For the last decade without fail, I have embarked on an annual trip with my best friend and absolute travel buddy, Jess. We have toasted our friendship with Cuban rum in (you guessed it) Cuba, feared for our lives in a casa particular where our host kept a human-sized cow carcass on hand as a religious offering (also in Cuba) and made our way through machete-wielding masked protesters in Costa Rica wearing 23-kilo backpacks.
Our story began in Spanish class at university in London. We quickly realised we were both keen on languages (Spanish in particular) and deliriously into travelling. As cash-strapped students, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we found a two-week all-inclusive deal halfway across the world to the birthplace of the daiquiri for 700 Pounds including flights. Cuba would be great, we could salsa into the night, drink copious amounts of rum and even get away with calling it “research” for Spanish class. And off we went (thanks Thomas Cook). We wholeheartedly took advantage of the all-inclusive aspect of our stay. Our days were spent lounging at any of the lush pools our resort was blessed with; punctuating our relaxation only for Frisbee-playing or using said Frisbee to top up our daiquiri collection.
Cuba was wildly enjoyable but it wasn’t without its peculiarities. A local woman we had asked for directions stalked us and tracked us down later in the day, following us into La Bodeguita del Medio, which some might know as one of Ernest Hemingway’s favoured bars in Cuba. Also in Havana, we hailed a Coco taxi (Havana’s answer to the tuk-tuk) and our driver who seemed nice enough, offered to take us all around the city for a flat fee. We had only planned a day trip to Havana but he offered us a place to stay for the night (for another flat fee). He complained about having a painful stomach from “not eating for a number of days”. Our heartstrings sufficiently pulled, we decided to treat him to dinner at a nearby seafood restaurant. Knowing we would be taking care of the bill, he proceeded to order the most expensive item on the menu but didn’t touch a drop of it. I guess he wasn’t that hungry after all.
After “eating” we headed to his house where would be resting our heads for the night. I can tell you there was no resting involved however, we didn’t sleep a wink. To greet us as we walked in was week-old raw chicken dripping on the kitchen worktop and the aforementioned cow-carcass in the upstairs patio. We were terrified and had paid 20 US Dollars for the privilege. If our Cuba trip was a sign of things to come, Jess and I were in for some tell-the-grandkids worthy adventures.
Misadventures in Europe
Our next joint departure would take us to the Algarve where we had more fun than should be humanly possible spotting dolphins, dancing into the night and letting the sunrise beat us home. Till this day we still don’t know why, but at one point a policeman hit me over the head with a stick, and then just carried on walking.
Trip number three was Greece, our collective least favourite holiday. Having gotten lucky with package deals in the past, we took our chances on a “three-star” hotel (if you could even call it that) in Rhodes. The pool was slimy, the timed air-conditioning only worked at night – when we needed it the least – and there was no glassware to be seen anywhere. All drinks were served in plastic cups that also, were slimy. The hotel even enforced a strict three ice cubes per drink policy. Of all the trips I’ve been on, never have I witnessed the rationing of ice cubes. I’d like to point out that if it’s a civilised holiday you’re after, Faliraki in Rhodes is the very last place to think about. I would go as far as to call it the armpit of Greek Island destinations. We genuinely lost count of the number of partygoers who were regurgitating and/ or inebriated to the point of unconsciousness on the streets, so much so that we had to tiptoe around them. At least the beaches were postcard blue.
Holiday number four was to the Spanish capital of beachside fiestas, Barcelona. The next year we would also go to Spain and packed our glitter and statement swimwear for Ibiza. We had high hopes for the Balearic isle of hedonism but we were priced out of most things (seriously, who wants to pay 8 Euros for 330ml of water?) and ended up spending a lot of time at the beach catching gold.
Heading further afield
Probably our most extravagant voyage yet, year six saw us branch out to Central America. In Costa Rica, we marvelled at the changing colours of Rio Celeste, enjoyed multiple waterfall hikes, mud facials and dips in natural hot springs in La fortuna, and screamed at the top of our lungs on Latin America’s longest zip line in Monteverde. I’ll never forget the look of terror on Jess’ face. She’s usually got a lot more grit than I do, so I secretly enjoyed watching her squirm. In San Juan del Sur Nicaragua, we enjoyed Toñas on the beach and found a restaurant with the world’s cheapest lobster where Jess was genuinely served coke in a glass that was very much broken.
