Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Where am I now?

After a fantastic three weeks in Órgiva I am now with my fourth helpx host (second in Spain). Finca La Maroma is a luxury gay guest house less than one hour drive from Malaga. It is owned and operated by a lovely couple - Mark (from England) and Tom (from America) - and is also shared by their very boisterous young dogs, Otis and Homer.

Finca La Maroma

The finca (think holiday home in a rural setting) is named after the mountain which it sits below. La Maroma is the highest mountain of Sierra de Tejeda at an altitude of 2069m. The finca sits at 416m so the climate is very comfortable. In the November sun it is about 15-20 Celsius but quite chilly in the evenings. However, in the summer it is 25-30 Celsius and still warm in the evenings. Lovely!

The mountain of La Maroma
It is currently closed for winter so myself and another volunteer from New Zealand are enjoying the luxurious apartments for the next three weeks while we help with general maintenance, tidying and preparing the grounds for next year. We've been here three nights now and so far the tasks have included moving wood from a felled tree, clearing some very overgrown squash vines, weeding around the orange tree, sweeping up the decks and cleaning the pool.

One of today's tasks involved clearing out some rubbish from a shed, loading it into a trailer with the household recycling and driving the 4km to Sedella, the nearest village,m to dispose of it at the landfill site. Sedella is a sleepy little village of about 400 residents with a couple of shops, couple of bars and one restaurant which the locals never go to. It's not uncommon to see herds of goats being walked through the main street.

Goats in Sedella
Tom is a fantastic cook and the food so far has been excellent - as an example, last night's meal was beef bourguignon and it was delicious! Both of our hosts have been very thoughtful in making sure that we are comfortable in our rooms and have everything we need. They really are a great example of what helpx is about - a fair exchange of work by helpers for comfortable accommodation, good food and friendly conversation from hosts.

Oh, and did I mention the cats? They don't actually own any cats but there are about five that hang around, get fed and are well looked after. The friendliest of the bunch is Shadow who likes to follow you around when you take the dogs out or just get in the way when you're working outdoors.

I'm here until the 17th December so I'm sure there will be more to tell you before I depart for my next host which is a hostal (guesthouse) in Marbella. 

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

What is HelpX?

You've seen a description of my travels, maybe on Twitter or Facebook, where I said something like 'hitchhiking, helpxing and couchsurfing across the globe' and now you're wondering what on earth is helpxing? How is it even pronounced - help-zing or help-x-ing? Perhaps it's a typo?

Well, is isn't a typo but it is a made up word. HelpX is short for 'help exchange' and refers to a website used to facilitate voluntary work exchange between hosts and helpers . The idea is that people from all over the world (hosts) who need help on their farms, in their homes, in hostels, in B&Bs, in lodges, with building projects, or some other kind of help can be matched up with people that are willing to work on a short term basis for a few hours a day (helpers).

Perhaps the most important aspect of this exchange is that is done entirely without money. It is ideal for people taking a gap year, backpacking around the world or simply looking for an alternative holiday. The helpers give up their time (typically around 25 hours per week with one or two days off) and the hosts provide meals and accommodation. However there is also a lot more to be gained from the exchange for both parties involved.

For the helpers
  • Opportunity to stay with local people and truly experience the culture
  • 'Free' food and accommodation - you work for it instead of paying money
  • Safe places to stay while travelling
  • Gain practical experience on farms and in accommodation businesses
  • Learn new skills such as building, gardening, cleaning and cooking
  • Meet other helpers who you will often go sightseeing with
  • Improve your foreign language skills
  • Time to explore the local area or further beyond on your days of
For the hosts
  • Help to complete all sort of tasks both inside and outside
  • Meet people from all over the world without leaving home
  • Have people cook new and interesting meals for you and your family
  • Improve your foreign language skills
  • Membership for hosts is completely free
It is free to sign up to HelpX but for helpers some features, such as seeing reviews and contacting hosts, are restricted. However, premier membership for helpers lasts for 2 years and only costs 20 euros (price of one night in a hostel). Membership for hosts is completely free.

I have found that helpx.net is one of the best and easiest to use sites for work exchange but there are other websites that offer a similar thing, wwoof.net or workaway.info for example.

Listed above are just a few of the potential benefits. Can you think of anything to add? Have you been a host or a helper? I'd love to hear about your experiences. Please let me know in the comments below. 

