A Packing List for a Grown-Up Gap Year

It’s kind of amazing how travelling changes you. Opens you up to adventure, new experiences, new people. Only a few hours after we said goodbye to our families, switching from ‘vacation’ mode to ‘backpacker’, we met a Brazilian couple who gave us tips on everything from how to ward off the Zika virus to the best places to eat in Rio. We exchanged email addresses and they told us to get in touch if we needed anything once we arrived.

Travel magic at its best.

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First official selfie of the trip – at Fort Lauderdale airport en route to Rio via Bogota

It’s officially been eight years since my last gap year – and in many ways, not much has changed. I’m older and (hopefully) wiser, but I’m still using the same backpack, sleeping bag and packing cubes as last time. The backpack in particular has seen many corners of the globe; she also accompanied my sister Sophie on her gap year adventure! I can definitely vouch for the longevity and durability of a Lowepro bag. I’m taking more or less the same amount of clothes, and I still remember that the most useful thing I brought with me was my sarong. But what has changed is the sheer amount of technology that is accompanying me this time around. Whereas in 2007 I travelled with a flip phone, iPod and a point-and-shoot camera, this time I feel like I’m carrying around my own Best Buy superstore. I guess that’s the burden that comes with being a ‘digital nomad’. I do have The Potion Diaries book 3 to write on the road, after all!

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Two backpackers ready for the road

Looking at this list all laid out, I’ve probably overpacked – and from everything I’ve heard, there will be plenty to buy in South America! The tricky thing has been to prepare for all the different temperatures that we’ll be encountering on our trip – from the sweltering heat of Brazil to the potentially very cold nights of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Also, now that I’m closer to 30 than 21 (I turn 30 on this trip, ahh!) and this is supposed to be a grown-up gap year, I don’t want to feel like a ‘backpacker’ all the time. My solution is to bring jeans with me so I can go sit in a café and not feel too grungy. And if I’m ever wondering why my bag is so heavy, someone please remind me that I’ve packed five actual tree-books, in additional to my Kindle. Don’t judge me, I need them all! *clings to books*

Here’s my packing list, comprising my life for the next four months:

Clothing

1x aforementioned skinny jeans
1x grey hiking trousers
2x shorts
1x cut off trousers
1x jogging pants
3x sundresses
4x t-shirts
4x vest top
1x long sleeve shirt
8x underwear
3x bras
3x socks
1x long winter socks
1x thermal top
1x thermal pants/leggings
1x rain jacket
1x sweater/fleece
1x cardigan
1x beanie
1x gloves
3x bathing suit/bikini
1x sarong

Shoes

1x waterproof trainers
1x Merrell sandals
1x Flipflops
1x Butterfly twist flats

Medicine

Paracetemol + Ibuprofen
Anti-malarials
Bite cream
Solarcaine
Savlon (antiseptic cream)
Bio Oil
Immodium
Antihistamines
Birth control
Hand sanitizer
Band-aids

Toiletries

Sunscreen
Bug spray (75% Deet)
Solid shampoo from Lush
Deodorant
Razor
Make-up (mascara, concealer, bb cream, blush, lip salve, black eyeliner)
Dry shampoo
Mooncup
Toothbrush + toothpaste
Hand mirror
Nail scissors
Cotton swabs
Eye drops

Technology

Laptop + charger
Kindle Paperwhite + charger
iPhone 6 + charger + extra batttery
Waterproof Lumix camera + extra battery + charger
SD cards
External hard drive
Letouch 4-in-1 USB charger
Gopro (and a few accessories – a floating device, selfie stick)
Headphones + headphone splitter
Plug adaptors (for all variations – South America seems to have a ton of different variants when it comes to plugs!)
Withings watch (to track steps and sleep along the way – also works as an alarm clock)

Other

Writing notebook and pens
Books (to be exchanged on the road)
Passport + travel documents (including photocopies of passports and travel insurance documentation)
Flashlight + head torch
Binoculars
Toilet roll
Day bag + small side bag for the cities
Wallet
Sleeping Bag
Thermarest
Water bottle
Sewing kit
Trek towel
Travel lock
Sunglasses
Canada pins (to hand out along the way!)

