Friday, 12 December 2014

When travelling really isn't an option

There have been a number of times in my life when there have been obstacles to me travelling. The majority of these have been financial and I have managed to overcome them with determination and frugality. Over the last few months there has been a greater obstacle that has been much harder to overcome, however - my health.

Today I was supposed to be flying to Berlin to enjoy the Christmas markets with a dear friend of mine. I have wanted to visit Germany for a long time and going at this time of year is on my bucket list. Instead I am at home having cancelled my flights and written it off as a bad job.

I have been ill to varying degrees since the beginning of September and although now on the road to recovery I had to make the difficult decision not to go. This is not the first trip I've had to cancel through my illness, with the first being a fully booked trip to Rome for an assignment.

Despite the huge disappointment and waiting until the last moment to get a colleague to step into my spot I knew in my heart of hearts that I wasn't well enough to travel. It is very important to recognise this in yourself, as being unwell while abroad can be a tricky business.

While I love travelling, nothing compares to being at home and having all your creature comforts around you when you're ill. There is no point in experiencing fascinating destinations from inside a hotel room or setting your recovery back just because you didn't want to miss out.

It has been a disappointing end to my travelling year, but I look forward to 2015 in full health and trips that I can really make the most of. So tonight I will not fall asleep full of gluhwein and the heady merriment of this time of year, but in my own bed, but I know that in the long-run it is for the best.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Meeting Michael Palin - a travel writer's lifetime ambition fulfilled

When I originally wrote the bucket list I have included on this blog, there was one experience that had to be included - meeting Michael Palin. While for many people, this man is irrevocably linked to comedy and the genius of Monty Python, he has always been a travelling inspiration to me.

Not only does Palin get sent to fascinating destinations and is paid to do so (something I have always aspired to), but he does it with such warmth to the people he meets. I personally believe that his style of travel is something that cannot be faked, but is nurtured and this comes across in his footage and books.

When the New Europe book was released my sister and brother-in-law queued to get it signed for me. Unfortunately there were so many other Michael Palin fans also waiting to meet the man that they had to settle for a pre-signed copy. It still contains a post-it note inside reading: "To Emma, Bet I've been to more countries than you!" which they had hoped he would write inside.

So imagine my delight when a friend informed me that the man himself was about to embark on a tour of the country entitled Travelling to Work. Already sold out in York, I managed to procure tickets for me and two of my best friends at the Manchester Opera House on September 29th. I was excited about the show, but nothing could prepare me for actually meeting Palin in the flesh.

The Travelling to Work show was split into two halves, the the first concentrating on some of Palin's incredible journeys and the second offering up a crowd-pleasing insight into his comedy. He even included time at the end to dip into a steel bucket and answer questions submitted by the audience. For me, I was enthralled by the tales covering everything from Around the World in 80 Days to New Europe and beyond, with the stunning photography to accompany it.

Like any self-respecting world traveller I took delight in smiling to myself when places I had visited were mentioned and looked across to my friend who accompanied me on five weeks around Eastern Europe in 2007. We shared a knowing look as Palin described the Merry Cemetery in Sapanta, northern Romania, which is populated with garish wooden gravestones depicting scenes from the lives of the deceased.

During the interval I set off in search of the book and came across a stand selling volumes of the hefty tome. I was dismayed to see that they were already pre-signed, thinking that any opportunity to meet Palin this time was lost. The representatives told me he had spent two days signing books prior to the tour and that he insisted that all sales of the book were completed through an independent bookshop. I proffered my business card and begged them to pass it on to my hero.

The second half lived up to expectations and a very sprightly Michael Palin had the audience in stitches with tales of Monty Python inspiration and even some sketches that didn't make it into the final versions. An idea depicting the conversation when trying to book the Last Supper was particularly hilarious.

Our laughing muscles having gone through a thorough workout, we came out of the venue and my long-suffering friends agreed to join me in hovering outside the stage door. A small number of people had gathered and we didn't have to wait long before a representative appeared and asked us to form a queue. It was only when the slight 71-year-old came out that I started to believe I would actually meet him.

Understanding what a big deal this was for me and being truly altruistic, my friends stepped back as we reached the front of the queue, allowing me to have a proper chat with Palin. I told him that he was the inspiration behind me becoming a travel writer and he asked where I had visited this year. As we chatted about Malaysia, he wrote "To Em, Happy Travels" in my book, as my friends snapped photos of us. They then stepped in for a picture of all of us. My incredulity lasted all the way home.

Photos in this post by Rebecca Lyons and Siobhan Holt

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The joys of shooting with a proper camera

Cuba 2005 (Photo by Emma Duckworth)

A friend of mine sent me a link recently to an article entitled 100 years of the Leica camera. What immediately struck me was how many of the most iconic images of the 20th century were shot using this compact device. From the photo of a young Vietnamese girl fleeing naked from a napalm attack to the world-famous kiss between a sailor and a nurse at the end of World War Two - all were taken on a Leica.