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Hitchhiking in the Alpujarras

Me with Sarah from Germany
Travelling for me is all about meeting new people as well as going to new places. This is one of the reasons that I do the HelpX placements as you meet not only the hosts but very often there are other helpers staying at the same place. Sarah, from Germany, is one such person and with a day off from our duties we decided to do a bit of exploring.

Villages left to right - Capileira, Bubión and Pamaneira
With the advice of our hosts we decided to visit the three white villages, Capileira, Bubión and Pampaneira, located high up in the gorge of the Poqueira river in the Las Alpujarras district of Granada, Spain. This is one of the best place to see the Moorish influence on the architecture of the area as the buildings here are well preserved. It is a very popular day trip for tourists and we saw many coaches despite it being the middle of November.

Sarah thumbing a lift from Órgiva
Getting there was the first challenge but we soon discovered that hitchhiking in this area is extremely easy. The first people to pick us up were this lovely Spanish couple from Granada who not only stopped at the best view points for us to take pictures but also went 10km beyond their own destination to take us to the highest of the three villages, Capileira, officially recorded as 1436m (Ben Nevis in Scotland is only 1345m).

Sarah with our first hitchhiking ride
Somehow I have neglected to get any pictures that adequately show off the architecture of the area but I did catch this one of a local pizza chef.

Thankfully I did manage to capture at least one half decent shot of the views. It was incredibly peaceful so high in the mountains and we found this great spot to sit at, have a long chat and enjoy the scenery.

View over the rooftops of Capileira
On the way back down we had a tasty, very large and very cheap meal (only €8 for 3 courses) at Casa Julio in Pampaneira where some of the menu options looked a bit suspicious.

However, I did try the Patatas a lo Pobre (poor man's potatoes). Anyone that has read Driving Over Lemons by Chris Stewart will understand the connection of this dish to the area.

All in all it was a great day out and if you're ever in the area then make sure you put these three villages on your itinerary.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Keeping busy at Órgiva Tea Garden

I've been at Órgiva Tea Garden for almost two weeks and I'm sorry that there is only one more week to go. Sadly I have been quite poorly with a nasty cold for the last few days which has slowed my pace of work but I've been determined to keep going.

The tasks here have been varied and have included weeding (always fun), turning compost (always back breaking) and building a set of simple steps in the duck pen (semi-professional finish).

This morning I was using this wood chipper to fill up one of the now empty compost heaps. It's loud and dusty but somewhat satisfying. 

This chap was giving me the evil eye - I think he's photo shy. 

And every time I see these guys I can't help but think of The Llama Song (video below for your viewing pleasure).

Finally there was a stand off this afternoon between the photographer and next year's bacon supply.

Tomorrow I will be visiting a village called Capileira that is higher than Ben Nevis (the highest mountain in Scotland). Don't forget to subscribe so that you don't miss out on the story. 

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Walking tours in Granada

When visiting Granada in Spain it is well worth taking one or more of the free tours offered by Walk in Granada. The guides are all knowledgeable and very enthusiastic about showing off their city. There is no need to book just simply turn up next to the fountain in Plaza Nueva at the times advertised on their website. They are advertised as free tours but is expected that you tip the guide at the end as this is how they earn their living.

The essential historical tour gives a great introduction to the city by taking your past the main sights and the guide will even point out good places to eat and drink.

The Albayzin tour takes you to the old Muslim quarter where you will find out about some of Spain's most important history.

The Sacromonte tour covers the lifestyle and history of the gypsy culture in Granada, explores the origin of Flamenco and takes you to see the best view of the whole city.

Private tours and tours of the Alhambra are also available.

Don't just take take my word for it - have a look at Tripadvisor or check their Facebook page to see what others think.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Seven tips for having a great couchsurfing experience

When you are traveling on a budget one of the biggest costs is likely to be your accommodation. A great way to bring down this cost is to go couchsurfing. The idea was started by a small group of people in 2004 and now the website has 12 million members in over 200,000 cities around the world.

If you’ve never couch surfed before then it can be a bit intimidating to think about turning up in an unknown city and staying with a complete stranger. Here are some tips to help you pick a good host and ensure that you have a positive experience.
  1. Create an intersting profile

Imagine that you are the host that is going to open your home to a complete stranger. You’d probably want to know a bit about them first so make sure that you have some good pictures. Always be smiling in them and if you can get one or two that you you being happy in a group situation then that may make you appear like a friendly person.

It shouldn’t be an essay because hosts are busy people and may not have the time to read it. Write a couple of paragraphs about who you are, any interesting hobbies you have and what you can offer the host by way of entertainment. Take a look at some other profiles to get an idea and follow the prompts that the website offers to make it easier.

