The Shoulda Woulda Coulda Day

Today has been one of those days. One where I think, ‘if I had just done…’ or ‘if we had just not…’, it would have been very different. I’m four days in to our epic tour across Sri Lanka – without doubt the most beautiful country I have ever been to. I paid enough money to get here, the itinerary is wonderful and I have a great group of people with me, so everything should be rosy, right? Then why do I not feel that way? I’ll say it again: today has been one of those days. 

It started well enough, eating a delicious breakfast in our super modern and comfortable hotel in Kandy, before being driven to up to a viewpoint high in the hills to overlook the city. It was simply stunning. Then, we drove back down to a Buddhist temple said to house a tooth of Buddha. I absolutely adore places like this. Everything looks incredible, the people are calm and the smell of incense wafts in the air. Plus, there are enough Buddha images to keep me and my camera happy. After our tour of the temple, we headed away from the centre of Kandy up to a tea factory where we saw how the tea goes from leaf to bag, and then got to try some of the good stuff for ourselves. 

Next, some of the group split off to head back to the city while the rest of us went on to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. This was my ‘shoulda’ moment of the day. As soon as I arrived, I wanted to leave. We went hoping it was going to be very different from our experience in Thailand, where the elephants were in chains, but sadly it wasn’t. The smaller elephants were allowed to roam free, but the bigger ones were in chains, unable to move but for a shuffle forward or to the side. The mahouts prodded the big guys with sticks and stuck blades into their heads to lead them where they wanted to go. Tourists were encouraged to breach the safety of a rock fence, to take selfies with the elephants in order to make the mahouts a few extra rupees. Now, I can’t speak for the elephants themselves and am a complete novice when it comes to their welfare, but something didn’t seem right to me. It’s great that they’re cared for, but shouldn’t conservation mean they’re protected from the dangers of humans, not subjected to it? 

Tim and I waited for the tourists to get bored of watching the elephants and move on. Sensing they were no longer able to make money, the mahouts moved on too. This allowed us an awesome view of the elephants roaming completely of their own free will, with a dramatic backdrop of mountains behind them. This cheered me a little. 

The group then moved on to a restaurant overlooking the river, where we could watch the herd bathe. On their way down to the river, the elephants walked straight past us when we heard the unmistakably loud trumpet from one of the elephant’s trunks. We couldn’t work out what was going on, but people started shouting and the elephants quickly became agitated. Tourists were ushered behind chain fences and told to move back for their own safety. It was only later that we found out one of the elephants had trampled a local stray dog in the street where it lay lifeless for us all to see later. This was my ‘woulda’ moment. If I wasn’t there, I wouldn’t have seen it and wouldn’t be so deeply affected by it now. If anything, this is yet another demonstration of why wildness and domesticity should not and cannot mix. That poor dog. 

After the fracas, a somber normality returned and the elephants started to wash themselves as the tourists looked happily on. We were promised a view of the elephants bathing “completely unaided” said the brochure, “except for a few of them in chains and scared off by the mahouts wielding their blades” says me. Granted again, there were some smaller elephants without chains and they were a delight to watch – it was some small mercy I suppose. 

The rest of the day had a grey cloud over it, not least because of the tropical storm that reached us as we drove back to the city. We watched a traditional Sri Lankan dance and music show, which was great, and then decided what to do next. Here’s my ‘coulda’. The rest of the group walked into town to do some exploring. I could have gone with them, but I didn’t. I decided to head back to the hotel to wash and mope and try to forget about the sad happenings of the day. Now I’m lying in my hotel room, writing this, and wondering whether I should have gone to cheer myself up. Of course I shouldn’t. Because I didn’t want to. 

That brings me to the real point of this post. As a traveller, there is so much pressure on you to take every opportunity, explore every side street, do simply everything. You’re not always going to be the person everyone in the group wants to talk to, or the girl that looks best in a bikini, or the one that does everything with a smile on their face because they’re so blessed to be where they are. You’re a real person with real feelings, and there are going to be days where you wish you could have reacted to something differently. And that’s okay. Don’t dwell on it, just move on and see how you feel the next time around. Travelling is a personal choice and no one should tell you how to do it. Just go with your own mind. 

Now, I’m off to have that shower and rest up for another day tomorrow. I can already tell it is going to be better than today. But so what if it isn’t? It’s just a day, after all. 

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Have you ever had any days where you wish you should, could or would have done something? How did you get through it? 

My home town according to TripAdvisor

Inspired by a #PTTravel (Part-Time Travel) Twitter conversation a few months ago, I decided to see what my home town of Reading, UK had to offer locals and tourists alike.

Despite living here for the past 4 years, I had no idea what the main sights and attractions were. I often complain that there’s nothing to do here – Reading is a big town in the south of England, but I see it as a bit of a concrete jungle. It’s a good place for shopping (if you like high street shops) and eating (if you like mainstream restaurants) but not a lot else… or so I thought…

So, I turned to TripAdvisor and decided to launch an experiment: how much did I agree with TripAdvisor on things that were practically on my doorstep?

