This is a difficult post to write. 2020 was a year with high points and low points. I feel like I should spend some words celebrating the highlights, but can't pretend that this wasn't a very difficult and stressful year.
As good has some of the highlights have been, it's impossible to separate them from the constant underlying anxiety and isolation of the pandemic. No matter where you go, there you are.
I was lucky to travel a lot and see some wonderful things during a year a lot of people did not. Privilege acknowledged. However I know enough about mental health to know that being reductive doesn't help at all. Perspective is a useful tool, but it's not an instant cure.
Continuing the cliffhanger ending from last year, Rosalie and I woke up on the bank of the river in Kampot. It was a lively and fun place to spend new year, with a busy bar and lots of water activities to take part in. If you're in this area, you have to try the Kampot Pepper Curry, or just anything with fresh Kampot Pepper in. It blew my mind.
The highlight of the trip has to be the island escape of Koh Rong Samloem which is a true island paradise. Perfect sandy beaches and crystal clear waters, with enough restaurants and activities if you tend to get a bit restless like me. We did some snorkling and a night time plankton boat ride and swim.
We stayed in M'pai bay village for our entire stay there. We were originally planned on only spending a few days there but after we got there we enjoyed it so much and felt so relaxed that we kept pushing our leaving date back and back and back as much as we could.
I can't say that I go out of my way to look for western-style food when I'm travelling but there was an abundance in Koh Rong Samloem and there are some places I have to recommend. The Chai Tent has outstanding vegan food, great staff, pet dogs, and even yoga classes. We went here more days than not, and I'd be quite happy if I ate there every day. I can't recommend it enough. Bush Bar was another highlight. It's a little hide away in a secluded area that we just stumbled across when wandering along a path. It was a cosy and creative spot with friendly owners and the food tasted great.
After that, we headed to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. Ok wait, I've just realised how many words I've spent already in just the first half of January so I think I'm going to cut it short and work on a separate blog post for this whole trip. Siem Reap has a really admirable string of social enterprises that support the local environment and community, venture away from Pub Street and find the real gems.
I had a brief stay in Bangkok before my flight back. I feel like I enjoyed it a lot more this time than last. Little India is epic. Look at this food!
I flew back to the UK, and straight into a housesit. This time in Bedminster, Bristol. I was looking after a fluffy cat called Kiwi in a lovely flat close to the center of Bristol. You couldn't ask for a better intro back into housesitting and work after 6 weeks off in South-East Asia.
Back at work, we attended the National Leadership forum, and launched the NLC Connect service.
From Bristol to London for another cat-based housesit with Raf and Poe. Then, after that, I met up with Rosalie, newly returned from Asia, for a cat sit in Sussex. The cats were not that friendly, but the property had a pizza oven outsite, which was very exciting! It turns out all you need is a pizza oven to make incredible pizza. It was so hot it cooks in a minute. Unfortunately the owners had secret cameras and quietly watched us the whole time they were away and came with a list of things we did that they didn't like. Not the best sit to introduce Rosalie to the world of housesitting...
However, next up was Henry and Millie in London, over my birthday. They lived closed to Richmond park, which was great for marathon training. Over my birthday I invited my family over for dinner and a walk in the park. I'm pretty sure that was the last time I've been together with all of my family.
The night of my birthday was travelled down to Brighton to compete in the half-marathon the morning after! Ha ha ha. The weather that morning was awful, super wet and windy. I was desperate to beat my personal best from the Remembrance Day run last year, but with that weather I had no chance. Still, I gave it my all and ended up hating every minute of it.
I can't forget the last time I met up with all my friends after the half-marathon in Brewdog Brighton. Covid-19 was in the news, but I remember talking about it as something that as still very small and far away in China. It had not yet reached the shores of the UK, or at least not that we knew of then...
We headed back to Bristol to look after Kiwi again! We should have known we things were about to take a turn for the worse when Arnie completely broke down in the middle of the M4! We were lucky that there was no one in the inside lane. I quickly pulled onto the hard shoulder and we waited in the rain for the breakdown service to arrive and tow us to Bristol.
The owners were in a melanchoy state when we arrived. They had spent years planning a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Japan and flights were still running. However, almost every attraction they had booked had shut down.