I have to admit to being a bit of a camera nut - I tend to use a digital on many occasions these days for ease, but my heart truly belongs to my manual Olympus OM1-N. And the truth of the matter is it has accompanied me on many trips and taken some fantastic photos.

On a number of occasions my travel companions would complain of the time it takes to set up, but it is worth it for the results. And nothing compares to the sheer joy of hearing that satisfying clunk that tells you that you have taken a photo - none of these insipid noises that are added to digital cameras in the 21st century - a proper solid, definite clunk.

My SLR belongs to something of a camera dynasty, as my dad travelled from Manchester to Nigeria overland in the 1970s with an Olympus OM1. It never let him down - from hitchhiking across the Sahara in a date lorry to living off a huge bag of cheese in France. So the logical step was to furnish his two daughters will similar models on their 17th birthdays, which he did.

I have continued that trend and bought an OM1 for my boyfriend before he set off for South America on his epic four and a half month journey. We now have two large bags full of undeveloped films - around 50 in total - and every so often one or the other of us will dip a hand in each and take two films to be developed.

This is something of a pot luck, as my bag of films includes pictures taken in destinations as diverse as Turkey, Ushuaia and Spain. We then sit and look at the two sets of photos together. There was once a funny incidence in which we assumed a film of Iguazu Falls belonged to my other half, until halfway through the pictures a photo of me appeared - I had done my own South American voyage a few years earlier!

Display at the Camera Museum in Penang

So imagine my delight when exploring the streets of Penang on a recent trip to Malaysia, as I stumbled across a camera museum. What is more, one of the display cases held a very similar model to mine inside it. I know I shoot with a digital a lot these days, but I never intend to give up using my manual SLR all together, as I believe consigning it to a museum would be a crying shame.

The Penang Camera Museum is a great place to visit, with lots of different models on display and a fantastic collection of vintage flashbulbs. It is not just appealing to the camera aficionado, however, with some brilliant interactive exhibits and models explaining how various photographic techniques have been developed over the years. Stepping inside a giant pinhole camera was particularly fun and if a member of your party goes outside, you can see how they appear to be upside down.

Quote on the wall of the museum

Monday, 18 August 2014

The well-fed pescatarian cooks stuffed courgette flowers

It has always been something of an ambition of mine to cook stuffed courgette flowers, but the opportunity has never really arisen, until recently. On a family holiday to Tuscany that saw three generations of Dodds all staying in a stunning farmhouse in the hills, I spotted the all-important ingredient - courgette flowers.

My mum was buying vegetables at one of the stands during the weekly market in Ponte a Moriano and there in a pile were the freshest and most tempting-looking courgette flowers I have ever seen. If I was ever going to cook this delicacy, now was the perfect time.

I rejoined the rest of the family at a small cafe on the edge of the square clutching my bag full of courgette flowers and not doing a good job of hiding my excitement. But despite the yellow blooms being the vital part of the dish, you also need to have something to stuff inside them, so off I skipped to the local cheese shop.

My Spanish-influenced attempts at Italian helped me establish that the shop did not sell ricotta, but had something similar and I bought the lot. The kind man behind the counter was patient with me, but when I clearly didn't understand something he was trying to explain to me, he called for a younger assistant from the back. He told me in excellent English that I needed to rub the cheese with olive oil to bring out the flavour.

Back at the villa I did add some olive oil and since the cheese was firmer than ricotta, I chopped it up as small as I could, while adding herbs and garlic. Our accommodation had minimal items in the larder, so we had to buy even the simplest of additions for meals. With this in mind, I made a beer batter, as alcohol was something we were not in short supply of!

It is safe to say that stuffing courgette flowers is a fairly fiddly process. First you need to cut off the stalks and remove the stamens from the centre. This should be done carefully so as not to tear the petals, giving the potential for the filling to ooze out. Twisting the tops once they have been filled helps to keep everything in place, then it is just a case of dipping them in the batter and frying them. Eating them hot is a must.

One member of our party is not particularly keen on cheese, so I made an artichoke and tomato alternative for her. We all ended up trying this variation, which was pretty good, although the cheesy stuffed courgette flowers were definitely the favourites.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Discovering my grandfather's 1940s travel album

We are lucky enough to live in a time when many exciting opportunities are open to us, with travel being chief among these. It is very easy to take such experiences for granted and forget just how amazing it is to be able to travel to the other side of the world in a matter of hours as opposed to months and jet off for a weekend in another country for a relatively small amount of money.

All of this was put into perspective for me recently when I came across a photo album of my grandfather's from the 1940s. I cannot describe the extreme excitement I felt as I turned the pages and saw titles such as 'Palestine', 'Cairo' and 'The Island of Masirah'.