But probably the most important items we’ve packed are our travel mascots… Kylo Ren and his minion! I initially bought a Disney Star Wars vinylmation hoping to get BB8 (it’s a lucky dip out of 8 different characters) but decided I wouldn’t mind getting Ren, Poe, Finn… but I ended up with Kylo. While initially I was a tad disappointed, it all works out now that Lofty’s mascot is a minion 😉 Look out for KR and minion showing up all over South America.

KR and minion – our intrepid travel companions

 

 

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A vacation to remember: WDW, Universal Studios and Celebrity Silhouette

It’s hard to describe the past couple of weeks, but I’m going to go with a single word: blissful. It’s been the perfect opportunity for Lofty and I to have some family time before the BIG trip begins – a vacation before the adventure. And what a vacation it was.

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The group at Hogsmeade!

We started off with a week at Disney’s Old Key West resort, where we celebrated Christmas (for the third time for most of us), played golf and did some shopping. The highlight was of course a trip to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure – home to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Once again I was blown away by the imagination and the detail of the Harry Potter parks. Seeing scores of people – young and old – in long cloaks and wands, watching them cast spells to make jets of water fly through the air or upset cauldrons over unsuspecting onlookers… it’s literal magic. I must have had a look of awe permanently plastered on my face (the marker of a true HP fangirl) because as soon as I stepped into Ollivander’s, I was chosen to have my wand ‘choose’ me. As I spoke the magic words – Wingardium Leviosa – and a gust of wind lifted my hair to the singing of a choir – I was in. Sell me ten of those wands. Let me spend all my money on you, JKR and Warner Brothers.

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Finding my perfect wand at Ollivander’s…

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Hogwarts, of course

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Lofty & I outside Hogwarts

Okay, so all I bought was a Gryffindor-branded phone case, but the effect had definitely taken hold.

The rides are unbelievable too. These are no ordinary theme park rides – the hair-raising jaunt through Gringotts vault has some of the most sophisticated tech I’ve ever seen on a rollercoaster. Even the queues are fantastic (just look at the detail below as you step inside Gringotts bank). If you’re a fan and you ever get the chance to go, do it.

Inside Gringotts

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Diagon Alley

Our second week was aboard Celebrity Silhouette, sailing to Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Jamaica and Labadee in Haiti. Suffice to say, the cruise was incredible. The ship was pristine, the food delicious, service impeccable, and the ports… well, I think Labadee might move straight in as my favourite Caribbean destination ever.

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These two weeks of bliss have been like rays of sunshine, wonderful to bask in but also so bright they’ve obscured the view of everything that went before or that’s to come after. We’ve been living in a bubble where all our family is together in one place, where the sun is always shining, where food and cocktails appear on command (no magic wand required) and our every whims have been catered for. But from tomorrow, when we board the plane to Rio, we’re going to taking the first steps into a different kind of life. New people, new countries, new languages, new experiences… living out of a backpack and seeing where the road takes us!

It’s bound to be a wilder ride than the journey to a Gringotts bank vault. I hope to see some dragons too.

 

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Our first 2016 adventure: Porto, Portugal  

I can’t believe the first week of 2016 has come and gone – how has that happened? Is it already too late for resolutions? I posted a few of mine on Twitter, but I’ll repeat them here for posterity:

My 2016 resolutions

  • Stop going on Goodreads (I have made it a week so far, which is longer than I thought! I love Goodreads and the community but it wasn’t healthy for my creativity, which leads on to resolution number two…)
  • Focus on my art (guilt-free, allowing myself to learn and get better)
  • Eat less sugar (failing slightly on this one already… there’s still time)
  • Live in the moment & not on my phone (hmm)

I’m not so sure I believe in resolutions, but it’s still fun to make them! At any rate, 2016 is going to be Our Year of Adventure, and so starting as we mean to go on, we took off on our first trip of the year… to Porto, Portugal!

I’ve never really thought of Porto as a top destination, but as one of Lofty’s friends (hi Steve!) is a pilot who is based there, it was the perfect opportunity to go and visit him and the city. To be honest, Porto surprised me in so many ways! Strolling along the banks of the river Douro from Steve’s home in Vila Nova de Gaia (just across the river from Porto proper), passing world-famous Port houses, stunning shops with blue-tiled frontages and buzzing restaurants, I was really impressed.

