I suspect that I will not be looking forward to leaving Colombia and returning to the stress that life and work in London have become. In several ways, 2015 was a challenging year. Work at my supposedly calm development institution of an employer has been overflowing, with ever piling demands and enormous pressure. From various factors (on which I will not elaborate here), I have started fearing I was not a particularly good employee – arguably a hard realisation to live with for a perfectionist like me. But I may of course be overreacting.
Work aside – and I mean it when I say work has been difficult to put aside in the past year – my 2015 has looked unquestionably spectacular. First, I have passed a Greek language attainment exam and achieved “Excellent” in the B2 (vantage) level, reliving that long-forgotten ecstatic feeling when, years ago, I was a diligent university student.
In an even more joyous moment, by March I had finally become a British citizen and got engaged to the man of my dreams, my best friend and ultimate source of support, my Alan. And, later in the year, our flat in Riga had finally been completed. Given neither of us is based permanently in Riga, furnishing the flat has so far been slow, but we are getting there.
Perhaps at the expense of stellar work performance, I continued to fight the corporate manacles to travel the world as much as I could. I will have set foot in 18 countries by year-end, four of which will be first-timers. A modest achievement in light of several preceding years, I think this is nevertheless impressive given the unending demands, from a number of sources, on my free time – the demands I see as unlikely to ease any time soon.
One of my most cherished memories of 2015, Himalayan range from a Bhutan-bound plane
2015 IN REVIEW: WINTER
But let us begin! The departing year started in the most exciting way possible – on top of a high-rise hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Alan and I dancing away to the sound of the 1980s under the popping fireworks. Alan even clumsily tried to propose at some point, which the alcohol in my system laughed off, forcing the poor fellow to wait for the next suitable moment. We later travelled to Kandy, an important Buddhist site in Sri Lanka and the country’s former capital, and Negombo – a beach town not far from the international airport. Sri Lanka was a little more touristy than I had expected, and far less relaxing than Burma where I stayed for two weeks before Sri Lanka – so, if I ever come back, it will most certainly be off-season.
Panoramic view of Kandy
Young Buddhist monks in Kandy
Following our return to London, we settled into a quiet routine for a couple of months. Alan was still working solely out of Germany, visiting London on alternate weekends, and I took a break from travel for a while – until, at the end of February, I briefly visited the city of Wroclaw in Poland. Unexpectedly, it swiftly became my favourite Polish city for its beautifully restored centre and plenty of interesting sites. I also travelled to a small spa town of Kudowa-Zdrój on the Czech border to visit the most charming retired couple I know, Pierre-Yves and Urszula – who gave me a fantastic tour of their modest surroundings, including a 5-minute walk across the Czech border and back.
Central square in Wroclaw
Pierre-Yves and Urszula, Kudowa-Zdrój
At the end of February, I attended a Project Finance International award ceremony for one of the projects I worked on in Turkey. The event was presented by Jimmy Carr in very person, and I even had a group photo taken with the man. I cannot say I enjoyed Carr’s rather specific humour, which was even more sexist than usual thanks to the heavily dominant presence of macho banker men. At least they looked suitably entertained!
With that offensive character
As the winter was coming to an end, two important events happened – one good and one not so. On the good side, Alan finally managed to gather up the courage to try and propose without me laughing it off in the end. And on the bad side, just a day after our engagement I had my worst bicycle crash ever. I fell yet another victim to London cabbies’ terrible habit of opening doors into the traffic: the door slammed open suddenly, hitting me between the middle and ring fingers of the left hand and forcing me to fly over the door and crash on the ground with my right set of ribs. It took me a few seconds to regain the ability to breathe as I squirmed in pain. Overcome by shock, I somehow let the cabby convince me I was fine and drive off – it was only after he left, unscathed, that I regained my senses and headed to an A&E unit. Miraculously, nothing was broken, but the ribs took months to stop hurting – and the hand was swollen for similarly long.
On the bright side, I was not wearing my engagement ring during the crash – judging by the state of my ring finger, it would have certainly been destroyed by the power of the collision. I have been wearing the ring on my right hand ever since; in a lucky coincidence, that also turned out to be the Russian Orthodox way.