We however had a great time in Bristol. Aston Court parkrun is a steep up-and-down hill course. You go slow on the way up and really fast on the way down.
We found a running club that combines our love of running and beer and friendly encouragement. Running from the Left Handed Giant tap room every week. The website sums it up. "We all start together and end together, no one is ever left behind. No Egos. No show-offs. Just good vibes"
Big shout-out to Mark's Bread. I'll go on record saying it's the best bakery I've ever set foot in.
Bristol is great, I love the choice of vegan food and beer. If only it wasn't so hilly and built on the the profits of slavery.
By the end of our time here, COVID-19 was a big daily topic. We were watching infection numbers tick up, panic buying was all the rage. You couldn't find hand sanitiser or face masks anywhere on the high street.
All the housesits we had arranged throughout the year were steadily being cancelled. We found ourselves in a tricky situation, a lockdown was looking like and we didn't have anywhere to live. Arnie was still out of action and had to be towed back to Sussex.
We rented an Airbnb for a few days in Brighton to give ourselves some breathing room to find a flat to rent. Luckily for us, one of our Airbnb hosts had a flat they were willing to rent out to us on a monthly basis! We moved in the the night before the first national lockdown.
I feel like I managed Lockdown 1 pretty well in retrospect. I was working productively. I was exercising every day, and eating well. We cooked a lot of new food from Meera Sodha's book East. My favourite is probably Bao Buns, which take time to rise but are simple and fun to make. My favourite pub kitchen in Brighton is The Pond, so this kept my cravings at bay. We also brewed beer!
I found some not-insignificant rust patches on Arnie, including a big hole that needed welding.
I also bought an outdoor projector screen to use with my Capsule 2 projector. When restrictions started to loosen it meant we could host some secret small-group outdoor screenings at night in Preston Park, all battery powered. It was magical and I was glad to give friends some nice memories during a dull time.
At work, our only client project with the NLC had gone a little bit off the rails during COVID. Obviously central government was looking to prioritise work to be most effective, which caused a big dash to find something to do that could be considered useful to the COVID effort. In the end, with ideas and priorities changes on a near-weekly basis, that meant we didn't really produce anything of value. Yes, we were still getting paid during a time when people were loosing jobs and getting put on furlough, but it was still stressful, disheartening, and painful watching us watch a lot of public money.
With the murder of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests were arranged across the world. Despite the concern over the pandemic, you're damn right I protested. Around this time it was reported that COVID-19 deaths were disproportionately higher in BAME groups than white. This is not because non-whites are genetically inferior, but that the UK is systemically racist and has longstanding racial inequality. Protesting against systemic racism is more important during a pandemic, despite the obvious risks. I did my best to stay aware of people around me, keep my distance, and everyone there was wearing masks.
Rosalie and I were presented with an awesome opportunity. A housesit appeared in Portugal for August, covering about three months. The owners said, as they had a spare apartment, that if we wanted to we could arrive early. As Rosalie had returned from her travels to a frozen job market, this was a great chance to go back into housesitting and prevent us burning through our savings. At the time Portugal had done a good job of combatting the pandemic. We'd be far away from everyone we knew, but if we were stuck inside and unable to see anyone what difference would it make? It was a no-brainer. All we need to do was to bide our time and waiting for travel to start opening up again...
The project with the NLC came to a close, with that came furlough. The ferry companies were taking our money but continuously cancelling flights. Getting frustrated and impatient, we decided to dive into the Eurotunnel and drive through France and Spain to make it to Portugal.
This ended up being the best decision of the year. In terms of social distancing, you can't get any better than the Eurotunnel. It was very quiet and we didn't get out of the van once. Having the campervan ended up being a master stroke, as we could travel over several days without needing to interact with anyone. We stayed in some beautiful remote spots, courtesy of Park4Night. These areas cost nothing but were priceless in their serenity. It was bliss. I'm fully converted to van life. We even managed to swing past Karen and Tom on the way!
Arnie ended up having a few problems and the disc brakes ended up needing to be completely replaced. A lesson that I clearly didn't learn the first time is that if a car is making a noise or acting up, it's probably causing itself damage and you need to get it checked as soon as possible before it becomes a big problem.
