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Wednesday, 7 December 2016

What wpuld you say if I told you it was possible to meet someone three times, in three different countries almost completely by chance?

In December 2015 I took the brave step of travelling to India alone. At the time, people told me I was mad. They said it wasn’t a safe place for a woman and that I’d feel lonely spending Christmas away from my family. Still, I was determined to go on my little adventure. Having spent some time alone in Delhi, I joined a group tour, that would take me through the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

The tour guide for this trip was a man named Dushyant. For 15 days we travelled through parts of Northern and Central India and Dushyant made sure that we had the most authentic experience possible. From recommending good clean restaurants, to introducing us to local people he had designed an experience that we simply could not have found for ourselves. On Christmas day in Varanasi, he found the only Christian restaurant in the City and we enjoyed a night of festive gaiety, surrounded by tacky Christmas decorations and a make-shift crib, all while dressed in a traditional Indian Sari! 

Christmas Eve 2015

On our last night of the tour, Dushyant gave a toast to our new found friendships and concluded that although we were all from diverse backgrounds, we should remember that this World is round and we never know where or when we could meet again.

Little did I know, that a year later we would in fact meet again while we were both far from home. In November, we both found ourselves in London for business reasons and thanks to the technology of Facebook, we managed to connect and meet for a brief coffee and a catch up. It was fantastic to see each other again and we both remembered the speech on the last night of our tour. The World is indeed round.

Not one month later, I got another message from Dushyant. “I am coming to Dublin” he said. Of course I couldn’t possibly have turned down the opportunity to give him the Céad Míle Fáilte and show him around my home town as he had his. 

On a cold December day in Dublin, we embarked on a whistle-stop tour of some of the Cities landmarks, including a walk in St Stephen’s Green, a glance at the Christmas lights on Grafton Street and visits to Trinity College and Christchurch. We saw Molly Malone and the Ha’penny bridge and of course soaked in the atmosphere of a live music gig in the Temple Bar pub. The latter was essential, given that the Temple Bar was featured in the set of a Bollywood Movie (Who knew?). We finished our day with a meal in a vegan restaurant before saying good bye for the third time.

The Temple Bar Pub, A Bollywood icon!

I was so happy that I could repay Dushyant for the kindness of showing me a side to India I would not have seen on my own. As it turns out he was right. The World is round and the people that we meet on our travels are never as far away as we might think. 
Reunited in Dublin Dec 2016


Thursday, 1 December 2016

It’s the 1st of December so I can officially allow myself to start talking about Christmas! I absolutely LOVE this time of year and cannot wait to spend the time surrounded by my family and friends. But it is important to remember that Christmas is not always a happy time for everyone.

In Ireland at the moment we have so many people living on the streets, living at or below the poverty line and struggling every day to survive. We have so many children who will not get what they have asked Santa for because their parents are trying so hard to put food on the table instead.

While most of us feel that Christmas is a time to be generous, not all of us are in a position to donate any spare cash to charity. We have got family and friends to buy for and of course we want to let those special people in our lives know that we love and care for and appreciate them.

So what can we actually do?

A few years ago I began a little gesture which costs me nothing but could mean the World to somebody else. In the lead up to Christmas we see a number of high street stores promoting 3 for 2 or buy one get one free offers, on a variety of items such as gifts and chocolates and toys. If I happen to be shopping in one of these stores, instead of taking the free item as a gift for myself, I always find a gift or toy that someone in need might appreciate and donate it to a charity.

This doesn’t cost me a cent, but it means that the charity can give the gift to a child or adult in need and hopefully make their Christmas a little bit brighter. Alternatively they could use the gift as a raffle prize to help generate much needed funds.

This Christmas I would like to ask everyone to consider taking those additional free items that we don’t really need, but we take because they are on offer, and donate them to a charity that is close to your heart. Because it genuinely doesn’t cost anything to be kind.

Wishing you all a very Happy December and a Merry and Kind Christmas.

Clair xxx 

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

“Thirty things to do before you’re 30”, “20 things you must do in your twenties”, we know the type of article. We’ve all read them and felt bad about our lives afterwards. I’m really not a fan of this kind of listcle type global peer pressure, which tells us where we have to be at a certain point in our lives. If I haven’t been to a full moon party in my 20’s have I even lived at all? I’ve often read these things and thought “Oh no, I’ve only done 5 of these 20 things, what have I been doing with my life?”