The following year we took our matching outfits of Christmas jumpers and Santa hats to discover Munich, one Christmas market at a time. The festive spirit was incredible but not quite magical enough for us to forget about how tremendously cold we were. This was our first winter holiday and right there and then, we decided it would be the last. A lot of our trips tended to be during my birthday in the middle of July, and Jess has always put in an excessive amount of effort to make them special for me, something I will always be grateful for.
We were back in our right minds for trip number eight and rightfully took things to the beach, our natural habitat. We would combine a few days in Cascais with Portugal’s capital, Lisbon. There we rode the famous tram 28 route, took in a Fado show, learnt all about Saudade, met the friendly locals of Alfama, munched on Bacalhau à Brás, traipsed up and down the hilly streets of Bairro Alto, and sampled Gijinha at Gijinha Sem Rival.
Insects for dinner, anyone?
After demolishing an excessive amount of seafood in Lisbon, it was off to Thailand to party with the weird and wacky on Khao San Road, visit the majestic white temple (Wat Rong Khun) and bathe elephants in Chiang Mai. Much of my bucket list has, in fact, been ticked off with Jess: swimming in a volcano, venturing through a Costa Rican cloud forest, eating Raclette in Switzerland and even making a purchase at a floating market (that’s a story for another day). We’ve sampled scorpion as street food and found ourselves at Barcelona’s tapas bars munching on juicy pulpo.
Travelling together works because we have common interests and share a similar sense of humour. She’s often got me chuckling and in turn, my “evil laugh” sends her spinning. We egg each other on in the best way possible. Being a notoriously late riser, I need Jess to encourage me to get out of bed to make breakfast on time (or to do anything at all before noon). As best friends we are great travel companions because significant others might not always want to do the same things or understand that sometimes, you really do need to pack 14 bikinis “just in case”. When Jess and I first met, my then-boyfriend Julian wasn’t big on travel (or much that wasn’t football-related) so it made perfect sense for Jess to be my travel companion. She and I both share a near-evangelical pursuit of fun and we’ve been on a mission to find it on all corners of the world in unison. The annual trip is a tradition that’s so very ours and significant others simply have to grin and bear it.
Keeping friendship alive
In a decade’s worth of trips together, naturally we have had our share of squabbles and though our interests do tend to collide, we give each other the freedom to do our thing. They say knowing one’s strength is a skill and I’m wise enough to know that I have no business anywhere near a surfboard – for the sake of myself, others and the ocean itself. As a result, Jess had some surf lessons on Playa Remanso in San Juan del Sur while I got down to the serious business of sunset gazing and writing my book, Escape to Self. Our friendship has prevailed through heartbreak, loss and trying upheavals. These life moments have been sweetened by the fact that we always know we have our annual trip to look forward to – and it’s serious business. Skype calls are involved. We have a word document with all the countries and cities we’d like to go to ranked in order of preference as well as a heavily annotated Lonely Planet guidebook. There are also rules for our trips – we can never go to the same destination twice (there’s just so much world to see) and we pay our own way for everything, splitting costs equally. There are also rules on what constitutes one of our annual trips – visiting the other where they live doesn’t count, nor does a trip with other people, like her group bachelorette weekend getaway last year.
Today, we know each other inside out, a deepening of a relationship, which travel, unlike no other pastime, fosters. Your relationship is elevated by having such immensely positive experiences but also less favourable ones like when Bali belly strikes and you’re in a small hotel room bathroom with a stadium-worthy echo. Jess knows my flaws and quirks and I sure know hers. Woe betides anyone who chooses to mess with her when hangry or sleep-deprived. She also says “tsk-tsk-tsk-tsk-tsk” when expressing disapproval or disdain and has a seriously no-nonsense policy when it comes to catcalling and sexism. In Portugal, she had some stern words for a man who attempted to grab her rear in a club. She swiftly clutched him by the shirt pointing her finger right in his face and said, “Now, that was the last time you ever do that”. Through the years, we’ve gone from girls to women and even had our share of dubious hairstyles along the way (ok, maybe mostly I have) and I wouldn’t change a second of it. I have found my travel soulmate and when you meet that special someone you never let them go – unless you’re going too.
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Rosie Bell is an international travel writer, author of the book “Escape To Self”, and content editor for Club Elsewhere. Follow her on Instagram @TheBeachBell.