Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Off to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

While we were working, we had often meant to get around to going to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival, but never had managed it.  So while we were in South America we decided that as we would be back in the UK at the right time, we would take the opportunity to go this year.

We booked up a rental flat, joined the Fringe Friends, and then spent days looking at the hundreds of shows available and trying to decide which ones to buy tickets for.  We figured that, although Edinburgh is also hosting the rather more highbrow International Festival and the Book Festival at the same time, we would go solely for the fringe, which is largely comedy with some drama and musical acts.

Having picked out our preferred shows, I then spent more hours with a map working out where they all were so that I could group the shows in sensible ways to avoid traipsing all over town everyday.  When I was finally done, we bought the tickets for thirty-four shows over the thirteen days we would be here.

We had decided to get the Caledonian Sleeper train from London to Edinburgh on the Friday night straight after our Olympics session, so having done a quick dash back to Kentish Town to pick up our bags, we were off to Euston to catch the train.

The train wasn't bad.  The two bed compartment was pretty small, with not much room for the suitcases, but had a little wash basin and aside from being a bit warm, it was generally OK.  Although we didn't need to make use of it, the food and drink was reasonably priced for a trapped market.  And we did get a cup of tea and some shortbread biscuits when we were woken up, albeit that it was at 6:45am!

We arrived at Edinburgh Waverley at 7:15 and were piped in with bagpipes.  Personally, not being a fan of the sound of bagpipes, I think that was just their way of making sure everyone was awake and off the train quickly, but perhaps that's just me being cynical.

We couldn't check in to our flat until 10:30, so we looked for somewhere for breakfast.  At that time there was little available around where we were, so we had a cup of tea at one place before finding a little cafe for a cooked breakfast.  And very nice it was too - the Elderberry Cafe in Elder Street if you're looking for somewhere.

The flat is on the way to Leith and is very nice, although not so keen on the three long flights of stairs to get up to it!  We settled in for a bit and, in common with much of the country I'm sure, watched some more Olympics.  We had only booked the one show today, partly in case there was a problem with travel, and partly because we knew we'd still be glued to the TV.

Later, we set off to see our first show.  With all the tickets being unreserved seating, we got there quite early, and soon found that ten to fifteen minutes was all that was needed.  However it was good to be at the front of the queue, as then you can get to pick your seats.  We are tending to go for seats in the second row where there is still a good view and you can hear well, but you are slightly less likely to get picked on.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Interview with an Olympic Gamesmaker

Alongside all of the judges, technicians, security, armed forces and other paid professionals, the London Olympics 2012 has been staffed by around 70,000 volunteers.  These Gamesmakers, as they are known, have been undertaking all sorts of roles from backroom activities like monitoring communications and looking after the village, through ticketing duties and driving people in the mobility buggies, right the way to leading in the teams of athletes and setting up the podiums for the medal ceremonies.