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Of course, Porto also found a place in my heart because it has a great literary tradition, home to one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores and also once home to that great idol of mine, JK Rowling. And it’s easy to see why so many people tie Harry Potter back to Porto – it’s a got a mysterious, meandering vibe that reminds me of the novels… streets to get lost in, with delights and surprises around each corner. Even the McDonald’s has an entrance that immediately put me in mind of the entrance to Dumbledore’s office… as if you just needed to utter ‘lemon drops’ to be transported from the land of Big Macs straight into Hogwarts. The Livraria Lello is renowned for his magnificent staircase – you do need to pay 3 euros for the privilege of seeing it, but to me it was worth it!

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Porto also feels different to the rest of Portugal because of its climate. It rains here. A lot. And the temperature is fairly stable throughout the year – there is no extreme heat or freezing cold like they get further inland, in the Douro valley (where they grow the grapes for the Port wine). Speaking of which… its climate also made it the perfect destination for Porto’s other major role: as the home of delicious Port wine! It wouldn’t have been a visit to Porto without stopping in at one of the Port wine houses – we chose Graham’s as one of the most recognizable, but there were so many to choose from. We had a tour of the cellar (where the aforementioned temperature helps keep the wine nice and cool as it matures) and, of course, had a tasting of three different varieties of port.

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Whenever it comes to a destination, I’m all about the food. Luckily, Porto did not disappoint. I was already a big fan of the Portuguese custard tarts known as pasteles de nata, and they were available everywhere! But I was not prepared for a ginormous sandwich known as the francesinha – a decadent spread of meats (steak, sausage and ham) between two thick slices of bread, covered in molten cheese, sitting in a bath of tomato soup and topped with an egg. Yes, it was just as rich and hearty as you’re imagining. Yes, we had to split one. I recommend Brasao Cervejaria as the place to go if you’re interested in trying one too!

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Porto is also extremely well known for its rich abundance of seafood. The supermarkets have huge sections devoted to dried cod (a Christmas specialty, apparently), and there was no shortage of seafood on every menu. We headed out to the coastal town of Matosinhos, where the restaurants are just across the street from where the fishermen bring in their catch. The seafood could literally not get any fresher! There are huge grills lining the street where fish is seared to perfection – alas, it was raining (typical Porto) so we headed for sanctuary inside. At the Matosinhos restaurant we visited (called O Valentim), we didn’t even bother looking at the menu. The waiter brought over a giant, fresh sea bass and we gave him the thumbs up. It returned a few minutes later, perfectly grilled and absolutely delicious. Who needs a menu?

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Another beautiful part of Porto – especially during the breaks in the rain – is the beach town of Foz. Here, we watched the waves batter the lighthouse from the cosy comfort of the Confeitaria Tavi, with its beautiful infinity views out over the ocean. Over a cup of strong Portuguese coffee and a nata, it quickly became clear that 2016 was getting off to a pretty great start indeed.

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15 memories from 2015

2015 has been a strange year. In a lot of ways, it feels ‘quieter’ than previous years – there was no engagement, no book deal, no wedding… and yet, in reality it’s probably been the biggest year yet. It’s been my life-long dream to be a full-time writer and now I’ve finally achieved it, but officially leaving my amazing publishing role (which I loved) ended up being one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever made. The shock of leaving permanent work has definitely been eased by the prospect of long-term travel in South America – and I’ve always known that if I wanted to continue to grow as a writer, I’d have to continue to live. All my books feature adventure, so I better have a few of my own!

Writing this post has been helpful in remembering that there doesn’t necessarily have to be a big ‘landmark’ event in order to have a big year. So without further ado… 15 memories from an actually spectacular 2015!

1.The nationwide air-raid alarm going off as Lofty and I strolled around Amsterdam. We loved our spring visit to this vibrant city but we didn’t expect the air-raid warning (or civil defence siren, as it’s actually known)! Apparently it’s tested on the first Monday of every month, good to know 🙂 Apart from being momentarily terrified, we ate pancakes of all shapes and sizes, wandered the streets and visited the Rijiksmuseum

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2.Making Aga scones on a writing retreat to Skye. Hiding away in beautiful Skye, Scotland in March with two of my best writerly friends, Kim Curran and Laura Lam, visiting castles and fairy pools and writing the second Potion Diaries book: Royal Tour was definitely a highlight of this year. We probably made more Aga scones than we did any actual writing, and we made a great (and unexpected) friend in the beautiful photographer Knibbs, but it was just what I needed.

