

Fabulous Whale Sharks of Utila video by Dave Thatcher - starring Trav!

Gunter's EcoMarine Facebook Page

Do pop back again soon and do please consider leaving a comment as I love to hear from you. Let me know if you watched the videos and what you thought of them? I promise to reply as soon as I get an internet connection. I'll leave you with our 'take off' and 'goodbye Utila' videos!

Love, Janice xx

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Our most important trip of the year - to South Korea

During the last few days of July, Trav and I traveled from Glasgow Scotland with our 26 year old eldest son Ben and our 22 year old youngest son Iain to South Korea, to visit our middle son James (24) and his lovely wife Sujeong - and our 6 month old baby grandson Aaron - whom none of us had yet met!

We were also meeting Sujeong’s parents and her family for the first time and I was worried how we would communicate, as they don’t speak any English and we don’t speak any Korean. But I needn’t have worried as the immediate love and warmth between us needed no interpretation at all.

All together in South Korea

Thanks to a generous baggage allowance of 30kg each we were able to take some gifts with us to South Korea. Gifts for our new in-laws that included a good bottle of single malt whisky. I had the most wonderful time shopping for baby clothes for Aaron and buying him lots of Scottish children’s story books. Stories about Nessie and haggis and wee hairy scottie dogs that would connect him to his Scottish heritage. We also bought him a wee Scottish Rugby Kit!

This was set to be the most important trip of the year for us and for our three boys who hadn’t been together for over two years – since James left Scotland to teach English in this far away land. I knew from the outset that seeing our sons together again was going to be an emotional time – and you can multiply that by a zillion when we met our first grandson!

Aaron sporting his Scotland Rugby Kit!

We flew with Emirate Airlines from Glasgow to Dubai – which was a seven and a half hour flight. Once there we explored the impressive Emirates terminal for a couple of hours before we boarded the A380 ‘double decker’ flight to Incheon Airport Seoul in South Korea. The boys had fun checking out the Dubai terminal and I remembered how impressed I was with this airport the first time I ever saw it. I believe it has the largest shopping mall in any airport in the world.

After a total of twenty-three hours of travelling, we arrived at Incheon Airport, just outside Seoul, and after we had cleared customs and collected our luggage, we made our way down to the subway station, where we would take the super-fast KTX bullet train south (a journey of two and a half hours) to the city of Daegu, where James and his wife Sujeong would be waiting at the station to meet us with our grandson Aaron.

You can, I’m sure, appreciate the moment we arrived and we saw them and how special it was for Trav and I to stand back for a moment and to see our three wonderful sons being united after all this time apart.

Wee Aaron was sleeping when we first saw him and attached to his mummy in a baby harness. I kissed his soft head and accepted that I would have to wait until the next morning to cuddle him. It was very late at night and we were feeling very tired and jetlagged. We headed to our hotel to drop off our bags and then with James and Sujeong we went to eat at a nearby restaurant before we crashed out for the night. Trav and I had experienced a Korean barbeque restaurant before, but our two sons had not, and it was great to see how much they enjoyed eating the traditional food with the spicy fermented cabbage ‘kimchi’ and drinking the ‘Soju’ wine!

The next morning, James and Sujeong and baby Aaron met us at our hotel and escorted us via the subway to part of the city where they lived in their new apartment. (James had been in a different apartment the previous year when we had visited) After which we would visit the home of Sujeong’s family which was close by.

This was where we cuddled our grandson for the first time, and although I had feared that he might be wary of us as relative strangers and cry, he didn’t look distressed in any way and instead gave us lots of cuddles and smiles.

Trav and I have loved this boy from afar from the moment he was born but on this day we both immediately forged a special bond with our wee grandson and are totally besotted with him.

Meeting Aaron for the first time

I’ve put together just some of my favourite photos from the highlights of this week: images that represent how much fun we had and also how much it meant to us to spent time with our new Korean family. They really did all pull out all the stops to show us their wonderful country while keeping us fed and entertained the whole time. I am in awe of their organisational skills!

Hortons On Tour..!

Our daughter-in-law Sujeong and her mother, Jeong-im, and her sister, Subin, together with her sister’s boyfriend, Jin – who spoke excellent English and who kindly acted as our interpreter the whole week - had planned a full itinerary of cultural activities. Sujeong’s father unfortunately had to work during the day time, so didn’t join us on our trips, but we were delighted to be introduced to him that first morning and we spent several wonderful evenings in his company. Sujeong’s brother also couldn’t join us on our days out and so he is also missing from the majority of our photos - as he was on crutches after being injured in Kendo practice – a martial art and national sport.