This kind of thing becomes even worse when you are edging towards a significant birthday. I will be turning the big 3-0 in a few weeks and to add to this, my birthday is New Year’s Eve. The problem with having a birthday on the last day of the year is that it makes you extra contemplative. I always have an incredible urge to reflect on the year gone by and the things I have achieved, or failed to achieve during that last year of my life. This year will be a big one and the listcles certainly don’t help. So, I have decided to reflect, not on the things that I “should” have done, but focus on the many fantastic things that I actually have done on my 30 years on the planet. So here is my list of 30 things I have done before turning 30.

1. Witnessed the Taj Mahal
2. Learned to Dance Salsa In Cuba

3. Heard the Echoes of my voice through the Maya Pyramids in Chichen Itza, Mexico

4. Walked the Great Wall of China
5. Backpacked through Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina
6. Attended an open air Opera in Vienna

7. Climbed to the top of Europe's Biggest Sand Dune

8. Ate a Chicken Maharajah Mac before a Bollywood movie in Agra, India

9. Learned how to shoot in Riga, Latvia

10. Saw the Northern Lights flicker across the Icelandic Sky

11. Volunteered to work with children in Kigali, Rwanda

12. Celebrated Carnival with Dutch friends in Eindhoven

13. Haggled for trinkets in the Souks of Marrakesh

14. Represented my country at the European Parliament in Brussels
15. Watched the sunrise on the River Ganges on Christmas morning
16. Climbed to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa

17. Explored the least visited country in Europe
18. Partied all night long in Ibiza

19. Was enthralled by red Square in Moscow

20. Met Mickey Mouse in Orlando, Florida
21. Braved Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge
22. Crashed a Wedding Party in Skopje, Macedonia

23. Volunteered in a Delhi Soup Kitchen

24. Found the path to peace in Tbilisi,Georgia
25. Walked hand in hand with someone special, along the canals of Amsterdam
26. Soaked up the atmosphere in the beer halls of Munich
27. Swam in the Caribbean sea.
28. Slept in a Military Hanger in Interlaken, Switzerland
29. Sampled Absinthe in Prague
30. I'm leaving number 30 blank..... because there is still a few weeks left to go!

So, am I worried about turning 30? Not a bit. There are a whole lot of adventures to come. So here's to 2017 and here's to the next 30 years and beyond!


Thursday, 17 November 2016

Holidays come in all shapes and sizes. We can take a weekend break or a month long vacation. We can stay close to home or travel long haul. Some of us travel for sunshine, others for snow. I thought I had tried all there was to try, but there was one thing missing in my repertoire and that was the All-inclusive beach holiday. Reserved by many for their honeymoon, the All-inclusive holiday is quite a different beast, to the many other trips that have come before it. I had done hotels, hostels, campsites, slept on trains, boats, in airports and once even in a military hangar, but I had never been to an All-inclusive resort.
I wanted to know what the fuss was about, and I don’t know, maybe something about turning thirty next month, made me spontaneously book a week in Cancun, Mexico, with my friend Shelly in tow. It was an extravagance I’ll admit, but for the first time in my life I went All-inclusive and true to my style, I decided to weigh up the pros and cons for you.
Meet Shelly :)

You don’t have to leave the resort
So following a ten hour flight and taking into consideration the dead heat and humidity, it’s possible that you don’t want to go exploring the town, looking for restaurants to eat in and trying to find out which place is least likely to give you food poisoning. Maybe you just want a quiet break where everything you need from drinks, to food, to entertainment is at your fingertips. Basically you can just lie, and be served. Excellent!

You don’t want to leave the resort
The only problem with having everything you need handed to you on a plate (literally), is that you are less likely to want to go exploring. This goes against everything I stand for as a traveller. Yes you might be eating Mexican food and watching a performance of traditional dancers, but are you actually seeing the real Mexico? I am completely guilty of feeling some days that I just didn’t want leave. Why would I go outside and actually pay for food and drink, when I had all this for free? If I had given in to this very strong urge, I would never have seen anything of the country I had travelled to see and would have traded in my sense of adventure for safe luxury.
Getting into the Spirit
It’s All you can eat. All day long.
Amazing. I could literally try any type of food I wanted at any time that I felt hungry. If we felt like eating at different times, that was fine too. There was certain flexibility about this and I loved filling my plate with all of the amazing Mexican delicacies such as Tacos, Tamales, Fajitas and Nachos…. So many nachos! There were 5 different restaurants on site, almost a different one for every night of the week, so repetition was never an issue, nor was hunger for that matter.
Churros - to die for!