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3.Upgrading to a bright red Jeep and driving around Volcano National Park on Big Island, Hawaii with Lofty, my sister and her boyfriend, Evan. My family is spread across the globe – UK, Canada and Australia – so where better to meet up than the remote islands of Hawaii? For Evan’s 30th birthday we bought him a trip to Volcano National Park, and we had a whirlwind adventure around the lava. We also played golf, ate our bodyweight in tuna poke and learned how to surf. It truly was paradise and I can’t wait to get to go back!

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4.The fantastic Forest of Reading event in Toronto, where The Oathbreaker’s Shadow was up for the White Pine Award! How often do authors get to walk on stage and be cheered on like rockstars? The atmosphere here was so fantastic, and I got to meet a ton of readers who loved my books.

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5.Filming The Potion Diaries trailer. Watching an awesome team of filmmakers put together a trailer for your book is always going to be a highlight! We took to the New Forest to find a beautiful old shop (The Old Apothecary) and perfect forest scenery to shoot in.

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6.Completing the London Colour Run with Kim. So my fitness goals haven’t exactly been at the top of my priority list this year (there have been no marathons!) but I did do a color run and it was brilliant. I’ve also been trying out my local OrangeTheory gym – highly recommended.

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7.Launching The Potion Diaries at Waterstones Piccadilly! I can’t even begin to explain how magical the process of publishing The Potion Diaries has been… but it started with the awesome launch party that Simon & Schuster UK helped me put together! My agent, Juliet Mushens, gave me the most beautiful Potion Diaries themed necklace and I felt thoroughly spoiled. Since then, I’ve been on so many school visits and bookshop tours and met tons of fans of the book – it’s been a real experience and one I hope to repeat every year!

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8.Finally getting to explore the treasures of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, UK. It was hard to pick a single memory as we’ve done lots of day trips around the UK and exploring the wonders that are a bit closer to home. We also went back to North Wales and also visited Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon.

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9.Dragon-spotting inside the Brighton Pavilion with Zoe. I spent a lot of time in Brighton this year working with my lovely author Zoe Sugg (aka Zoella), and so getting to know her better has been amazing. She is undoubtedly one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met, and what she’s accomplished so far is more than a little bit mind-boggling. But my best memory with her this year was on one of our non-working days, when we wandered the Lanes and visited the Brighton Pavilion, which was weird and wonderful and full of dragons — so of course, I loved it. IMG_6107

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10.Dressing up for YALC and London Comiccon. Easily the best UK literary event of the year, YALC was all sorts of awesome! I had fun dressing up as a Capitol citizen for the Hunger Games night and was on a panel the next day hosted by my great friend (and also awesome author) James Smythe. Seeing the passion for YA in the UK is just so motivating, and I am so proud to be a part of this community.

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11.Celebrating our wedding anniversary in stunning Dubrovnik, Croatia. In August we sailed for two weeks on the SailCroatia ship Aurora and it was absolutely fantastic. Croatia was one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever visited – the food was amazing, the weather perfect and the beaches stunning. It was also the ideal place to reflect on our first year of being a married couple – and my conclusion has to be that I am the luckiest girl in the world to have a partner who relishes life’s adventures as much as I do. Life is never a dull moment when we’re together – and who ever wants dull?

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12.Appearing on my first morning television show in Toronto. After worrying a little about how Madly would be received in North America, I was truly stunned by the reception! I was featured on CBC and Global News and had a brilliant launch party hosted by Perfect Books in Ottawa. My parents have been such huge supporters of me and my writing, so it was great to have them involved — CBC filmed their segment inside their carpet store, Canadian Rug Traders. The morning TV show was definitely nerve-wracking, but it was also a lot of fun… and gave me a bit of inspiration for book two, which you will read about very soon!

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13.Welcoming Remy into the world. One of my best friends welcomed her second baby into the world, the gorgeous Remy, and at just three weeks old she made the journey to Ottawa to come and visit me for my book launch. It was a bit of a hair-raising visit but the memory reminds me just how lucky I am to have such amazing friends who are prepared to do just about anything for one another. I’m really looking forward to being closer to this little girl and her kick-ass big brother (and maybe their parents too) in 2016.

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14.Speaking of which… welcoming Cody into the world. Another bestie brought her first born into the world just a few weeks ago, and I am so honoured to be godmother! Cody is just the most delicious little baby and I can’t wait to watch him grow up to be the handsomest little man. I’m going to miss him tons – but one of my new years resolutions is to send more postcards, and this man is going to be top of the receiving list!