It was a fabulous whirlwind of a week, in which we experienced the most amazing hospitality and were introduced to the most amazing food and Korean way of life.

Yummy Korean food!

The weather in South Korea during the first week of August was blisteringly hot. We all suffered in the heat, especially in the city where there is little breeze and the concrete of the roads and pavements and buildings seem to hold onto the oppressive heat. So on the day we all took the Aspan cablecar into the mountains surrounding the city to see the most stunning and panoramic views of Daegu, it was great fun and also an incredible relief from the heat.

Taking the Aspan Cablecar to see views of the City of Daegu
The view from the top..!

We took a trip to the Korean War Museum too and it was interesting and educational and rather horrifying to learn how the war had affected the people of Korea and it made me appreciate their need for security especially as the war with North Korea ended in an amnesty and not a peace treaty.

At the Korea War Museum

On another day, we took a KTX high speed bullet train to the second largest city in South Korea after Seoul, the city of Busan. It is a coastal town known for its beaches and traditional feel. The city is built on a steep hillside overlooking the sea and the busy port. We explored Gamcheon Cultural Village – a popular tourist ‘must see’ attraction that feels like you just stepped back in Korean time. The scenery and the colourful houses and small shops were wonderful and again we took lots of photos!

On the KTX super-fast train to Busan. Photo by Sujeong Horton
Favourite moments from Busan...
The thumbs up from Sujeong..!

More favourite moments...

One evening in Daegu city centre we saw the new Mission Impossible movie in 4D at the CGV Cinema – which was great fun – it really was like being in the movie with water, wind and moving seats. It's like a theme park ride in a movie cinema!

4D cinema - like a theme park ride!

On other days we navigated the subways and spent some time shopping in the ultra-modern malls and then in complete contrast we wandered round the traditional Korean markets, where the freshest fruits and vegetables and spices and fish were being sold. We ate some very strange but delicious street foods and then later in the evenings we tried different styles of restaurants; except for one very special evening when we were invited to Sujeong’s parent’s home and her mum cooked a traditional meal for us all.

Amazing food and sights and smells of the traditional Korean market

The night before we left, we asked all the family to meet us at a restaurant in town, which was to be our treat. The restaurant had a private side room with a long low table and with cushions on the floor as seating. They came with presents for us that they had thoughtfully made themselves and it was an enjoyable and fun but emotional time. We had all bonded so well in that short week that I could hardly imagine what it would feel like to be leaving the next morning.

A family get together the night before we left...

On leaving, our new family accompanied us to the train station to wave us off on our long journey back to Scotland. Trav and I make a firm promise to our son to return as soon as possible but there were still lots of tears shed on that subway platform in Daegu on our way back to Incheon Airport.

Our ride back to Scotland...

Just one week wasn’t enough to spend with our Korean family and we now miss them all dreadfully so our ‘soon as possible’ return will be for our grandson’s first birthday party in February 2016. Our flights are already booked. And as for our two Scotland based sons, we can only hope that they will want to return to South Korea as often as they can and that James and his family can one day visit Scotland, so that our three sons can be together again very soon.

In the meantime, we are all grateful for Facebook and for Skype and that we are blessed by living in an age when global travel is not only possible but achievable - thanks to commercial airlines and their now affordable air fares. Long may it continue!

Twenty four hours later, after Trav and I had transited through Dubai International Airport for the fourth time in less than a month (crazy but true - see my previous post on our island hopping adventures in the Seychelles) we arrived back in Glasgow - only to check into the adjacent airport hotel - as we were flying out again only in the opposite direction the very next morning.

So in my next post I’ll be blogging about our return to Utila. ‘Our’ Caribbean island home that is the smaller of the Bay Islands just off the coast of Honduras. We had spent March April and May of this year on the island and we were excited to be going back for August September and October to the laid back life there and to catch up with our lovely island friends again.

Do pop back soon and do leave me a message if you’d like to in the comments box below. I’d love to hear from you and I promise to reply as soon as I get an internet connection.

Love, Janice xx

Friday 2 October 2015

Two weeks spent island hopping in the Seychelles!

The tropical islands of the Seychelles have long been a dream destination of ours but one we always thought would be outside our travel budget.

But in the first week of July this year, when we were back in Scotland for the month, and after a week of catching up with our much-missed families, we saw a last minute bargain flying to the Seychelles from Glasgow with Emirate airlines.

We are subscribed to lots of different airline and travel agency lists and when we were emailed with Emirate’s ‘24 hour flash sale’ – it seemed that a trip to the Seychelles might actually be affordable to us if we acted quickly and made our travel plans independently.