  1. Plan ahead

Ideally you want to start looking for hosts in your chosen location at least one week before you arrive at a destination. If you leave it too late you will more than likely find that people already have guests, have other plans or simply don’t see your message in time to respond.

  1. Read reviews carefully

The hosts profile should give you an idea of the person, what space they have to offer in their home and other details that they choose to share. However, always take time to read the reviews that have been left by other couchsurfers as this will give you a better insight to what sort of experience you can expect to have while there.

Don’t forget to leave your own review after your stay to help future couch surfers make their decision. The host should hopefully leave you a review as well which, assuming it is positive, will make it easier for you to get more hosts in the future.

  1. Personalise your request

When trying to find a place to stay it can be very tempting to send a copy of the same message to multiple hosts. This may seem like an efficient method as you’d think the more people you contact the more likely you may be to get a positive response. Hosts, particularly active ones with many reviews, will often get several requests a day and they can tell when your response is a copy and paste job.

A better approach would be to take the time to write an individual post to each potential host that mentions some of the things they talk about in their profile. Hosts are more likely to respond if they can tell that you have taken the time to read their profile properly.

A quick way to do this is write a message with the basic details such as where and when you are going. You can save this on couchsurfing as a ‘message template’ then simply add the name of each host with a paragraph or two that is unique to them.

  1. Ask questions

A host's profile doesn’t always give enough information for you to plan your visit. Some things to check before you go could include:
  • Are bedding and towels provided?
  • What time will the host be available for you to arrive? They may have work and therefore not be home till the evening or may have plans that you have to work around.
  • If you’re staying for more then one night, will you be able to come and go as you like? Some hosts are reluctant to give you a key and others don’t mind.
  • Are you allowed to cook at their place? This is a great way to save money while travelling as eating out all the time can be quite expensive. Don’t forget to offer them some food as well if you are cooking.
  • What time does the host normally go to bed? Particularly important if you’re arriving very late/early or if you plan to be out late into the night.
  • What is the public transport like? If they’re right in the middle of the city then this won’t be a problem but if they’re further out then it’s good to check. Once you have their address you can search on Google Maps and check directions to the city centre which will give you public transport details (this won’t work in all countries).

  1. Offer something in return

It’s not expected that you bring a gift (after all part of this is about saving money) but if you have space in your luggage it is nice to bring a little something from your country or home town. A good but inexpensive thing could be a little piece of confectionery or a postcard of where you are from. If you are staying more than one night then you could also offer to cook your host a meal or take them out for dinner.

Try not to worry about this too much though as people will not be offended if you don’t do this. Couchsurfing works because the expectation is that in return for staying with hosts you will also offer space in your home so that other people can benefit from staying with you when they visit your area.

  1. Relax and enjoy

Couchsurfing is not just a great way to save money but is one of the best ways to truly experience an area from the perspective of a local. You will meet interesting open minded people, get advice on the best places to eat, drink, visit and often find yourself enjoying home cooked meals, being invited to parties and making new friends that you will keep in touch with for years to come.

The most important thing is to relax, be yourself and enjoy the experience.

Have you couchsurfed before or hosted couchsurfers? What advice would you add? Perhaps you’ve never tried couchsurfing before and still have some unanswered questions. Add your comments below and I’ll try to answer them for you.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

How I'm dealing with the pain of today's US election result

I was pretty shocked by the whole Brexit thing but waking up today to discover that America has elected a narcissistic, racist, egotistical twat to lead their country? Well, I'm flummoxed. Then I realised that there's no point stressing about things over which I have absolutely no control, put on my gardening gloves and got to work.

Every Wednesday the Orgiva Tea Garden is open to the public. Homemade cakes, soup and sandwiches are all available, there is a little shop selling some books, arts and crafts, and there are also various plants for sale. So today was a tidying up and making things look nice sort of day. 

After clearing up some more dead undergrowth I planted up some pretty pansies for the pots outside the shop. 

I dug up this poor plant that wasn't doing so well and moved it to a more sunny spot.

Then I replaced it with this beauty.

After that I went native and started pruning the olive trees (a work in progress).

So all in all a busy and productive morning which was a great distraction from the news and social media commentary which I really didn't feel like looking at anyway. 

So that's my coping mechanism. How have you been dealing with today's news?

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

HelpX at Orgiva Tea Gardens - Day One

It took me ages to write this post. I blame McGill.