My grandpa was a wartime pilot at 19-years-old and such travels as a young man were the result of a terrible conflict, which many would not return from. What struck me about the small black and white images lovingly fixed onto the pages was that they showed a group of friends enjoying the time they had to explore these exotic locations.

This could be due to the huge relief of having time off between dangerous missions and not knowing whether they would survive. It must also have been coupled with the thrill of being in such far flung places, the chances of which to visit never having been opened up to ordinary men from Chingford before. But first and foremost, these were young men in their early 20s having an opportunity to let their hair down and enjoy themselves.

There are photos of famous sites and the men in uniform, but also pictures of them posing with an elephant, meeting the Sultan of Muscat and one of them wrapped in towels entitled 'A bathing party'. This sudden glimpse into the life of my grandfather as a young man travelling the world was fascinating.

But the album opened up as many questions as it answered, as the names of places and notes in pencil only told part of the story. The only dates to be found were on a picture of a 1945 victory dinner menu and a round-up of the Miss Masirah 1945 competition. A photo of my grandmother is shown as being voted highly commended!

People did not take thousands of photos in those days like we do today and it is impossible to know over what time frame these events took place. My suspicion is that it is several years and this travel album depicts the high points in what was a very difficult time.

While it is obvious where the pages entitled 'The Fourteen Stations of the Cross' and 'Cairo' were taken, as the book progresses, the clues are harder to decipher. I knew that my grandfather was involved in an aircraft crash in Burma and presumed that the photos taken of temples were in the country.

My research has not come up with a definite location for the place he has called the Putiaram Temple, but the photos taken at the same time are most definitely India. They are of Howrah and Jagganath Temple in Puri. This suggests that my initial suspicions that the pictures are from Burma stems from an over-reliance on context as opposed to the facts.

The Island of Masirah was obviously a Royal Air Force base and looking into it, I have found it was in operation as a staging post from the 1930s up until 1977. Many men have spent time on the island 15 miles off the coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea and it appears to have been a place of great comradeship, which it is safe to say, can be seen in grandpa's photos.

Another location that seems to hold happy memories for Flight Officer Peter Dodd and his friends is The Gezira Club, which I have since discovered is the oldest of its kind in Africa. Situated on the island Zamalek in Cairo, it was built in 1882 and is still an exclusive club to be a member of to this day.

As well as the main body of the album, slotted into the back are a number of things, including a guide to the sites of Jerusalem - a precursor to the ubiquitous Lonely Planet books of today. This simple folded sheet of paper shows there was an appetite for tourists to explore the Holy Land even then.

After the war, my grandpa continued to travel and always kept his flight log up-to-date. Later entries show the types of aircraft he and my grandmother flew on as they journeyed to holiday destinations all over the world. Always recorded was the pilot's name, alongside the date, time and flight details.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The well-fed pescatarian in Malaysia

I generally describe myself as a vegetarian, as this is the easiest way to talk about people that don't eat meat, but then occasionally someone will call me on the fact that I eat fish. Being an avid traveller is made so much easier by consuming fish, although it didn't help me miles away from the sea in Russia, when pickled vegetables were my only sustenance. So in summation, I am a pescatarian and a pretty well-fed one most of the time.

On a recent trip to Malaysia I was able to eat very well with my combination of vegetables and seafood, as rice, noodles and myriad non-meaty flavours supplemented these key ingredients. Anyone who has travelled in the country will know that it is a foodie heaven and it is difficult to go hungry.


The island of Penang has become associated with wonderful street food of late and I was keen to sample the vendors' offerings. It would be remiss, however to neglect the great restaurants scattered around Georgetown too, as they serve up some delicious dishes that ticked all the boxes for this hungry pescatarian.

Among those to try are:
  • Sri Ananda
There are a few branches of this establishment serving up south Indian specialities on the island. The one in Little India in Georgetown is very conveniently located. I had prawn masala, aloo ghobi, pelak paneer, garlic naan and rice.
  • Woodlands
Just across the road from Sri Ananda is another delicious stop-off - Woodlands. My meal here consisted of chenna batura - a spicy chickpea stew with raw onions, sliced red chillis and half a teeny tiny lime on top. Accompanied by freshly squeezed orange juice.
  • Teksen
Not far from Armenian Street is this humble-looking establishment with beaten metal tables and stools. Do not be put off by its apparent simplicity, as the complex flavours of the dishes more than make up for the d├ęcor. I would recommend ordering the tamarind king prawns, which were among the stickiest and tastiest things I've ever eaten. Even those who eschew a Brussel sprout at Christmas could not fail to love the fried sprouts with shrimps - delicious. Nutmeg juice washed the whole lot down.
  • Tropical Spice Garden
On my last day in Penang I took a tour of the Tropical Spice Garden, which is in the Teluk Bahang suburb of Georgetown. The very informative guided tour from a lady called Bea was the perfect way to work up an appetite for lunch and the restaurant certainly didn't disappoint. Sat outside with beautiful views from under colourful umbrellas I tucked into a very flavoursome pad thai. The garden has its own cookery school, where visitors can learn to make such delights. Unfortunately my time was up by that point, but maybe next time...