Well let’s take a look at the Top 10 Things to Do in TripAdvisor rating order:

  1. Basildon Park – As a National Trust property, it’s quite expensive to get into but well worth the money. We went on a beautifully sunny day in April, so we could make the most of the manicured grounds and see the grand building bathed in sunlight. The property itself is an interesting visit, especially if you like Downtown Abbey as a lot of the interior shots were filmed there.
    Basildon House, Reading
  2. Beale Park – I was pleasantly surprised to find we had a wildlife park so close to home. Tim and I are huge animal lovers, so we were prepared to spend a cold and rainy day wandering past the enclosures to see lemurs, emus, deer and various exotic birds. Aside from the animals, there’s a lovely little train that takes you on a tour of the whole site, a playground and a gift shop to keep you entertained.
    Beale Park, Reading
  3. Reading Station – I did a double take when I first read this. Yes – the train station really does feature in TripAdvisor’s Top 10 Things to Do in Reading – and at #3! Much like the town itself, it’s big, confusing, there are a few shops, a few cafes but nothing particularly noteworthy. It’s been refurbished recently, so it might have attracted a few visitors… but enough to make it one of the best attractions in town?! I find it hilarious that one of the best things to do is leave Reading!
    Reading Train Station
  4. Wellington Country Park – This is one of my favourite places in Reading, and one I actually knew about without TripAdvisor. It’s a bit of a drive outside the centre, but there’s so much to do there to make it worth the journey. You can take a walk around the huge lake, play mini golf, walk with dinosaurs, let the kids loose in the playgrounds and eat picnics/barbecues in the grounds. We spent our minimoon in Wellington Country Park at the onsite camping ground, making this place really close to my heart.
    Wellington Country Park, Reading
  5. Silchester – The Roman ruins at Silchester are a good place to walk and imagine what it used to be like back in the days of Julius Ceasar. Though the ruins are not particularly well-preserved, you can still make out the city walls and the amphitheatre, and read about how they were uncovered by archaeologists. The unrelated highlight for me was the random alpaca pen at the back of the site! Remember to pack some wellies if it’s been raining. The place can get very muddy indeed…
    Silchester, Reading
  6. Reading Museum – It turns out Reading has quite a fascinating history that I wouldn’t have known about if it wasn’t for this museum. The museum is set in the Town Hall, which is an impressive building in itself. It houses artefacts from Reading’s industrial times, where it was famous for biscuits, beer and seeds, and there’s even a replica of the Bayeux Tapestry for real history buffs.
    Reading Museum
  7. Kennet & Avon Canal – Another outdoor attraction, the Kennet & Avon canal runs from Bristol, through the centre of Reading, and out to join the River Thames on its way to London. It’s possible to walk the entire length as a few of my colleagues did last year for charity. We prefer to do little bits of it, stopping at the lovely villages along the way to admire the scenery and drink at the pubs…
    Kennet & Avon Canal, Reading
  8. Stanlake Park Wine Estate – Without a doubt, this was my favourite of the 10. I would recommend a visit, even if you live miles away. Book a hotel. Make the most of the wine. It’s worth it. We went on a gloriously warm and sunny day, so could enjoy touring the vineyard and learning about how the wine is made. At each stop of the tour, we were given a taste of eight different wines they produce on site. I was sold. Our guide was fantastic, with a completely no-nonsense approach to wine, dispelling some common myths about what makes wine good quality. We came away with a bottle of British bubbly and plans to celebrate my 30th birthday back at the vineyard. I can’t wait.
    Stanlake Park Wine Estate
  9. Caversham Court Gardens – Another bit of greenery close to the centre of Reading, Caversham Court Gardens is set on the River Thames so you can watch the rowers row, runners run and walkers walk. There are some beautiful old trees and pretty flowers that bloom in spring, but I bet it would be just as lovely in autumn when everything turns golden and crunchy.
    Caversham Court Gardens, Reading
  10. Forbury Gardens – This park is a bit of a god send for Reading town centre. In summer, it’s a great place to go for a picnic. In winter, it’s home to probably the worst Christmas market in the country. The rest of the time, it’s remarkably peaceful and a nice place to just sit and ponder. There’s also a giant lion statue in the centre as a memorial to the local soldiers that fought in World War II. Apparently the lion is anatomically incorrect, but when the rest of the gardens are this pretty, who really cares? 
    Forbury Gardens, Reading

All this exploring had made us hungry, so we turned to TripAdvisor to find the best eats in Reading. In the week where Reading people made the news for reviewing McDonalds on TripAdvisor (it’s the #336 ‘restaurant’ in Reading in case you’re interested), I was a bit dubious to find out what the locals would rate, but again I was pleasantly surprised.