It’s All you can Eat. All day Long.
Yep. A dieters nightmare. As much as I loved gorging on all of the amazing food, my waistline begged to differ. It was all fun and games lying on a sun lounger eating nachos and ordering steak to your room at 3 am (don’t knock it til you’ve tried it!) but not so much fun on the last night when you’re having a hissy fit because your little black dress is too tight. EUGH!
Just too much food....

It’s All you can Drink. All day and All night.
That’s right. Champagne for breakfast? No problem. Margaritas at lunch? Bring it on!!! Tequila till you get sick…….. You see where I’m going with this!
Oh dear.....

It’s All you can Drink. All day and All night.
The temptation of being drunk every day for a week was too much for some of our fellow hotel guests and look I’m not going to advocate for this. Know the one that’s one too many and all that!
You get the idea......

You will never run out of money
It has happened to some of us that we have been away from home and something terrible has happened. We’ve had our purse stolen or our bank cards scammed. All kidding aside, I did like the security of being in a resort knowing that if anything happened at least I would be fed and watered for the week.

The tipping and the guilt
While enjoying the luxury of my All-inclusive resort, safe in the knowledge that I had worked hard to pay for this well-earned break, I did spare a thought for the staff of the resort and felt a tinge of guilt. When we spoke to some of the staff we learned that they earned just $4 a day and made up the rest of their money on tips. This meant a need to tip for basically everything and in some cases a lot of pressure to do so. For example on our last day our cleaning lady entered our room even though we had a “Do not disturb” sign displaying to collect a tip and the woman in the gift shop actively asking if she could keep some of our change as a tip!!

The bottom line
My bottom line on All-inclusive is that I very much enjoyed the experience. I came home feeling rested and relaxed, unlike some of my trips where I need a break after my holiday! It was lovely to have the security and the peace of mind that came with the resort.

On the other hand, I don’t think I will be getting too used to it. As amazing as it was, I still feel the uncontrollable urge to move from hostel to guesthouse in search of the more genuine experiences, to eat local street food and to walk through cities until blisters form. Maybe there are more All-inclusive resorts in my future, but then again, maybe thirty isn’t that old after all? 


Tuesday, 1 November 2016

When the Irish Football team were drawn to play against Moldova in the World Cup qualifiers, I couldn’t believe my luck. An opportunity to travel to one of the least visited countries in the World and a good excuse to do it! It also meant we could satisfy my need to travel to obscure places, and there was the football for Himself. Perfect!  I thought it would give me a great chance to see for myself why Moldova is the least visited country in Europe or alternatively, to find out if it was in fact the old cliché “A hidden gem”. What will happen, I wondered, when a country that averages 7000 tourists per year, gets 700 in one weekend?

 After 24 hours in Moldova I had decided my blog post would be entitled “Moldova-You’re not missing much”. Fueled with jet lag from the overnight flight and disgust that our tour of the local winery had been cancelled, the place had not exactly endeared itself to me. But, as I always do, I decided to give it a second chance and it would appear that I had spoken too soon.

Disastrous Day One
To be fair, Moldova was having a bad day. The rain was bucketing down as we raised our groggy heads from our pillows. Having tried in vain to organise a trip to the Mileci Mici winery, (the world’s biggest wine cellar) we decided to go for a walk around the streets of Chisinau. I was gutted that we couldn’t go on the wine tour, given that it was basically the number one attraction in the city and the winery would not take our booking since they had no English speaking guides free. A problem caused by having 10% of your annual tourists in one weekend for the least visited country in Europe no doubt. 

We left our hotel into the chill of Chisinau (pronounced Kish-i-now) and made our way up Pushkin Street. We were both starving having flown through the night and sleeping through breakfast, so our first port of call was to get fed. After a very cheap lunch in a commercial pizza chain “Andy’s Pizza” (Don’t judge me!) we were ready to see Chisinau.

The cold rain made the experience pretty miserable and there were hardly any people to be seen on the streets, which seemed to consist primarily of Casinos, Karaoke Bars and Travel Agents. It would appear that everyone wanted to leave.

To get away from the rain we went to the first place on our map, the Nativity Cathedral. Built in the 1830’s it is now the main cathedral of the Moldovan Orthodox Church and I must admit was particularly impressive on the inside. Sadly, photography was not permitted, so you will have to take my word for it and accept my meagre description. Inside, elaborately tiled floors lead to terrific imagery painted on walls in midnight blue, turquoise and gold. The gold is not reserved for the walls and numerous solid gold statues and candelabras stand at every turn. The palatial interior seemed so disconnected to the sombre exterior of the building. I was required to cover my hair on entering and we went about lighting a candle inside the church.