Lunch at the Tropical Spice Garden

Street food

There are lots of areas in and around Georgetown that can boast a wide array of street food on offer. One of which is a huge hall at the bottom of Gat Lebuh Armenian, which is jam-packed with hawker stalls. Wandering around, looking at what is available it is clear that you can take your taste buds on a culinary journey around the world without ever having to leave this place.

Everything from Thai and Taiwanese food to Nyonya cuisine and brisket was being served. I settled on Thai seafood rice and watched as the lady carefully chopped and threw ingredients into the wok. She also reached up to a variety of boxes on the shelf above her and added in a wide selection of spices and additions to subtly flavour the delicious dish.

Kuala Lumpur

As you would expect from a capital city anywhere in the world, Kuala Lumpur has plenty of places to eat whether you describe yourself as a carnivore, vegetarian or pescatarian. But for me and many other hungry bellies, the ultimate destination is Jalan Alor. This incredible street is jam-packed with food stalls every evening and there was only one night in the whole of my stay in KL when I didn't eat here.

You can almost smell this evocative thoroughfare from a distance and once the sun goes down, the light from the yellow and red lanterns looped from each side highlights the rising steam from the grills. It is just about impossible to see where one stall ends and the next starts. I walked the length of the street until I reached the tea bus, checking out what was on offer before making my choice.

On the first night I made a schoolgirl error and ordered far too much food, but the butter prawns and assorted greens were amazing. The fried rice was probably delicious too, but there was little chance of me making in-roads into it. I learned my lesson for next time.

Jalan Alor

During the course of my stay, I enjoyed everything from delicious whole fish to durian ice cream. The chap selling this delicious concoction had a specially made container that looked like three barrels joined together complete with perfectly fitting lids. He reached in with his incredibly long spoon and dug out the ice cream.

Before his customers managed to get a taste, however, this deft showman would use the thick consistency of the ice cream to stay stuck to the spoon. This allowed him to spin the cone out of reach just as the customer was about to take it. Twirling the handle and having fun, visitors to this ice cream stand are guaranteed entertainment with their sweet treat.

Durian is well known for its foul smell, but this was hard to detect when in ice cream form and the flavour was gorgeous. So if you are going to eat the stinky fruit, I recommend having it served up in a cone instead.

The ice cream entertainer at work

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The pimped-out trishaws of Melaka

In many ways the city of Melaka is a traditional place, with stunning architecture and a sense of history, but in another element it is tacky in the extreme - its trishaws. The kitsch factor associated with these old forms of transport, which have been pimped-out to the nth degree has to be admired. If you are going to do it, then do it in superlative proportions.

Festooned with fake flowers, Hello Kitty dolls and sporting sound systems any super club would be proud of, you can see and hear these vehicles coming from a mile off. The trishaw is dying out in many parts of Malaysia, but business is booming in Melaka due to the colourful overhaul of these humble methods of transport.

I have to admit that taking a trishaw ride wasn't at the top of my list of things to do in Melaka, but having seen so many of them both carrying passengers and waiting for customers, it seemed I should have a go myself. Almost on a whim I decided to do it while snapping a few shots of the drivers lined up in their carriages near Stadthuys in Dutch Square.

Zam with his trishaw

My driver was a young Malaysian chap called Zam, who chatted away to me, answering all my questions as he peddled the trishaw around the most prominent sites. To my eternal gratitude he played Adele and Otis Redding on his sound system, as opposed to some of the more thumping beats of the other vehicles and turned it down a little so we could conduct our conversation. On the last stretch of the journey he did ramp it up again and blast his horn a few times - so I did get the proper Melaka trishaw experience!

Zam's trishaw could in no way be described as understated, with its fake pink and red roses arranged in the shape of hearts and what looked like a winged ladybird with Mickey Mouse's head acting as a canopy above. Its owner was also prepared for all eventualities and when it started to rain, he produced a huge umbrella in rainbow colours to keep me dry. At this point, he also hid his MP3 player and cigarettes in a waterproof pouch.

After the ride I stood and chatted to Zam and a few of his fellow drivers. He told me that he has been in the trishaw business for six years. He used to work in construction during quiet periods, but a shoulder injury means that he no longer has this option. Without the computer skills many of his peers already possess, Zam is limited in his options, but he said he would like to run his own business one day, perhaps decking out trishaws for those just getting started.