2015 IN REVIEW: SPRING
The memories of the bike crash still fresh in my head, the beginning of spring welcomed me with some much-needed good news. On 3 March, my long-term dream of becoming a British citizen finally came true. I attended a British citizenship ceremony, swearing allegiance to the Queen and singing along to the national anthem for the first time in my new capacity. I was very fortunate to have Alan share this memorable day with me, and we used the chance to announce our engagement to the world – many of you had commented how clever it was of Alan to time his proposal with my citizenship ceremony, and I am terribly sorry to disappoint!
Getting photobombed by Her Majesty, again
To my great regret, I could not apply for the British passport straight away – doing so required me to part with my Latvian passport for some time, which I could not do having gone into a full-on travel mode. First, in early March I travelled to Cairo and Damanhour in Egypt for work. Egypt is not the country I particularly enjoy visiting – reasons include wild traffic, persistent stares, the necessity to wear my least favourite item of clothing (trousers) and the clients’ propensity to smoke during meetings. Given I work in development however, I should not complain.
I then sandwiched in a quick weekend in Slovakia – Bratislava and Trenčín – before heading straight to another business trip, this time to Egypt’s complete opposite, Georgia. It was an exciting third visit to the country: after enjoying Tbilisi for a couple of days, my colleagues and I drove to the seaside jewel of Batumi to attend a financial close event for one of our projects. I got to listen to live speeches by some high-profile guests, including Georgia’s Prime Minister and Minister of Energy, the latter famously known as the former international footballer, Kakha Kaladze.
Central Tbilisi seen from Narikala Castle
Batumi skyline by night
Done with business trips for a while, I embarked on my first long getaway of the year, to Iran. I had meticulously planned this visit for months, overcoming obstacles like (i) the earlier closure of the Iranian Embassy in London, meaning that the Iranian visa cost me around £300; (ii) the need to pack a stack of dollars and plan my budget religiously as western credit cards absolutely do not work in Iran; and (iii) limited choice of attire to avoid my much hated western trousers – a staple for Iranian ladies. I was grateful for the multiple salwar khameez combinations I had earlier bought in India. Fully compliant with the strict Iranian dress code, salwar khameez had one major disadvantage: no-one else was wearing it so I was attracting attention at all times – as well as asked which “part of Pakistan” I was from.
My many outfits in Iran
Obstacles aside, Iran absolutely blew my mind. I flew into the north-western city of Tabriz near Azerbaijan, admiring the UNESCO heritage site of the Old Bazaar and the stunning Kandovan village nearby. I then travelled to Tehran, which turned out to be a surprisingly modern and beautiful city with a fabulous gold bazaar. I was breath-taken by the quiet Kashan where I got to explore amazing old merchant houses and, courtesy of a kind local, run atop the endless roof of the local covered bazaar. Past the stunning red village of Abyaneh, I arrived in timeless Esfahan which amazed me with its vast squares, bridges and elaborate mosques. In Yazd, I got to explore the ancient city and party hard with a local family who met me by chance and “adopted” me for the night. I found the city of Kerman less interesting than expected, but the nearby Kaluts desert and sand formations – absolutely superb. Finally, on my last stop in the famous city of Shiraz, I had a whale of a time meeting locals and tasting some home-made wine – which almost made me miss my morning flight out of the country, but that is a different story altogether.
Kandovan village near Tabriz
Local lady in Yazd
Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah, Esfahan
Immediately after returning, I was off to Slovenia for work, and then back in the holiday mode as Alan and I flew to India for a week. We had both been to India separately before, but never together, so it was natural that we wanted to visit places previously unseen to both of us. From Chennai, we travelled to the archipelago of the Andaman Islands, which belong to India for historic reasons but lie much nearer Indochina. We spent a few blissful days on the island of Havelock, enjoying excellent seafood for our every meal and taking countless photos on the beach. Back on the mainland, we made a day-trip to Puducherry, which was so sweltering hot in May that we had to seek refuge in the nearest air-conditioned hotel over some 1.5 litres of (tax-free) chilled beer. It was a wonderful trip to celebrate our engagement.