All of those that we came across were cheerful, friendly and helpful. Whether they were directing us with a pink foam pointy finger, joking through their megaphone or simply available to be asked for help, they did doing an amazing job of helping the spectators and competitors to have a fantastic games, and from the ones I have spoken to, they were enjoying themselves too.
I know a few people who signed up as volunteers, and a former work colleague of mine called Jon Shepherd, agreed to tell you about his experience as a Gamesmaker and share a few of his photos.
Why did you decide to volunteer?
I just wanted to be involved somehow in what was always going to be such a huge national and international event. I love London and wanted to be part of a huge one off, once in a lifetime event in my home city. I’ve participated in or watched quite a few big events like marathons for example, so I knew how exciting they were to be part of, and I wanted to be part of that excitement. Also, I think I just wanted to challenge myself a bit. I wanted something new and different to get involved in and excited about. It would have been so much easier to do nothing, but I was fed up doing nothing.
When did you apply and what was the process like?
It was long and drawn out! I first applied back in 2010. The application was all online, nothing complicated, you had to say what your interests were, why you wanted to volunteer etc. Then in February 2011 I think, I received an email saying I was being considered for a role with the road cycling team (not actually as a cyclist obviously, but for a brief moment I was very excited!) and inviting me to attend a selection event at the ExCel. It was just a 1:1 interview, but it caught me by surprise a bit because they asked me behavioural questions (tell me about a time you’ve done so and so etc). I thought it would all be about my cycling interests! But no – they understandably wanted to figure out whether people could work as part of a team, what skill I had etc. I thought I’d messed it up because I didn’t hear anything for months and months, while a few colleagues who’d also applied had heard back within quite a short period of time. Then in November 2011 I got an email saying I was in!
So you knew you were in, but when did you find out what you'd be doing?
I knew from the confirmation email that I’d be involved in the cycling somehow. It just said I’d be involved in the road cycling events (road race and time trial) in the field of play, as a pedestrian crossing point marshal. No other details but having been to events like marathons etc, I could pretty much figure out what that meant.
What training did you have to do?
The training was broken down into orientation training and role specific training. Orientation training was basically about what was expected of us as a games maker. About how important we were to the success of the games, to everyone’s enjoyment of it (athletes and spectators), how we were expected to conduct ourselves and so on. The organisers held a number of orientation events at Wembley Arena, and there were 10,000 of us at each one. Mine was in early 2012. It was an impressive event really. The one I went to was hosted by John Inverdale the sports commentator who actually did a lot of the Olympics. He brought on a lot of important people, like John Regis the former British Olympic runner, Olympic organisers and officials etc, to tell us how big a deal this all was and how important we were. There was a bit of American style rah rah rah but not too much thankfully as none of us were buying into that as it just not our way! I and the other games makers I spoke to all came away feeling very excited and with a sense of worth, and there was a real feeling of anticipation building for what was clearly going to be a very big deal.
The role specific training was a little more casual. A week before the Olympics started I and everyone else involved in the cycling went along to Sandown Park racecourse for half a day. There, we found out exactly where on the course we would be, more or less, and we were given a very brief explanation of how to enable people to cross the road. Really. Not even a demonstration!  I’m not knocking it, it would have been very difficult to give us meaningful hands on training of what our role entailed given that the course varied so much and there were so many of us (several hundred). We also received some genuinely very useful information about what would happen on the day, what to expect, what other official vehicles would be on the course and when etc etc. I’ve probably made it sound a bit disorganised (and maybe it seemed like it at the time) but in reality it was perfectly adequate and like with so many roles, we did a lot of the real learning on the job. It was all common sense really.
What do you think of the uniform and will you be keeping it?
When I first saw a picture of it, it’s fair to say that OMFG was pretty much my first reaction. I first saw it in the flesh at my orientation training, and it began to grow on me a bit then. As we got closer to the beginning of the Olympics, I began to see a few people wearing it at training events or even out in the street, and as the anticipation began to build for the event as a whole I actually began to look forward to putting it on, wearing it in public and being seen. Strange! The trainers are the best bit and are the only things I’ll wear again (apart from maybe the trousers to do DIY in). I’ll definitely keep it all though. Seems a shame to get rid of it as I’ve got some very happy memories. I’ve seen a lot of the uniforms appearing on eBay and some of it goes for quite a lot of money (like the Swatch watches for example), but I’d prefer to keep mine.
How did the public treat you?
Very well. They saw us as a point of contact, a valuable source of info – I guess they must have thought we knew what we were doing! Everyone was very friendly and grateful. I even got a cup of tea, a cup cake and some sausages off a barbeque! Talking to the spectators was probably the most enjoyable aspect of the role. I even had people stopping me in the street to ask me questions miles away from the race venue as I was walking to the meet points, just because I was wearing the uniform.
And how did the organisers treat you?
Bradley Wiggins en route to a gold medal
Also very well. They were clearly very grateful to us, judging by the messages of thanks we kept receiving and by the very nice mentions we got in the various speeches in the closing ceremony. We got a few gifts and freebies, the uniform for example, an oyster card for free travel in London, tickets to a dress rehearsal of the opening ceremony, badges, a commemorative baton. They couldn’t have done much more, apart from maybe a free ticket to something!!
Did you get to see any of the events or meet competitors?
I couldn’t have got any closer to the cycling road races and times trials so that was fantastic. I didn’t meet any of the cyclists, but there were some Japanese and Chinese athletes based near Teddington where my point on the course was, and as we were setting up early that first weekend, many of them came jogging past as part of their training. I said hello, wished them luck etc and they all smiled, said thank you, which was really nice. As a spectator I saw the men’s marathon and managed to get a ticket to some weightlifting, which was more exciting than I expected!
What did you enjoy?
The friendliness and appreciation of the people who came to watch the events we were marshalling. They were there because they wanted to be, were enthusiastic and very excited about it, and were grateful when we were able to answer their questions, and give them information which helped them understand what was going on. I didn’t get any grief even though I had to keep asking people to get off the course, get back on the pavement etc. It made me feel important, valued and useful! Also the camaraderie of the other volunteers. I was lucky enough to work with the same people all the time so we formed a good team and a good bond. We had a laugh and did a good job at the same time.
Was there anything you didn’t like?
Nothing. The only thing I didn’t like was that I was unable to do more!
What was your proudest moment?
After our first day, after the men’s road race had gone through our section, all the volunteers on my part of the course gathered together for a debrief. Our meeting point happened to be outside a pub on the course route. We’d been standing there for just a few minutes when the entire pub came out and gave us a round of applause. Amazing and very unexpected. Everyone was so smiley and happy!
And the funniest?
Myself and a fellow volunteer were asked by our team leader to go help out on another busier part of the course just before the men’s road race was due to start, so we had to jog down along the closed course route surrounded by loads of spectators on either side. They all started clapping and cheering in fun as we ran past, and we couldn’t help but laugh (and feel very proud of ourselves at the same time!)
And what was the best thing about the experience?
In terms of the actual volunteering I did, I’d say the time trial day. It was a longer day, and on that particular day the organisation was not so good, things were getting delayed and nobody seemed to be taking any responsibility. So myself and two others decided to take the initiative and get ourselves sorted. We declared ourselves a little team, took the details of where on the course we had to be, got our gear together and headed off. We were set up and in position before the team leader managed to work out what he and everyone else was supposed to be doing. We probably should have waited but we knew we had an important job to do and we were getting a little concerned about delays, so we just got on with it. We had a very good day. Plus it was the day on which Bradley Wiggins won his gold, and in a very small way, we felt we’d helped!