I tipped Zam an extra five ringgit, since he had been so helpful in giving me an extra insight into the world of a trishaw driver. After initially trying to turn it down, he accepted the additional note and asked if I was married? I explained my attached status and Zam invited me to find him later that evening to take more photos of his trishaw once it was dark, as it is customary for the owners to attach lights to help attract custom.

When I returned later that evening, Zam was in the same location I had found him earlier. I ignored the shouts of the other drivers as I walked over to my friend's trishaw. He greeted me warmly and I took my photos before saying goodbye and leaving with smiles.

Zam's trishaw, complete with its night-time lights 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The strangely emotional ordeal of renewing a passport

There are less than six months left on my passport, so I know I need to get it renewed. Not least because there are destinations in the world where you need to have this amount of time still on it in order to travel. I wouldn't want to have to turn down a spontaneous trip over such a trivial matter. But there is a part of me that is putting it off.

I wonder if there isn't one last adventure left in this battered travel document? After all, my passport and I have had some good times in the last decade and I have the stamps to prove it. Somehow setting out with a shiny new passport, which is completely empty seems like a betrayal. I could be anyone with this new item - a novice who has never left the country before or even a spy!

Then there is the ordeal of sending it off. What if they don't send it back? It doesn't matter they might say, we'll send you a new one, they'll console. But this is my trusty companion and I have protected it from being stolen or misplaced in countries all across the world. Can I really trust the postal system and the passport office to keep it safe while out of my sight?

I love how the front cover has worn so that you can barely see the coat of arms and golden writing any more. Not because it has been treated badly - in fact it is still in pretty good condition considering the travelling life it has had - but through hours of sitting in a money belt and hidden in luggage.

Inside there are numerous stamps from passing through Costa Rican immigration; a robust visa featuring Cyrillic script for visiting Russia; and the entry stamp for getting into Turkey, which has recently been abolished. Each and every one of these items inside tells a story and evokes memories of border crossings and the excitement of arriving in a new country.

The official that welcomed me into Chile used a two-tone ink pad; the green stamp of Ukraine features a little train to show how I travelled; and I don't think you even get stamps for Croatia now that it is part of the European Union, though I have a few with the word Hrvatska on them.

It may seem overly sentimental to be so attached to a passport, but it is probably my most prized possession. I always know where it is - at home or away - and love leafing through its pages. But I must send it off and receive a replacement, retiring this document to the shelf along with my first ever passport, the corner cut off to show it is no longer in service.

Over time the pristine replacement will also become full, a bit worn and an old friend that shows the scars of adventure and who knows where it shall take me?

Thursday, 3 July 2014

A little victory in the Stockbridge Duck Race

The ducks are released at the start of the race

Every year a couple of thousand rubber ducks are released into the Waters of Leith for the Stockbridge Duck Race. A group of willing volunteers help to steer the participants from the bridge down to the finishing point, getting pretty wet along the way.

Crowds throng the banks, eager to watch the spectacle, which has become a respected tradition in this part of Edinburgh. Despite being the 25th year that the race has been held, this is the first time I have attended and a great day out it certainly was.

We filled our stomachs pre-race with delicious curry and arepas (Venezualan corn patties stuffed full of black beans and cheese) at the Stockbridge Market. This foodie heaven is held every Sunday and is conveniently near the race's starting point.

Before long the ducks were released from large bins over the bridge and the race was on. A rather excited dog named Haggis helped the duck wardens in their job of herding the rubber toys downriver, chasing after the stragglers. He got particularly involved when one of the wardens threw a stray duck that had become stuck on a rock to help it catch up with its compatriots.

Haggis was off, thinking it was all a game, with another of the wardens shouting: "Can somebody give that dog a stick or something?"

Families lining the water's edge were eager to track the progress of the ducks and see the shenanigans that accompanies the event every year. As well as being a lot of fun, the race is held to raise money for local charities with people able to go into the shops and businesses around Stockbridge to purchase a duck prior to the event.

The prizes are also donated by these generous companies, with around 50 duck numbers being lined up with items to give away. Everything from hampers to a cut and blow dry are up for grabs.

So imagine my sister's amazement when a letter comes through the door three days after the race addressed to her ten-month-old daughter. That's right - my niece, not even one yet - is the proud owner of one of the winning ducks.

Number 1519 will have to be her lucky number for the rest of her life now. She has won a voucher for fish and chips and two beers at the Scran and Scallie pub. My sister tells me our little winner has decided to donate the prize to her parents!

The full list of 2014's winners can be found here.

Friday, 6 June 2014

How to tackle Kuala Lumpur - divide and conquer

Scale model of Kuala Lumpur

Arriving in Kuala Lumpur it is very easy to be overwhelmed by the city's sheer size and the height of its colossal buildings. I know I was. For a start, the receptionist at the hotel welcomed me and said that my bedroom was on the 14th floor and I looked out of the window at the sprawling city beyond.