Yesterday was a long day: I was up at 5.30am and on the road by 6am. The journey went something like this:
  • London Overground
  • London Underground
  • Southern Train to London Gatwick
  • Airport related boringness
  • 2.5hrs Norweigan flight to Malaga
  • More train
  • 3 hour bus ride to Orgiva
  • 2km ride in Land Rover to somewhere in the mountains
The scenery on the bus ride was a mix of towns, villages, farms, sea, mountains, trees, damns and a lot of bridges. This would probably be a good point to show you the pictures I took but I didn't take any. 

I didn't get here till after dark so Bernie gave me the grand tour this morning. There's so much here that it becomes hard to describe in just one blog post but I'll try to give you an idea. There are many paths, the typical Spanish olive and orange trees, dangerous looking cacti, a vegetable garden, a big concrete water tank with something like 1 million litres of water and then there are the animals. Two llamas, two pigs, ducks, geese, chickens, pheasants, two cats and two dogs. Apparently llama poo is very valuable. Who knew?

After the tour, I was put straight to work clearing wheelbarow loads of dead vegetation that had been cut back from the overgrown yucca plants. Everyone stopped at 10am for breakfast and then it was straight back out to clear some weeds from the Llama enclosure that get stuck to their coats. After that I was tasked with potting up some very large cuttings from the yucca plants. If you're not aware then let me tell you that yucca plants have very sharp pointy leaves. My arms and legs are pretty scratched up but I managed to keep both of my eyes. Work finishes at 2.30pm when everyone comes in for a big lunch and the rest of the day is free to enjoy the warm Spanish sun.

My hosts, Bernie and Kay, are absolutely wonderful: very kind, chatty, patient, relaxed and lots of fun. There are also three other volunteers here at the moment and meal times have been very sociable with some fantastic food. I'll admit that I was nervous about coming out here and staying with complete strangers but I feel completely at ease now and am looking forward to the next few weeks.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Questions that people keep asking me

I've been meeting a lot of new people recently but also catching up with old friends. During conversation, new people often want to know what I do whereas old friends ask, "What are you up to these days?" My answer to both of these questions is that I'm travelling.

When you tell someone that you're travelling this almost certainly leads to more questions. Here's how the conversation usually goes:

Me: I'm travelling. 
Friend: Are you having a gap year or something? 
Me: No. I just decided that I want to see the world and that I don't want to wait till retirement age to do it. 
Friend: Sounds exciting. So where are you planning to visit? 
Me: Wherever the wind takes me. I'm planning to spend a few years in Europe and depending on how I feel after that I'll probably either head to South America or to the Far East. 
Friend: Oh wow! I wish I could do that but I'd never be able to afford it. What are you doing for money? Are you not working? 
Me: I make money online while I travel. I've been selling stuff on Amazon and more recently been trying to learn about affiliate marketing. I've also just started writing a blog about my travels.
At this point in the conversation the other person quite often has something negative to say about one or all of these things and why it probably won't work because someone they knew tried it once. They usually make some comment along the lines of "Don't worry. You can always come back and get a job." Sometimes I find myself agreeing with them because I realise that any sort of discussion with these sort of people is futile.

I am travelling. I plan to keep travelling. I will continue to make an income online and I will definitely not be coming back to get a job!

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Did I get to London by hitchhiking?

Sadly not.

I went to the outskirts of Edinburgh and stood for an hour at a petrol station with my cardboard sign. Being Novermber it was very cold so I quickly lost motivation and checked for Megabus tickets on my phone. Only £35 for a same day bus ticket so I caved and bought one. Took a bus back to the city centre, got a coffee while I waited and finally I was on my way.

If you've never had the joy of a long bus journey (this one was 9.5hrs) then it's probably everything you imagine. There were noisy children, the seats are impossible to get comfy on, after a few hours the toilet smell seeped through the whole bus and the free wifi doesn't work properly. I'd recommend it but only because it's much cheaper than the train.

I'm flying to Malaga tomorrow and had ambitious plans to hitchhike to my first HelpX host near Orgiva in the Alpujarra mountains. With my limited Spanish I'm now thinking I'll abandon that plan and just take the bus. Decisions decisions.