Opening ceremony rehearsal
Otherwise, I’d say going to the dress rehearsal of the opening ceremony. It felt like a real privilege to get to see it, to be in the stadium and the Olympic park, and it was an incredible spectacle. It was great on TV but to be there in person (and we saw pretty much all of the ceremony, only a couple of things were kept secret) was stunning. Got quite emotional!
And finally Jon, would you recommend others volunteering at their home games?
Absolutely. It can be a bit of a lottery what you get asked to do, and I was very lucky, but I had an amazing time, met some great people, saw and was involved in some great things, and feel very proud to have contributed to such a huge and successful global event. A truly once in a lifetime opportunity and I have no regrets whatsoever.
Thanks Jon, and well done to you and all of your fellow Gamesmakers.

One disqualification, another world record and even more cheers

Our second session at the athletics gave us the men's pole vault final, the first round of the 4x100m relay and the 4x400m relay final, as well as the women's finals of the hammer, 1500m, 5000m and the 4x100m relay.

Having seen a lot of the Park yesterday and having found it rather too warm, we decided to have a later start today, so we arrived around 2pm, in time to make our way to the Park Live area to catch the BMX biking.  Whilst I have never been entirely sure that it should be an Olympic sport, it is fun to watch.

Unfortunately part of the reason I like it does seem to be because of the propensity for them to fall over, but I'm fairly sure that isn't just me that secretly hopes for a pile up - without causing any serious injury of course!

Well we certainly got a pile up this time. In one of the rounds, the second placed guy crashed, only for everyone behind to go piling into him, so the only person left upright was the guy ahead, who crossed the line wondering where everyone else was. I think everyone was OK though. 
The other sport that featured highly on the live screen was the women's bronze medal hockey match. Not being that far from the pitch itself, and there being a slight delay on the transmission, we had a bit of a heads up whenever anything good happened.
We would hear a huge cheer go up across the park, and then see Team GB score a goal. At least it made sure you didn't look away at a crucial point and miss a goal.