It became quite apparent from this moment on that I would have to work out a plan to tackle the city, otherwise I was going to end up feeling lost, tired and that I hadn't seen everything I wanted to. Getting a decent map was the first step, as those in the guidebook simply didn't offer enough detail.

By cross referencing the book and map I could work out what I wanted to see. With just three and a half days at my disposal I needed to be clever about travelling around KL. So, I decided to divide the city into sections and tackle one at a time, ticking off everything that I wanted to do in one area, before moving onto the next.

This meant that I didn't have to spend ridiculous amounts of time navigating KL's complicated public transport system nor dedicate hours walking to and from various areas of the city multiple times. There was just one place that was an exception to this rule and that was Jalon Alor - I returned to this famous food street on three separate occasions - after all, it would be silly to eat anywhere else.

View from Merdeka Square

Merdeka Square area

My first full day in KL was spent in the Merdeka Square area and I have to admit that it was a good introduction. I walked there, soaking up the atmosphere of the city along the way and stopping off at the Masjid Jemek Mosque. I was furnished with a lilac hijab at the entrance in order to explore the cool white marble structure without causing offence.

This part of the city is full of stunning buildings and the contrast between the old in the foreground with the ultra modern Petronas Towers and KL Tower poking out from behind makes for an interesting comment on development. My best recommendation for this area is the City Gallery, which is free to visit and full of interesting exhibits.

There is also a scale model of Kuala Lumpur, which makes the centrepiece of an impressive light show. In a darkened room a presentation begins and each part of the city is lit up as it is mentioned in the audio. This even goes for the routes the public transport takes. This gave me a greater insight into the place, but also the daunting task at hand - trying to make the most of my time here.

The ARCH workshop housed within the gallery is also worth time pondering. Behind a large glass screen all the craftsmen and women are at work creating intricate models. A few of them have little boards stating their experience and area of expertise. I was particularly taken with a man who had been in the business for 22 years and spent his time making tiny models of the Petronas Towers.

Central Market

Central Market and Petaling Street

Two fantastic shopping opportunities, although totally different from each other, can be found to the south of the Merdeka Square area. These are the Central Market and Petaling Street. The market has been in existence since 1888 and is a fabulous place to buy souvenirs. I purchased a batiked kite for my boyfriend and some placemats, but had to bargain hard to get the price I wanted.

Meanwhile, Petaling Street is the knock-off capital of KL and it took a lot of will power to get through the crowds with everyone trying to flog me watches and bags. I did cave in the end and bought a replica Cath Kidston bag, as these appeared to be everywhere.

Petronas Towers

Central business district and Batu Caves

Getting up at 6am may not appeal to everyone, but it was totally worth it to set off across the city and join the queue for the Petronas Towers. Only a certain number of tickets are available to ascend the mighty structure, so getting in line is a must. I opted to go up as soon as possible and was adopted by a lovely mother and daughter from South Africa, who helped me get some photos from the Skybridge, which links the two towers together, and the 86th floor. Visitors cannot go up the the top floor - number 88 - as this is reserved for the office of the chief executive officer of Petronas, or so I'm told.

Unfortunately it is difficult to get a good shot of the whole structure from below, as you can't get far enough away, because the area is pretty built up. This wasn't too much of a problem for Hector, however, as he can be held up, so I managed to get the tops of both towers in for his photos.

There wasn't much else I had identified I wanted to do in the central business district of KL, so I used the second half of this day to head out of the city to the Batu Caves. For this I managed to get my head around the public transport and traversed the city by monorail, then took a train out to the site. You can tell which platform at KL Sentral the trains to the Batu Caves go from, as it is the one teeming with tourists - this should have been my first clue.

The Batu Caves are a bizarre mixture of stunning natural caverns, traditional Hindu temples and tacky tourist souvenirs for the hordes of visitors. It was certainly an experience, but a strange one at that. The highlight for me was seeing the monkeys stealing the flowers from the temples to eat.

Orchid and Hibiscus Garden

Lake Gardens

Not flying out until late in the evening, my third and final day in KL was spent exploring the leafier area of the city to the west of the centre, which is full of interesting parks and gardens. One of the main attractions is the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park, which prides itself on being the biggest free flying aviary in the world. While some of the birds are free to roam, others are in enclosures. No doubt the larger birds would eat the smaller ones if they were all allowed to go where they pleased. As well as flamingoes, peacocks and macaws, the stunning hue of the scarlet ibis really stood out, as did the hornbill.

The Orchid and Hibiscus Garden was beautiful and very extensive, with every variety of these two flowers you could possibly imagine. An interesting display in the centre of the gardens explains the significance of the hibiscus rosa sinensis or the Bunga Raya, as it is known in Malay, which is the national flower.