It didn’t take us long to agree and press a few buttons!

The Seychelles are an archipelago in the Indian Ocean consisting of more than one hundred and fifteen islands that are made up of ancient granite and corals. Famous for its beaches and nature reserves, island hopping is an absolute must and we planned to visit all the main islands of Mahé, Praslin, La Digue, and Curieuse, during our 14 day trip.

My husband Trav was excited about the scuba diving – the Seychelles are said to be one the world’s top ten dive locations. I was excited about seeing some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. I was also looking forward to seeing the famous ‘coco-de-mer’ nut - the largest coconut in the world that is only found on these islands. The largest tortoises in the world can also be found here: they have a lifespan of around one hundred and fifty years and the breeding group on the Seychelles remains the only chance to save the species from complete extinction. I was really looking forward to meeting some of these giant gentle creatures.

To say that I had huge expectations for this trip was an understatement!

We flew out of Glasgow and left the rain and grey skies behind us – heading for Dubai and a change of airplane before flying onto Mahe, the main island. A total flying time of around thirteen hours plus airport waiting time.

The view from our room at a Glasgow airport hotel on the morning we flew to the Seychelles!

But all the travelling was all totally worth it! We landed in Mahe around 6am and having used several internet travel sites like Expedia, and, to find affordable hotels, we took a taxi to our hotel of choice.

We planned to be on Mahe for our first three nights before taking an inter-island ferry over to Praslin, the island that we would use as a base for a week of island hopping over to Le Digue and Curieuse. Then we planned to return to Mahe for our last few nights before flying back to Glasgow.

These are just some of my favourite photo memories of those amazing two weeks!

First day - exploring the beach on Mahe Island, Seychelles
Island hopping is easy to do in the Seychelles using the inter-island ferry service

There are no cars on La Digue so we hired bicycles to explore the island

One of the world's most beautiful beaches... Anse Source D'Argent on La Digue Island, Seychelles
Impressively large beach boulders on Pralin Island
Hotel pool on Praslin

We visited a black pearl farm on the island of Praslin
The coco-de-mer nut!

Island hopping over to La Digue
Exploring Praslin on foot with Trav
Trav on a Praslin beach
Walking on the softest whitest sand in the world...
Meeting a giant tortoise on Curieous Island

An amazing sunset from our hotel on Praslin

Once back in Glasgow, on the last weekend of July, we headed up to the university town of St Andrews to attend our good friends daughter’s wedding. St Andrews is also known as the 'home' of golf course, of course. We were thrilled to be invited to share in such a special day and also excited to be meeting up with friends and to be staying overnight in such fabulous surroundings.

Trav and I don’t actually carry ‘best clothes’ in our suitcases while we are travelling, so we had to first head to Princes Street, Edinburgh, where I bought a lovely summery dress from Monsoon (half price in the sale - yay!) and Trav hired a very nice suit from a menswear department.

On Princes Street, Edinburgh, shopping for our St Andrews wedding attire!

The weather on the Saturday, for the wedding, having started out a bit grey and rainy, brightened up beautifully as we came out of the chapel and the sun came out just as we all enjoyed having champagne and nibbles outside on the famous grass quadrangle. While a string quartet was playing, and the wedding party were having the official photographs taken, we got to chat with our lovely much-missed friends and take lots of photographs. It was a fabulous day. Congratulations to the bride and groom, Leanne and Danny!

The day after the wedding, we drove back to Edinburgh, handed over Trav’s hired suit and stayed overnight at our eldest son Ben’s apartment in Edinburgh. 

In the morning, we planned to be up early to travel to Glasgow with Ben where we would meet our youngest son Iain.

We were all traveling together to South Korea to visit our middle son James, his lovely wife Sujeong, and our baby grandson Aaron – whom none of us had yet met!

We were also meeting Sujeong’s family for the first time and I was worried how we would communicate, as they don’t speak any English and we don’t speak any Korean. But I needn’t have worried - as we had an interpreter for our words - but the immediate love and warmth between us all needed no interpretation at all. One week wasn’t enough with our Korean family and we now miss them all dreadfully.

With our lovely Korean family!

So my next blog post will be about of our time, our experiences, and our travels in South Korea. It was wonderful, exciting and emotional trip – and I did get lots of photographs!

Thanks for reading my blog and please pop back soon. If you don’t want to miss any future posts please do consider subscribing to my blog. The form is on the side bar. You can, should you wish to hear about any book or writing news, also sign up for my newsletter – I only ever send out one or two a year and so promise not to bombard you.

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Love, Janice xx