In happier tones, just a quick thank you to all the friends I met while in Glasgow and Edinburgh this week. Everyone has been tremendously kind with providing me sofas to sleep on, buying me meals and most importantly just giving me the pleasure of their company. It was great to see you all and hopefully I'll get to see those of you that I missed next time.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Five reasons why Tiree is windsurfing heaven

I spent the whole of October 2016 on the Isle of Tiree in Scotland and I was very reluctant to leave at the end. It is one of the most beautiful places that I have visited to date with amazing beaches, lots of sunshine and, most importantly, lots of wind!

It's long been known as a favourite spot for windsurfers in Scotland and people travel from far all over the world to come here. So, what makes it so special?

1. Wind and waves

Image source: http://antirisdeach.com/latest-stories/three-in-a-row-for-proffitt-at-tiree-wave-classic/

Tiree has a reputation for some fantastic wind and wave conditions. Arguably the best conditions will be in April/May and October/November but you'll almost certainly find wind and waves throughout the year. Check out the current forecast now at WindGuru and I'm sure you'll see wind there.

For the wave forecast you can check the conditions at the main beaches on the island through these Big Salty links:

2. Sunniest place in the UK

Image source: http://livingmountain.net/project/tiree-in-the-footsteps-of-the-first-settlers

Several sources, including The Guardian have claimed that Tiree is the sunniest place in Britain. The Independent call it 'the Hawaii of the North' and to make it even better the BBC claim that it's almost midge free! 

3. Beaches and a fresh water loch

Image Source: www.wilddiamond.co.uk
There are beaches facing every direction and all within a 15-20 minute drive of each other so no matter
where the wind or swell is coming from you should be able to find the perfect spot. For the beginners, or those that want to practice a bit of flat water freestyle, then there is Loch Bhasapol which is free to access, very safe and mostly shallow enough to stand up in.

4. Wild Diamond Watersports

Image Source: http://www.wilddiamond.co.uk/

Willy McLean was raised on Tiree and has been windsurfing probably as long as he's been able to walk! He is an absolutely fantastic windsurfer and has been running Wild Diamond Watersports since 1998. He also hosts the Tiree Wave Classic which takes place in October each year. 

The tuition is excellent and the equipment in great condition. Don't just take my word for it though, check out the reviews over on their facebook page.

5. Millhouse Hostel

Image source: http://www.tireemillhouse.co.uk/

David is a very keen windsurfer that's been coming to Tiree for around 30 years and now runs the Millhouse Hostel. I found him to be very welcoming, the hostel to be clean and well equipped but most importantly it has a drying room for damp wetsuits. This makes all the difference, especially if you're there during the colder months.

So that's my five reasons why Tiree is windsurfing heaven. Got anything to add? Tell me in the comments below.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Alan and his 1972 Landrover

I've sold my camper van, bought a backpack and gotten rid of most of my possessions. So, after a very quick visit to see my brother on the Isle of Mull it's back to the mainland and time to try out this whole hitchhiking thing. First challenge: 100 miles from Oban to Glasgow.

It's quite a steep climb out of Oban and I'm already starting to think that I should have bought a smaller backpack. I opted for 65 litres and although it's not stuffed full, it's still pretty heavy. I'll have to see how it goes but I can definitely see myself discarding a few items along the way. 

Once you're out of Oban it's a pretty fast road with lots of bends so not really very good for thumbing down a lift. Thankfully there is a good pavement and after about a mile I found a spot where vehicles could potentially pull in to pick me up. It didn't take too long as after about 15 minutes an older man with his dog pulled up in a van. He was only going a mile down the road but I took the lift anyway and he dropped me off at a large bus stop where it would be easier for cars to pull in. 

Another 20 minutes and my second lift of the day pulled up. Another local only going another 4 miles down the road but progress is progress! This took me to Connel and he dropped me off at another bus stop. After 15 minutes here I realised that half of the passing vehicles were turning off to go a different direction from the way that I wanted to go so I walked another 1/2 mile down the road to the other side of the village. It took 40 minutes at this spot but eventually Alan pulled up.

Alan is another local in his late fifties and he drives a 1972 Land Rover that he's owned and loved for over 20 years. He took great delight in telling me it's history, how he'd replaced the engine, what all the different levers do and how he'd been given the choice a few years ago between his girlfriend and the Land Rover. He chose the Land Rover.

It was a great journey and I was very thankful to Alan for stopping. He wasn't quite going all the way to Glasgow but as far as Paisley which is a short 15 minute train ride in to Glasgow. I think this was a good start to my hitchhiking attempts and it only cost me £1.40 to buy him a coffee at the Green Welly Stop in Tyndrum and £3 for the train. Considerably less than the £20 bus ticket from Oban to Glasgow!