Gandhi statue in Chennai
Sunset on Radhanagar beach, Havelock island
Paradise beach in the east, Havelock island
Finally, we closed off the spring with a 3-day visit to Greece. It was Alan’s first visit to the country – I stopped counting mine a long time ago – and he absolutely loved it. We hopped over from Athens to the small island of Angistri in the Saronic Gulf, made friends with our hotel owner and circled the island several times in her car. We also watched Eurovision broadcast live in a seaside café, by far the most scenic Eurovision-accompanying venue I have ever experienced. Alan was so impressed with Greece he cannot stop talking about buying property there. Let’s hope it happens!
Sunset over Mesochori harbour, Angistri
Church of Agioi Argyroi in Skala, Angistri
2015 IN REVIEW: SUMMER
My travel extravaganza finally came under control in June, and I could finally apply for my British passport. I collected it on 11 June and christened it on another business trip to Georgia at the end of the month. I visited the country’s second largest city of Kutaisi and three future hydroelectric sites in the remote regions of Racha and Svaneti. It is amazing to think that, despite having visited so many parts of Georgia, I still have a lifetime worth of exploration to do.
My favourite view of Tbilisi Old Town
Kutaisi from Bagrati Cathedral
Lukhuni river, Racha region
Earlier in June, I had the pleasure of introducing Alan to my nearest family: several aunties and cousins in Ventspils, Latvia. Alan held out like a hero to his traditional welcome of vodka and spanking in the Russian sauna accompanied by live schlager music – I certainly made the right choice of a life partner there. We also got a photographer to take a few professional photos of us in Riga.
That tough induction for an Englishman
Alan and I all posy in Riga
July brought two quick trips to the island of Jersey in the Channel Islands and Stavanger in Norway. In Jersey, having initially wondered why accommodation was so hard to come by that weekend, Alan and I realised we had inadvertently timed our visit with the Island Games 2015: the sporting event for residents of various islands (yes, really). This made the atmosphere in the main town of St. Helier quite joyous; as a bonus, we got to see the most unusual combinations of sports jerseys in the streets: Falklands met Åland, Faroes placated the Isle of Man and Shetland celebrated loudly with Saaremaa.
Corbiere point and lighthouse in south-western Jersey
On my second visit to Stavanger, I did the famous Kjerag hike and admired the sight of the subtly glowing Lysefjord, my favourite fjord in Norway. I summoned all my courage to step onto the notorious Kjeragbolten boulder wedged in the rock at the end of the hike – but I lasted nowhere near long enough to have my photo taken there, let alone strike a smiley pose. Other tourists did not really seem to mind the sheer drop of about 1 km down to Lysefjord beneath their feet though: hat off to them.
Steep drop towards Lysefjord from Kjerag
Come August, I used up a bonus day off to travel to the cheapest destination I could find at short notice: Skopje, FYR Macedonia. Skopje decidedly entertained me with grotesque recent additions to its cityscape as part of the “Skopje 2014” revamp. I was soon on my way to a much prettier part of the country, the Mavrovo National Park. The place is best known for its ski resorts and fills up in the skiing season; at the height of the summer though, it was fabulously calm. I was amazed by Mavrovo’s outstanding hiking opportunities: on my 20 km hike from Mavrovo to Galicnik, the only creatures I met were shepherds accompanied by sheep (obviously) and angry shepherd dogs. Not a single fellow hiker in the region known for outstanding natural beauty: I like to call it paradise.
Remodelled Macedonia Square and “War on a Horse”, Skopje
New Church of St. Nicholas’ and Mavrovo Lake, Mavrovo
Alan and I also visited two destinations together in August: Helsinki and Mumbai. In Helsinki, the city I call home having studied there years ago, I saw many friends including a very special guest to the city, my Romanian “sis” Denisa. Mumbai was a spontaneous weekend trip which, no matter how short, we did not regret. Our Indian visas were still valid from the Andamans visit, and we spent two wonderful days catching up with old friends, Avi and Shruti, crashing another friend’s birthday party, shopping for beautiful embroidered fabrics – and, naturally, swimming in the outdoor pool at the Taj Hotel. It is only with Alan that I finally discovered how relaxing India can be behind high walls of a 5-star hotel.
Man relaxing on Oval Maidan, Mumbai
The highlight of August was the 80th birthday celebration of Chris, Alan’s father and my future father-in-law. The man is among the kindest and funniest (old) chaps I know, and I really enjoyed the small family gathering in Spalding, Lincolnshire to mark the occasion.