It was nice today to have a bit more Team GB participation, and we certainly cheered our men around the 4x100m relay.

Unfortunately it was to no avail, as we were then disqualified for messing up the baton change again. Disappointing.

We did pretty well in the men's pole vault though, which got some good cheers up, but sadly not quite into the top three for the medals.

However the biggest achievement of the evening probably had to be the USA women's team in the 4x100m relay final, as they broke another world record. Love seeing those big World Record signs flash up around the stadium.

But from world records to world firsts.  This Olympics was not only the first time the they had women's boxing, and women as part the team from every country, it was also the first time that a double amputee athlete had competed.

Oscar Pistorius was running in tonight's 4x400m in his flex-foot Cheetahs.  Whether or not he should have been allowed to was a contentious issue, and I can see why.  Whilst I do think it is great that we are recognising the abilities of people, I do wonder whether there can really be any guarantee that he is competing on a level basis with everyone else

Overall we had an excellent couple of days in the Olympic Park.  It was clear that things were well organised and though there doubtless were a few glitches behind the scenes, it was all very smooth for us visitors.  And everyone was so friendly and cheerful.  Now I just hope that this good mood can last beyond these few weeks.

Oh but there was one other thing that I especially liked.  It was great to be in the stadium and be able to see that beautiful Olympic flame.  Even from a distance, it really does look fabulous, and I was very happy to get to see it.

The Olympic Park

For our first day in the Olympic Park we left much earlier than we needed to for our evening tickets, as we wanted to look around the park and spend some time with the crowds watching the big screen.  Our Kentish Town location was ideal as we could get on a train straight to Stratford, and once there, we were quickly through security and into the Park.

After taking the obligatory photos of each other under the Olympic Park signs, and having a Gamesmaker take a photo of us with the stadium in the background, we got onto the important stuff, like taking pictures of the Aquatics Centre and The Orbit too.  We had seen pictures of the Orbit, and weren't convinced by it, and I can't say we were really any more enamoured of it in reality.

People have tried to compare it to the Eiffel Tower, which apparently many Parisiens disliked initially, so maybe one day I'll love it, but to me it just looks like a rather messy giant helter skelter.  The London Eye has become an icon, is in a good location and gives a great view; the Shard is too young to be an icon but also has a viewing platform, and is near London Bridge with the market, dungeon and other sites; do people really want another viewing tower out in Stratford?

First photos taken, our next task was a practical one - fill our bottles from the water taps.  There was a queue, but it wasn't too bad, and it meant we could multi task by taking it in turns to nip off to the loo while the other waited.

And for those of you who have been reading the blog for a while, and want to know where this would rank on our convenience scale, then on overall experience of the two days I would have to judge them as a 4.25 out of 5.  They lost half a point because they lacked any decorative touches or character, and dropped a quarter point because one time there was no paper, but in fact I was pretty impressed that at a venue of this size, with so many visitors, they managed to achieve a high standard of cleanliness and hardly any waiting time.

With our drinking water filled, we amused ourselves with the size of the queue for the MacDonalds, and headed off for the Megastore.  It was certainly a large shop, and very busy.  I wandered around the Tshirts for a while before deciding not to bother, as I would probably never wear it again after these few days, and set off to look for the two things that I'd figured I would buy.

They didn't have a silver charm that I liked, so that will have to be left for an online purchase if I get around to it, but they did have the box of Christmas decorations.

If you read my blog about souvenirs then you'll know that this is often my fallback keepsake, and I have for some while fancied having a London bus or taxi bauble.  Well the Team GB box set had a bus, a taxi, and a Big Ben, as well as a round union jack bauble and one like the lion's head symbol.  A bit tacky maybe, but you can get away with it at Christmas.

The queue to pay was fairly long, but they had cleverly hidden part of it behind a partition, so strangely it didn't seem so bad, and they did have plenty of tills, all of which were open, so it actually didn't take too long, and we were soon out and on our way to Park Live.