After a couple of days waiting for the parts to arrive and a hefty bill, over the Pyreness and into Spain. On the way we saw some stunning views, including the Kakueta Gorges.
The highlights of our route through Spain and Portugal has to be staying in the mountains in Asturias and the eire and beautiful Parque Natural do Alvão. These two weeks were the most relaxed and happy I felt during the pandemic.
July, August, and September
We arrived at our housesit at the start of July, and we left at the end of September. What we experienced between those two points was pretty crazy. The ad and the subsequent conversations we had with the owners truly undersold the scale of the property, and the responsibilities that were asked of us. Instead of there being 6 dogs as advertised, there were 13! That was the first sign that something wasn't right.
Our initial first impression was being totally overwhelmed. The estate was huge, it more like a zoo than a single property. Alongside the 13 dogs there were two cats, a bunch of goats, and over 400 birds. I'm talking ostriches, black-necked swans, macaws, parakeets, true menagerie of birds I'd never seen before in or out of captivity. Our apartment overlooked flamingoes! There was a pool and a stunning view of the hilly countryside.
The responsibilities and restrictions increased week on week. I won't go into all the details but I'll recall the feeling of dismay when they asked us to do some watering for them, and after showing us the areas of the estate they wanted water told us it would take 1-2 hour daily. Every day!
I guess they saw Trusted Housesitters as a way of getting as much free labour a they could get away with, but that is expressly not the role of a house sitter. It's not right to entice people to travel over to central Portugal and then reveal.
We had no where else to go, it was a pandemic, and I didn't feel right leaving them and potentially forcing them to cancel their travel plans. So we stayed and struggled with the workload, especially over the periods where it was 35C and over.
Also, we had an incident with a snake.
Not to say we didn't find positive ways to cope and enjoy ourselves. Portugal is a beautiful country, and they make the most out of their natural beauty spots. There was an abundance of river swimming spots 30 minutes driving distance from us. We made a few local friends, we visited a few permaculture eco-friendly properties, and we found some dutch immigrants who shared our love of outdoor cinema! I got really into regular morning exercise and meditation, and Rosalie did a lot of walking and running with the dogs.
You can read more about stuff we did in Rosalie's blog post: Our favourite things to do in central Portugal 2020
After three months, we left Arganil, and started to put that time behind us, which feels better when you're driving away in a van looking back using the wing mirrors.
We traveled down the coast to Lisbon, for Rosalie's birthday. We spent a week exploring the city, checking out all the street art, markets, vegan restaurants, and craft beer. We found a place that made exclusively vegan pastel de nata. We had some amazing vegan food at The Food Temple and Ao 26 to name a couple. Also, Scoop and Crumb will blow your mind. You can read more on Rosalie's blog post: Epic places to eat vegan food in Lisbon 2020
It was eerily quiet in Lisbon, as you might expect in a pandemic. There were a few glorious spots of tranquility, including Jardim da Cerca da Graça and the peaceful Reservatório da Mãe d'Água das Amoreiras. There are remains of Lisbon's 18th century water supply system all over the city, which is beatiful and eire.
We had a week or so to kill before our next housesit, so we spent time in Caiscais and Sintra. We found this brilliant campsite/hostel near Apple Beach. It had everything, amazing pizza from proper pizza ovens, craft beer, a co-working space, and sunshine. Oh yeah, and a resident kitten! Bliss.
Sintra is as awe inducing and as stunning as everyone says, filled with extravagant palaces and quintas. We spent a lot of time in Quinta da Regaleira also known as "The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire", which includes some creepy initiation wells" or inverted towers, with deep spiral staircases than lead to a tunnel system.
Pena Palace is also, in a word, rad. It's the photo you see if you search for "neo-romanticism". It's an eclectic mashup of architecture. When you're walking around it doesn't feel quite real, and yet it is.
After 3 months of feeling confined to one spot in Portugal, it was great to see more of the culture and variety of countryside.
Next up, we spent a few weeks living in an actual cabin in the woods. We looked after a single cat who was barely around, the host was lovely and we got on well with both of them. We watched may horror films in the run up to Haloween, which was appropriate given our surroundings.