  1. Tutti Frutti – The #1 ‘restaurant’ in Reading is less of a restaurant, more of an ice cream parlour. But, boy, is it good. Set in a tiny retail outlet in Reading Station, it’s a welcoming place with some of the kindest staff I’ve ever come across. As soon as we stepped in, tasters of the most delicious ice cream flavours were thrust into our hands and mouths by a joyful, smiling gentleman. Once I had nearly eaten a whole tub’s worth of tasters, I settled on a full cone of Banoffee ice cream and said a little prayer to the TripAdvisor gods for helping me find this place.
    Tutti Frutti, Reading

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Overall, this turned out to be an incredibly worthwhile experiment. It has made me appreciate my home town so much more, and look beneath the surface for things to keep me occupied on weekends and days out of the office. TripAdvisor uncovered some gems, and some stinkers (the station?! Seriously?!) but I was pleased to find the majority of Things to Do were cultural attractions that I will be returning to again and again.  

Do you appreciate your home town? What are the Top 10 Things to Do in your hometown?

*The rankings mentioned in this post were all correct at the time of writing

Why I fell in love with Spain

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you may have noticed that I’m quite a big Spain fan. And even that’s an understatement. I absolutely adore the country. How could you not, when it’s given us some delicious food, spectacular scenery and Enrique Iglesias?! Just me on that last one then…

My Spanish love affair started in 2011 when I first arrived in Madrid on a holiday with my husband. I immediately felt at home and couldn’t wipe the smile off my face until it was time to fly back to Blighty. Since then, I’ve visited a lot more of the country, and I’m sure it won’t be too long before I’ve seen it all.

Part of its charm might be that I feel sorry for it… Spain has a really bad rap for being “England by the sea” – full of lobster faced Brits drinking too much and showing too much skin on the beach. Granted, there are some cities where this is quite true *cough*Marbella*cough*, but if you go to the right places and avoid the Brits abroad, it’s a wonderful country with a lot to love.

Here are the reasons why I love Spain, and why I think you’ll love it too:

  • Beautiful language – I’ve always been fascinated by the Spanish language – just how musical it sounds, how the words flow and how incomprehensible it can be when you speak to the wrong person. I’ve been learning Spanish for nearly 5 years now and am determined to become fluent one day. And where’s the best place to practise the language? Spain of course!
  • Delicious food – Stereotypically, you may assume the only food to come out of Spain is gazpacho and paella. But what about empanadas, calamari sandwiches(!), churros…? Some of my favourite dishes come from Spain, and tapas is the perfect way to try them all out. Careful not to drool on the keyboard…
    Tapas
  • Tasty drinks – Similarly, you might think Spain is only good for sangria. You’d be wrong! What about all those fantastic wines it produces? And have you heard of Agua de Valencia? What about horchata? Tinto de Verano? Freshly squeezed Seville orange juice? All delicious, and all Spanish.
  • Fantastic music – Traditional Spanish music sounds even better live, as we found out when we watched a fantastic Flamenco show in Seville. Female voices are incredibly powerful, and the rapid flurries on Spanish guitars are so impressive to hear. Luckily, more recent Latino creations sound just as good. I’m going to set you a challenge. Watch the video below and try not to smile. It’s impossible. Spanish music is some of the best in the world – so upbeat, toe-tappy and incredibly catchy. I love it, and I bet you do too. Oh, and did I mention Enrique Iglesias?
  • Awe-inspiring scenery – From the beautiful coastline in the north to the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the south, Spain is really really good-looking. You could drive for hours and find an endless supply of things to keep you (and your camera!) happy.
  • Incredible architecture – Of course I can’t talk architecture without mentioning Gaudi, whose buildings and artworks in Barcelona are some of the most recognisable – and rightly so! The Sagrada Familia is take-your-breath-away stunning and a place you have to see in the flesh. Aside from Gaudi, southern Spain is home to beautiful Moorish style cathedrals and palaces like the Alhambra, and more futuristic buildings such as the Ciudad de las Artes y Sciencias in Valencia. They’re all well worth a visit.
    La Sagrada Familia
  • The nicest people – Every Spanish person I have ever met has been open, friendly and very welcoming. I love how straightforward they are, their energy and their zest for life. Plus, they’re all pretty attractive, which helps. I’m sure there are some nasty ones out there, but I’m yet to meet them. So for now, the people are another reason why I love Spain.
  • Wonderful weather – You must have heard the saying “The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plains” which, to me, means it doesn’t rain in Spain, or at least you never see it. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been there while it’s raining. Think wall to wall sunshine, bright blue skies and temperatures to keep you warm and toasty. It can get super hot in summer, but that’s nothing an air-conditioned café and a glass of wine can’t fix. Just look at that blue sky in Valencia…!
    Valencia
  • Fascinating cities – Despite not actually liking Madrid all that much (shocking I know), I fell in love with absolutely every other city I visited in Spain: Barcelona, Grenada, Seville, Cordoba and Valencia. They each have so much to do, so much to see and so much to offer.

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If you take away anything from this post, please let it be to stay away from Benidorm and Marbella. Visit some of the other great cities instead. You just might find something you like.

Have you ever been to Spain? What was your experience of it? Do you think its stereotypes are well-founded?