All smiles in Spalding
2015 IN REVIEW: AUTUMN
The autumn season opened with much awaited news of our Riga flat – our first baby together – being completed and ready for take-over. We signed all the papers and became co-landlords on 11 September. The interior of the flat is edging ahead slowly, but there is already a bed, a wardrobe, a sofa, an armchair, a bookcase and a washing machine – though no kitchen yet. I even took a day-trip to Helsinki in October to load up on my much adored Marimekko textiles for the flat. Another welcoming piece of news was Alan’s work schedule: he started working one week in three out of London, meaning our encounters became more frequent.
Alan and I raising wine glasses (with champagne) on the balcony of our new flat
At the end of September, I was desperate for a longer holiday and travelled to Greece for a week of (so I thought) enjoying cloudless skies. Little did I know that I was going to experience a full-on Aegean storm lasting 24 hours and spitting out lightning and thunder every few minutes! I still greatly enjoyed the four new islands I visited in just over a week: (i) Kos, a victim of its own popularity, which I only lingered on for a few hours; (ii) Nisyros famous for its amazing volcano caldera; (iii) Tilos where I was stunned by the eerie abandoned village of Mikro Chorio and followed amazing mountain paths; and (iv) Kalymnos from which I expected nothing and which amazed me most – I have not seen friendlier locals on any other island in Greece. And I can be trusted, for I have visited 38!
Agios Theologos Church in Nikia, Nisyros
Mikro Chorio village, Tilos
Boat sailing into the sunset off Myrties, Kalymnos
Unable to wait till next year, I paid a weekend visit to the Greek island of Kerkyra (Corfu) in early October, only to repack within an hour of my return to London and head back to Gatwick airport to fly to Dubrovnik, Croatia. This time it was a work affair: my colleagues and I spent two days in Dubrovnik and two nearby islands, Šipan and Lopud, on a so-called team retreat. Many of you have pointed out how lucky I was to visit Croatia on leisurely work (or “working leisure”?), but trust me, few things are less fun than being surrounded by all your seniors – including the lady boss – all clad in trunks and bikinis.
Main village beach of Lopud island near Dubrovnik
Things desperately speeding up at work for the year-end, I managed to escape on a much awaited 10-day holiday in Bhutan. It was decidedly the most expensive trip I have ever undertaken and, in retrospect, I would possibly have chosen to go elsewhere. That said, Bhutan was superb in its unique culture and traditions. I took a rather classic round trip from Paro to the capital of Thimphu, the Punakha valley, the Phobjikha valley and the cultural heartland of Bumthang. Bhutan amazed me with its unspoilt nature – 70 percent of its territory is covered with forests and many a mountain peak embrace its borders – and spoilt me with its unusual cuisine, so unlike in the neighbouring India and Nepal but, reportedly, close to the traditional Tibetan fare. I was also breath-taken by the tsechu (Buddhist festival featuring masked dancers in bright costumes) at Jakar Dzong (fortress) in Bumthang. In short, I highly recommend Bhutan to all those with deep pockets!
Taktshang Goemba (Tiger’s Nest Monastery)
Bhutanese girl watching the tsechu at Jakar Dzong, Bumthang
View from Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten complex near Punakha
It was head-first into work on my return, but I managed a couple more weekends away before calling it a year: to Edinburgh and Sicily. In Edinburgh, Alan and I met some of my friends from the days when I used to spend all my free time in Scotland and sported a Scottish accent, as well as took shelter from the endless rain in the city’s cosy pubs. It was also in Edinburgh that we enjoyed what was quite possibly my favourite meal of the year, at the Skerries restaurant near Murrayfield.
Incredibly rainy Edinburgh from Calton Hill
I had unforgivably little time to explore Sicily, but was able to visit two cities, Palermo and Cefalù. They could not have been more different: the former was large, dirty and chaotic while popular Cefalù – pleasantly calm and tourist-free at the end of November.
Cefalù town beach
View from La Rocca towards Cefalù
BRING ON 2016
As we bid farewell to 2015, I want to wish you and your families a wonderful festive season and a New Year of your dreams! May 2016 bring with it all the good things that 2015 perhaps lacked. Here goes also to many exciting adventures and discoveries of shores unknown!