Friday, 14 March 2014

An extraordinary friendship that spans continents

When I was 16 I had the misfortune of having my appendix removed in Vietnam. The unexpected side effect of the surgery was an unusual friendship that has now lasted longer than a decade and spans continents.

The trip I was on at the time that my appendix decided to stop behaving and earn the attention it had always craved was organised through school. As well as a group of my peers, two teachers accompanied us on the jaunt and one of those was my English teacher, who stayed with me in hospital throughout the surgery and my recovery.

It is amazing how such an experience cements a relationship and at the time we agreed we would have to be friends forever. The days were spent answering quiz questions from the Weakest Link quiz book and drinking juice made from the most exotic fruits imaginable.

So far we have remained true to our promise and despite no longer living in the UK, I consider my former English teacher among my dearest friends. This is why my forthcoming trip to Malaysia is such a special one, as it is an opportunity to spend some quality time with Ms O'Farrell talking at 100-miles-per-hour and keeping that promise alive.

You see Ginnie (we dispensed with the formalities a long time ago) now lives in Penang and I will spend the first week of my holiday staying with her and her family. As well as an opportunity to explore what is said to be a fascinating location and one that is well tipped by the experts at present, it will be a proper catch-up session.

Since those days in the early noughties in the North East of England, Ginnie has lived in El Salvador, Istanbul and now Penang, raising her daughter. Apart from a trip to Turkey to visit her several years ago, our friendship has survived on annual visits that last half a day and the exchange of Christmas cards.

The chance to spend hours talking about books, writing, travel and all the things that mean 12 years down the line we keep in touch is one that I am relishing. And that is why this trip to Malaysia means so much to me.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Preparing to pack

It is something of a Dodd tradition to start packing for a trip well in advance. It usually starts several weeks prior to departure with items being laid out on the spare bed. Over the course of the next few weeks more and more clothes, chargers, suntan cream and the rest get added until eventually everything you can possibly think of is laid out.

My dad did this back in February before he and my mum set off for Vietnam and everything was packed up and in his backpack four days before they were due to leave. They hadn't thought to find out what their Skype password is (having not used it for a year), but that's another story.

While we all mocked my dad at being overly organised, I have to confess that I indulge in the same activity before I go away. So about a week ago I started to lay out all my bits and pieces, slowly adding to it as I thought of things.

I tried to encourage my other half to adopt the same approach when he was preparing to head off to South America a couple of years ago. But alas, Healys are not Dodds and simply do not work in the same way. After a week of encouraging him to put everything he would need on the spare bed I went in two days before departure and there were three pairs of underpants and a toothbrush.

But I digress. So with a week to go until I set off for Malaysia the pile on the sofa bed in the spare room is getting larger. It is a while since I have done a trip such as this one, so I am trying to remember exactly what I will need. I have treated myself to new walking shoes and a lightweight jacket, as well as the usual holiday paraphernalia of flop flips and sun cream.

My sister (once a Dodd, now a Dixon) jokes that I pack so lightly that I don't even take a towel and this is true. Towels are large unwieldy items that are simply not suited for travel. They take up far too much room and too much water, meaning they are never dry by the time you wish to leave. I always take a sarong - big enough to wrap me up in my entirety and tries in a fraction of the time - in my mind it's a no-brainer.

You see I like to have all the bases covered, but hate carrying a huge bag. Over the years I have found that the most annoying thing when travelling is to have too much luggage. It makes it difficult when moving on, tires you out in the heat and impedes your flexibility. Instead of being able to jump on a local bus with a little backpack, you need to get a taxi or another form of transport.

It is unusual to feel the same level of frustration at not having an item as the one I get when I am carrying around something that I haven't used. If I take a backpack that is too big, there are simply items at the bottom that never see the light of day.

This is why the stage of my packing process before putting everything into my backpack is whittling down what I need. After a week and a half of gathering things together I can look at them on the bed and systematically work through them deciding what is truly necessary. I can also cross reference items of clothing, working out which ones can multitask and therefore make others superfluous to requirements.

It is in this way that I will whittle down my luggage to the minimum and hopefully achieve my aim of taking only hand baggage on my trip to Malaysia. This will cut down on the time spent hanging around at the airport and that agonising moment when you are stood next to the luggage carousel and there are no more bags coming and you still haven't got yours.

This feeling of unease is only heightened when you are travelling on your own and therefore have no companion with whom to share clothes while the airline attempt to track yours down. For the first three days of my solo adventure in Croatia some years ago, I had only the emergency essentials the airline deigned to give me and the clothes I stood up in.