You can read more about what we did in Rosalie's post: How to survive staying in a cabin in the woods
We weren't far from the coast of Portual and we were able to explore places like Peniche and Nazare, home to world record breakings waves. The quiet-ish beaches and chilled out surfer vibe was lovely.
In October I also completed my course on Virtual Learning Design run by Sarah Stein Lubrano. I learned a lot from the course and from my fellow attendees. It was really useful to learn more about how to combat zoom fatigue and to make online meetings and workshops more exciting. I've already used what I've learned at work in online workshops and I'm thinking about designing a course in the future. I just need to get over my imposter syndrome first.
At the start of November we had a decision to make. Do we head north and start making our way back to the UK or do we head south and try and soak up as much sunshine as possible before returning?
Conveniently the UK made this decision a lot easier by announcing a second lockdown lasting until the start of December. We drove towards to the Lagos, stopping on the way at Selma EcoCamp, a 15 hectares complex of camping pitches. It felt like stumbling into a #vanlife festival or community, there was a lot of amazing builds to draw inspiration from.
As it was getting colder in Portugal we rented an Airbnb for a month, but we learned the hard was that Portuguese holiday apartments are not built for winter! There was no central heating and one small plank of wood that would heat up slightly when you plugged it in. It was colder than it was outside when the sun was out.
Lagos was a bit too commercial for our tastes, designed to meet the needs of British tourists. Having said that, after so many months in Portugal, it was hard to resist indulging some home comforts. We found sausage rolls, craft beer, and fancy coffee! The burgers at Nah Nah Bah were some of the best that I've tried in the world. I'm putting it up there with Berlin's The Bird, Unami Burger, and Brighton's own Burger Brothers.
The coastline of the Algarve really is stunning. It lives up to all the hype. The beaches are gorgeous and the rock formations are monumental. We were very lucky to spend some time swimming on one of the top beaches in Europe that was deserted apart from two other people. We kayaked into the famous Benagil Caves. And we made some friends! That felt like a rare occurrence this year given all the cancelled events, social distancing, and the language barrier.
We promised our families that if lockdown lifted in the UK for Christmas then we'd travel back to see them. Lockdown 2 was due to end on December 2nd so that's what we did. We drove from the Algarve all the way through Portugal, into Spain, and Santander over three days.
The culture, atmosphere, and behavior at Convivio had been deteriorating for a few months, and at the start of December it hit the final straw I felt like I had no other choice but to resign. Four and a half years is a long time, easily the longest I've worked at any one company. After cultivating the Convivio brand, values, and culture, and working hard to make it a success, it was sad to leave. Esepcially when it was so far away from the culture nd values we set out to create.
I drafted my resignation letter on a swing overlooking the Spanish countryside. Definitely not the least humbling place to resign! I shed a few tears and apologised to my soon-to-be-ex-colleagues. I wasn't able to help them turn a bad situation around.
The ferry from Santander to Portsmouth was delayed due to bad weather, which meant we spent over 30 hours on a very wavy box of hell. It was disappointing how little effort they put into social distancing. In the materials they sent us beforehand they said they would be calling people out for meals in scheduled groups to prevent over-crowding but that just didn't happen. There was no table service which just meant everyone bunched together to other their meals, and some people did not care about social distancing.
The sea was extremely choppy, and to prevent motion sickness and avoid infection we spent most of our time lying in bed in our cabin with the lights off.
We docked and drove straight to our Airbnb in Brighton. We had to self-isolate for 14 days, which luckily for us was reduced to 10 days not long after we arrived. Once that was up, we got to enjoy a few days of socially distanced running and beers with friends before everything locked down in the UK again.
As we got closer to Christmas the numbers looked more and more ominus. My sister had to stay in London as it was moved into Tier 4. My parents were nearby in Sussex which mean that we were allowed to meet only and Christmas day, with Tier 4 to follow the day after. We decided that we would spend the day together, but to do our best to distance and wear masks. In the end, it didn't feel like a real Christmas day, especially without my sister.
We ended the year mirroring how we started, looking out at fireworks over the water.