We had to wait a short while to get into the Park Live area, and it was fairly crowded, but we found a space off to one side and settled in to watch the live action from the various venues.

We had not been there long when we heard a small cheer rumbling it's way towards us.  We soon spotted the reason for it, Louis Smith was making his way through the crowds.

A while later, a similar, but much louder cheer went around, hailing the arrival of Sir Chris Hoy on his way to the Park Live stage for an interview.  The poor guy  must have expended more energy waving to everyone as he passed than he did on his bike to win his gold medals.  But he seemed genuinely happy to see everyone, and indeed in his interview he was full of praise for the support of the crowds - which obviously got him another big cheer!

We were somewhat amused by the couple of people that we saw walking around with hollowed out watermelon hats on their heads.  Not quite sure whether it helped to keep them cool or something, but it was an interesting look.

Dressage medal ceremony
We spent a very hot afternoon watching the women's open water swim, the dressage competition and some boxing amongst other things.  We may only have been watching a big TV, but the atmosphere was great and everyone still cheered and waved their flags when a Team GB person came on, especially when we won another gold medal.

Expecting a queue on the way in to the stadium itself, we set off in plenty of time for our evening session, refilling our water bottles on the way.  In fact we queued for all of about twenty seconds, so we had plenty of time to take in the stadium before the events started.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Three Jamaicans, one world record and a whole lot of cheering

men's 200m medal ceremony
Our first session in the Stadium was a packed evening with the last two events of the men's decathlon (which were the javelin & 1500m), the men's triple jump final, 800m final, and 200m final, and the women's 800m semis, 4x400m round one and the javelin final.

Not all of the events had a Team GB athlete involved, which was a bit of a shame, but was not really unexpected.  And what it did mean was that we could get behind the other competitors so much more.
We certainly made plenty of noise to help the decathlon guys with their javelin throws and the triple jumpers in their run ups.  Suarez soon impressed us all with his olympic best javelin throw of 76.94m, even though it wasn't enough to take him into the medals by the end of the ten events.

 And we were almost as enthusiastic for the little remote controlled minis that they used to bring back the javelins.  The javelins would be put in so that they were sticking up out of the top of the mini and be 'driven' back to the athletes.  They used them for the hammer the next day, so presumably use them for the shot and discus too.

The men's triple jump was a little disappointing not to include Phillips Idowu, but we had a great view as we were sat just in line with the sandpit.

One poor man clearly had his knee give way as he jumped and buckled in the sand in obvious pain.  The first person to him was a fellow competitor, quickly followed by the Gamesmakers and medics.  He had to be stretchered away and was a painful reminder of what athletes have to put themselves through to compete at this level.  Hope he is OK.
men's 800m start
The men's 800m final turned out to be one of the highlights of the day when David Rudisha smashed the World Record.  Everyone loved it.  When someone did this well, it didn't matter what nationality you were or they were, everyone knew that they had seen a fantastic achievement and celebrated loudly.
mens 800m finish
We did feel a little sorry for some of the athletes in the field events.  When there was no track event on, the commentators would focus on the field and we would all get behind them, but when the races were up, they did tend to take a back seat.
new men's 800m world record
We tried to still cheer everyone on, but it was nigh on impossible, and realistically, when there was a track race and two field events happening at one time, it would be difficult to know who the cheers were for anyway.  Unless there was a Team GB person, and them it was blatantly obvious and very noisy.
men's 800m medal ceremony
The ladies 4x400m relay round one was particularly good as we had Team GB to cheer on and they qualified well.  It was quite amazing to hear the way the main cheer went around the stadium alongside our runners.  Like a mexican wave, but with union jacks waving instead of arms, and much, much louder.
men's 200m start
And then of course there was the men's 200m final.  We had no one in it so could be entirely behind Team Jamaica - and let's face it, so was pretty much everyone else.  I took a photo of them as they set off and then while watching them run, I turned the camera around to the finish to take a picture of them crossing the line.
Trouble was they got there so fast, 19.32 seconds to be precise, that I didn't have time to refocus properly, so the photo is somewhat blurry!
men's 200m finish
But whatever the photo may look like, the reality was a most impressive Jamaican one, two and three.  Needless to say, the celebrations went on for a while.  We watched as Usain took a camera from one of the photographers and turned the tables.  And of course he did the 'bolt' a couple of times too.