The essentials pack from Alitalia included a one-size-fits-all tent - sorry I mean T-shirt - some slippers and an interesting selection of cosmetics and feminine hygiene products. I now know that if I do check a bag in, then a change of clothes strategically placed in the hand luggage is an absolute necessity. Nobody wants to be wearing bargain basement Croatian multipack pants for the first three days of their holiday!

So the question is this - will I have struck the perfect balance of bringing just what I need and no more? Or will I find myself desperately missing something I should have packed while another item languishes at the bottom of my backpack? Fingers cross it's not the latter!

Sunday, 9 February 2014

A day at Destinations: The Holiday and Travel Show 2014

Travelling to London from the North East in the middle of a Tube strike may not seem like the most sensible idea in the world, but it was worth it for the Destinations travel show, which ran from February 6th to 9th. My journey from King's Cross to Earl's Court involved waiting 45 minutes at Victoria for a very packed Tube and being spewed out at an unexpected station, due to mine being closed, but I still managed to make it on time.

Thursday February 6th started well with a press breakfast hosted by No 1 Traveller, which has airport lounges at Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester, among others. As well as complimentary bucks fizz, pain au chocolat and a relaxing massage, this also gave me the chance to chat to some fellow travel journalists.

The show itself was a useful opportunity to meander among the stands and soak in all things travel-related. I stopped by the Malaysia tourism stand to get inspiration for my upcoming trip in March and chatted about the possibilities for trekking to hill stations on a jaunt from Kuala Lumpur.

An impressive array of photographs were also on display for the Wanderlust Travel Photographer of the Year award. It is amazing to see the incredible skill with which people can capture the world around us.

While the stands are nice to wander around and it is great to get freebies, such as Mundy the penguin, the real draw of the show is the lectures given by specialists in their respective fields. It is these sessions that really fire the imagination and get you thinking about all the destinations yet to explore.

The definite highlight of this year's event was listening to Simon Reeve live in conversation with Paul Goldstein of Exodus. The TV presenter and author has an impressive back catalogue of experience and programmes that have taken him across the globe. So popular was this event that people crowded into the area, standing and sitting on the floor to hear what he had to say.

He spoke every day at the show, but the great thing about formatting such an appearance as an interview means each time will have been different. Questions from the audience also helped to move the conversation in new directions, keeping it interesting for him as much as anyone else.

It is not surprising that proceedings began by talking about Reeve's most recent project, entitled Pilgrimage, in which he visited some of the most important religious sites in the world. He confessed that his favourite part of filming the series was arriving at Santiago de Compostela, which marks the end of the famous Camino route through Spain.

Reeve also spoke of the fact that Jerusalem is much smaller than you would imagine for a place of such huge significance for people all over the world. He joked about those who know him poking fun at the overuse of words such as 'amazing' during his programmes, but highlighted the importance of presenters just saying 'wow' and allowing the cameraman to span out and take in the beauty of the place, as this is what the viewers really want to see.

Another area that Reeve spoke about during the session was the protection he feels when filming due to a highly competent team surrounding him. This is something that it is important not to become complacent about, as he went on to explain.

On an occasion when he was filming with a scientist who collects the venom from box jellyfish in Australia, there was another danger present - crocodiles. An expert was on hand to ensure that the creatures did not get too close, but nobody should stay in the water too long, as the crocodiles become aware of their presence and start to circle.

Reeve was intent on getting the shots with the scientist when the expert said he should get out of the water. The presenter protested and said he just wanted to get a bit more footage. He was manhandled by the crocodile watcher and pushed to safety, at which point Reeve was reminded of the fact that "the crocs don't know we're from the BBC" - a vital thing to remember.

Another fascinating series that Reeve presented was called the Places That Don't Exist, which explored nations that are not recognised by the UN. These include Somaliland and Transnistria, which lies on the border between Moldova and the Ukraine.

His comments about this unofficial country really sparked my interest, especially as I had not seen the series myself. On returning home I looked further into Transnestria and popped what I found on Twitter, putting both Reeve and one of my colleagues into the tweet. To my great surprise, Reeve retweeted me with a little reply, which made my week. Safe to say, all the retweets and favourites made the post the most well publicised I have ever had!

Fans of Reeve's work will be interested to know that his next project is to be on sacred rivers. Another fascinating subject, I'm sure you will agree and one that has already taken him to the Ganges and will see him visit other waterways, such as the Nile.

I went on to attend talks about the Galapagos by Richard Furlong of Furlongs Travel and Namibia by Wilderness Safaris. Both were inspirational and made me want to grab my passport and set off right away. The Galapagos is somewhere that has been on my wish list for a long time, although that is where it may stay for a while, looking at the prices.

Namibia is one of the destinations that I was lucky enough to visit as a child with my family. The images of Fish River Canyon and the Namib desert brought back so many memories. As the representative said: "Go to Namibia and if you have already been, go again." Sounds like a good idea to me.