We ventured back into the rain and walked the length of the city towards the Hotel Chisinau, a monstrous structure where a number of our friends were based for the weekend. “It’s like staying with your Granny” some of them explained and noted that it hadn’t been redecorated since its construction.

One building that had caught my eye however was the St Theodore Tiron Convent, the first splash of colour in this otherwise very grey city. Painted a light blue and white and topped with shining gold domes it too felt out of place with the crumbling remains of a high rise building towering behind it.
After more rambling and exploring the underpasses and street art, we stopped at a trendy Asian restaurant where we indulged in beautifully presented and cheap cocktails and gave our coats a chance to dry out.

The Grape Unknown
Our second day was boosted by the arrival of some sunshine and I woke up ready to give Chisinau a second chance. We tried once again in vain to get onto any of the wine tours, but it was Sunday and the wineries were closed. We were disappointed with this, because there was no information about this on their websites. I couldn’t believe that due to a rookie error of not booking in advance, I was missing out on Moldova’s number one tourist attraction. It's funny what a bit of sunshine can do to a place though...... because without the rain, Chisinau was looking like a much better place.

A change of heart
Day two started much the same as day one, with an aimless walk around Chisinau. Armed with our trustee map, we first walked towards the Stefan Cel Mare Central Park. I knew that there was only one thing that could truly lift my mood, so a holiday ice cream was duly purchased and suddenly Moldova seemed like a brighter place.

The park was a busy and bright display of the heart and soul of Chisinau with an eye-catching fountain in the centre. What truly grabbed my attention, and my heart for that matter, was the large group of elderly couples dancing to a live brass band. Off to one side of the park, sensibly dressed couples waltzed along to calming music. Handbags were hung conveniently on the surrounding trees. We stood for a while and watched the romantic displays of affection.
Elsewhere in the park a mother sat hiding behind a bouquet of colorful balloons while her children played and I suddenly felt a connection with Chisinau for the first time.

The National Museum
The only place to go really was the museum of national history. I was pleasantly surprised by the range and depth of the exhibits from archaeological artefacts to political posters from the country’s independence in 1991. I was even more surprised by the beauty of the building with blood red walls in one room and ceylon blue in another.

I was very intrigued by the political history of Moldova and it's road to independence in 1991 an event which occurred during my lifetime. Having visited a number of former Soviet countries it is something that I have a particular interest in. The museum was slightly unique in that the curators sat in a corner of every room and displayed annoyance if you walked around the exhibit in the wrong order!

The Market Place
I always believe that a market is the best place to go to experience a new country. Contrary to anywhere I have been, Chisinau's markets had no acknowledgement of tourism. It was purely filled with practical items and not a luxury in sight. Fruit, vegetables, clothes and underwear as far as the eyes could see. The marketplace was bustling but it was a very safe place to be for two tourists sticking out like sore thumbs.

Central Station and the Pain Train
Having left the markets empty handed, we rambled on down to the central station, where a massive monument entitled "Pain Train"  acts as a tribute to those Deported by Stalin.

En route to the station, hoards of street sellers sit selling used items that many people would throw away. Somehow, a number of them were making sales so we spent some time simply people watching. We then watched as old colourful trains approached the station and took in the atmosphere of this busy and very Moldovan area.

Time for Drinks
Long days wandering around cities are thirsty work! We decided to splurge a little and took a lift up to the Sky Bar where we got an incredible view of the city's skyscape while enjoying a cocktail in a trendy bar.

This was such a contrast from just ten minutes earlier where we were watching locals sell their used items. The bar was almost completely white inside and white swings and drapes fall from the ceiling, where acrobats and dancers entertain by night.

The Match
Our tourism had almost come to an end and finally it was match time. We took a taxi to the Zimbru Stadium, a small football stadium with about 10,000 capacity. There weren't too many local supporters in the ground, with just as many watching the game from the towering apartment blocks overshadowing the pitch. We got off to a worrying start, but with a final result of 3-1 to Ireland we could all breathe a sigh of relief.

The Grape Known?
So I never did get to the wineries of Moldova, but I did make sure to taste some of their locally produced wine. It was absolutely delicious and so cheap that I decided to bring a couple of bottles home. It was a massive disappointment to not see the one attraction I was hoping to see, but I suppose it leaves me with an excuse to go back. Having spent some time thinking, it seems to me that Moldova is faced with a bit of a chicken and egg situation - without tourist attractions there are no tourists, but without tourists there are no tourist attractions. My advice, however, would be to see Moldova before the tourists, before it becomes expensive and before it loses its unique charm forever.


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