Bolt turns photographer ...
... and doing the Bolt

Up for the Olympics

Having got evening tickets for the athletics, and knowing that transport was likely to be busy, we figured it would be best if we stayed up in London.  Seeing the prices being charged for accommodation, we were very pleased when some friends who live in Kentish Town invited us to stay with them. 

We arrived with John and Paul the Wednesday evening so that we could make the most of our tickets by getting to the Olympic Park a bit earlier on the Thursday.  Knowing that we had just come back from South America, and having been to Argentina a few times themselves, they suggested a newish Argentine restaurant in Camden.  But before we went there, we headed to a brewery and bar in the arches of Kentish Town West.
The Camden Town Brewery is now apparently the third largest producer of beer in London, which isn't bad since they only started in 2010.  Jasper Cuppaidge, whose grandfather was a brewer in Australia,  was brewing a small amount in his Hampstead pub, but was frustrated that he had to import most of his lagers and ales.  So he bought a brewery, complete with recipes from the past and started making it himself.

Having successfully established their beer, they opened up an on site bar at weekends, and it seems to be very popular.  They have a regular range of ales, but they also supplement this with specials.  When we were there, the main special was the very topical 1908, which is brewed to the same recipe as an ale that was produced in 1908 especially for the first London Olympics held that year.

So having had an aperitif there, we went for a taste of Argentina including empanadas and steak.  Was it as good as in Buenos Aires? No, sadly not.  The empanadas were quite nice, but the steak just wasn't as good as it should have been.  We perhaps should have known that this would be the case when we saw on the menu that some of the beef was Irish.  Not that there is anything fundamentally wrong with Irish beef - it can be very nice - but using Irish beef in an Argentine restaurant is just not right!

Still, we had a reasonably nice meal in good company, and John and Paul were excellent hosts for the two days that we were there.  And they recommended a great cafe (Mario's) for brunch too.  Thanks guys.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Olympics - horizontal bars, horses and handsprings

So having had a great day at the ladies' all round team final the day before, we were looking forward to our second day and the mens' individual all round final - even if we knew there wouldn't be any free bubbly this time!

We had another easy journey there and were soon settled into our seats close to the 2.78m horizontal bar.  A little higher up today, but still a great view and being in and amongst the main stands, we were with more people and so there was a lot more atmosphere around us.

We also started off with some good news as we heard that Team GB had just taken gold and bronze in the men's individual road cycling time trials.

 There was a slightly tense moment during the introductions when the announcer clearly wasn't sure of his information.  Bearing in mind the still recent embarrassing faux pas when the wrong Korean flag was shown in the women's football, we all knew what the problem was.

The person waiting to be introduced had the letters KOR against his name and the announcer obviously wasn't sure whether it was North or South.  The guy concerned clearly knew what was happening too, and to his credit he was fairly good humoured about it.  The announcer eventually worked it out, and introduced the competitor from the Republic of Korea.
With two Team GB men, Kristian Thomas and Daniel Purvis, in the running, we again had plenty to cheer about, and at the point when both went at the same time, the noise in the arena was deafening.

Had Kristian Thomas managed to nail his landing on the vault, he might just have been able to get into bronze, but he had so much speed and length in his dismount that he had to take a step or two back, and in doing so lost those vital points that could have kept him in medal contention.

Still, both did well, and just having two male gymnasts in the final is more than could have been predicted a few years back.

So we weren't on the podium, but we were amused to see it being set up for the medal ceremony.  The podium was positioned on the floor, by which I mean the square used for the floor routines, not just the ground.  But of course the floor mat is always being used for the events, so it can't be there permanently.  The solution is to lower the podium in from the ceiling, and gradually edge it into the right position.

We had two fantastic days at the North Greenwich Arena.  We obviously enjoyed the skillful gymnastics that we saw, but we were also impressed by how well organised it all was and how friendly and helpful the security people and volunteers all were.

Good job everyone.