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15.Pork extravaganza in Krakow, Poland. Another whirlwind European adventure was our trip to Wroclaw and Krakow, Poland! We weren’t exactly sure what to expect from the food in Poland, but we ended up having the most incredible meal of the year. A full pork knuckle with sauerkraut mash and flavoured vodka… drool.

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Bonus memory! Christmas in Chippenham… We’ve ended 2015 with a most perfect Christmas in the UK – a great sendoff for our next adventures. 2016 looks set to be one of the best years yet, so bring it on, I say!

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Happy New Year to all the blog readers! And be sure to check back in 2016!!

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Five Ways to Learn Spanish for South America

Hola todos!

Since we’re going to be spending at least four months of the world in Spanish-speaking countries, I thought I’d better get a wriggle on trying to learn some of the language! Lofty has been much better at this than me, and has been learning for almost 18 months. I, however, have taken the more ‘intensive’ approach and trying out lots of different methods! I’ve compiled a list of just a few of the ways we’ve been trying to learn Spanish (and some bonus ones that have been recommended to us, that we will try in the near future):

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1. Best if you have three months or more: Find a Groupon/Amazon Local deal!

Lofty found a brilliant deal on AmazonLocal that offered a 12-week Spanish course for only £79 with the Elegant International College in London. Definitely worth every penny! With a course over 12 weeks, he really got to know the teacher and the other students, so he was able to meet up with them outside the classroom to help improve his Spanish even more. After 18-months, Lofty is a confident Spanish speaker and well prepared for a few months in South America!

2. Best if you only have two weeks: Instituto Cervantes ‘Intensive’ courses

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Instituto Cervantes in London on Eaton Square

This is the course that I took over the last two weeks of November. Instituto Cervantes is run by the Spanish government as a way of promoting the Spanish language around the world – and all the teachers are native Spanish speakers. The course takes place every day for three hours a day (from 10:30-13:30) and costs £312. The class sizes tend to be pretty small, with a minimum of 4 up to a maximum of about 12 people per class.

Although I initially started with the very beginner course (Inicial 1), because I had been using Duolingo (see below) I already had enough vocabulary to jump to the Inicial 2 level. I’m so glad that I did. Over the two weeks, I went from a completely shy Spanish speaker to being able to have actual conversations and write full on emails and postcards. The course is quite intense – they try to speak as little English as possible during the lesson, even to complete beginners – but I thoroughly recommend it if you get the chance before you go. They also give you a ‘qualification’ at the end of the course which allows you to pick up a Spanish language course anywhere around the world.

3. Best if you’re learning on your own (for free): Duolingo

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I downloaded a bunch of Spanish apps to help me learn, but the most useful one has been Duolingo (and bonus: it’s free!). It’s easy to use, fun, and has really helped improve my vocabulary. The biggest drawback to Duolingo is the fact that you don’t say much out loud – and you don’t get a chance to interact with anyone, so translating Duolingo knowledge into an actual conversation is tricky. That’s why I would thoroughly recommend taking a course as a way to cement that knowledge!

3a. Best for learning on your own (for ££): Rosetta Stone

A bit on the expensive side, but well proven to be one of the best pieces of software for learning Spanish on your own! I have yet to use it but have heard only great things. I have the Latin American Spanish version, level 1 and I’ll be adding it to my laptop for learning on the road.

4. Best if you can start your trip a bit early: Homestays

Lofty and I are unfortunately starting in Portuguese-speaking Brazil, so we’re not able to do a homestay. But if my experiences learning French are any indication, becoming fully immersed in the language with a homestay is the only way to become truly fluent. Oasis Overland offers week-long homestays as ‘added extras’  on most of their South America itineraries.

5. Best if you like to watch videos: VideoEle

This website was recommended to me by my Instituto Cervantes teacher and it’s so useful! Some of the Spanish learning videos I found on YouTube were very basic and not very helpful. But these videos are clear, useful and tie in to the different levels used by Instituto Cervantes. If you’re a beginner, go to the section marked ‘Alumno’ and then level ‘Nivel A1’

I would also like to download some great (but easy) Spanish-language podcasts for the road – does anyone have any recommendations? We’ve been listening to Coffee Break Spanish and Show Time Spanish but always looking for others!

 

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