During the first few moments of 2016, I turned to Dave and announced that this was going to be my year.
2015 had been a blend of amazing and terrible, often at the exact same time (I’m a published author and people love my book, but I can’t stop having panic attacks!), and I was determined to put all the bad stuff behind me and make some positive changes in the coming year.
I predicted back then that the theme of my 2016 was going to be change, but it turned out instead to be incrementalism. I’ll expand on this when I publish the results of my 2016 goals next week, but in short: I learned that just because January had rolled around, my struggles weren’t going to magically disappear.
I wasn’t going to stop having panic attacks just because it was a new year.
My immune system wasn’t going to heal itself just because I thought it really should have by now.
Baby steps are everything.
For a long time I fought as hard as I could against admitting I was struggling. I started the year unwell, stressed, anxious, and in desperate need of a break to work on my health. I was too embarrassed to admit to anyone that I was still being slammed by panic attacks, so I shamed, shamed, shamed myself instead and pretended my life was wonderful. Rather than getting the help I needed, I pushed myself to continue exploring the world and told myself that it would cure my anxiety — after all, that’s exactly what it did five years ago. By ignoring every warning sign, I contracted half a dozen infections, had to take a horrifying number of antibiotics, and learned that my high levels of stress over the past couple of years have most likely resulted in an autoimmune disease and chronic pain.
On my Facebook page a few days ago, I summarised this year and said that the first six months were easily some of the worst of my life, and this gives you a small insight into why.
But the second six months were some of the absolute best of my life. I’m ending the year on a high and feel stronger and happier than ever.
I visited sixteen countries in 2016, seven of them new. I hiked in New Zealand, swam in lagoons in the Cook Islands, sunbathed on one of the best beaches in the world in Bora Bora, ate my way around Mexico and the U.S., fell instantly in love with Lisbon, chartered a yacht in Greece, cruised the canals in Venice, celebrated five years with the most caring boyfriend in the world, made my health my priority, learned to meditate, taught myself to cook, made dozens of friends, and so much more.
So as the clock struck twelve yesterday? I turned to Dave and announced that this is going to be my year.
I’m entering 2017 filled with optimism, determination, and wanderlust, and can’t wait to see where this year takes me.
But enough waffling. Here’s what I got up to in 2016!
January was all about island hopping my way around the South Pacific! And damn, I’m not sure I’ll ever have a month filled with so many paradisiacal destinations again.
I spent my previous New Year in London, so I kickstarted 2016 in New Zealand with a chilled week with Dave’s family. We were based in Hanmer Springs, where his parents have a holiday home, and spent our time enjoying the warm weather, hanging out in the local hot springs, and hiking part of the St James Walkway. I used hiking boots that were too small for me and one of my toenails turned black.
Next up was the Cook Islands, a destination I’ve been dreaming of visiting for years. Despite experiencing more than my fair share of bad luck while I was in the country, getting to take a lagoon cruise in Aitutaki more than made up for it. The Cook Islands were magical and easily one of my new favourite countries.
From the Cook Islands, I bounced over to French Polynesia and fell in love with this gorgeous island nation. I spent my time exploring the Society Islands of Maupiti, Raiatea, Huahine, and Bora Bora, then realised I had only scratched the surface of what this destination can offer. I’m already making plans to return at the end of this year.
From Bora Bora, I moved on to Fiji, where I’d planned on spending three weeks island hopping across the Yasawa Islands. By the time I landed in Nadi, though, I realised I needed a break from travel. I’d been moving far too fast in the South Pacific and it was starting to show — I was exhausted and fighting off cold after cold after cold.
I changed my flights and flew to Mexico early to reunite with Dave and hang out with the dozen or so travel bloggers who were in town. While I’m sad I didn’t get a chance to see more of Fiji on this trip, I know that skipping it in favour of some rest was the right decision.
I landed in Oaxaca via the worst travel day ever, then immediately set about filling my stomach with tacos.
Just kidding. I actually went straight to the doctor, because I’d managed to contract three separate infections at once. Little did I know, this was just the beginning of the slow deterioration of my immune system.
I’d had great plans for my time in Oaxaca, but achieved very few of them, and I’m okay with that. When you travel full-time, getting to spend multiple days in a row with good friends is rare, so being in the same city as a dozen of mine for an entire month was like Christmas. I let travel take a backseat in Oaxaca and instead checked out some of the best restaurants and taco stands in town, developed an obsession with mezcal margaritas, and marvelled at how inexpensive it was to live there. We paid just $250 for a month in our apartment!
I try to visit the United States at least once a year, and always try to squeeze in a jaunt to my beloved Pacific Northwest while I’m there. This trip was no different.
This time around, Dave and I were dogsitting for some friends in Seattle and gleefully took over their lives for four weeks of domesticity. I’ve always thought that if I could live anywhere in the U.S., I’d choose Portland, but my month in Seattle has me rethinking that plan. I loved it there! The food scene was amazing, the people were lovely, we have a ton of friends to hang out with, and looking after Leo was basically the best thing I’ve ever done. When I was struck down by two further infections this month, having him come to comfort me whenever I cried has me convinced that dogs are everything.
From a rainy Seattle, I flew to a humid New Orleans to meet up with my family and undertake a music-themed road trip through the American South, which was a brand new region for me.
I arrived in New Orleans expecting to hate it, but it’s now one of my favourite cities in the world! And travelling as tourists rather than travel bloggers meant that we were cramming in a whole bundle of activities into our few days in the Big Easy. We learned about the city’s history through it’s best bars and cocktails on a kickass cocktail-themed walking tour; journeyed into the Louisiana swamps for an afternoon of alligator-spotting; wandered around the historic homes and enormous mansions in the Garden district; and discovered some of the best live music in the city in the bars on Frenchmen Street.
Despite such an action-packed itinerary, I feel like I only managed to scratch the surface of what New Orleans has to offer and can’t wait to return in the future for more bar-hopping and beignets.
The road trip continues! Next up was a few days in Memphis, which again, I loved so much more than I was expecting to. I mean, I seriously loved Memphis. Beale Street was lively, vibrant, colourful, and full of ribs and live music. I realised I could never eat ribs again after devouring the best of my life while I was in the city. I took a really cheesy trip out to Graceland that ended up being so much better than expected, and visited some fantastic and eye-opening museums.
Next up, Nashville, which was, again, another destination I fell in love with! I’m not much of a country music fan, so a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame was, um, really boring. But everything else was perfection: the Johnny Cash museum was one of the best I’ve been to, the food scene in East Nashville was a hipster dream, and I still regret not buying a pair of cowboy boots while I was there. I was really into Nashville and left claiming that I could see myself happily living there one day.
We rounded off our U.S. travels with a special trip to Miami. This was hopefully going to be our very last destination of our full-time travels, so we booked a fancy apartment on South Beach, and I treated Dave to Pearl Jam tickets while we were there. And guys? I loved Miami so much more than I was expecting to! The art deco architecture had me wanting to buy an apartment in South Beach, the crab eggs benedicts had me wanting to eat breakfast in Miami every day, and the beach was just as beautiful as I’d been hoping.
It was the perfect way to round off five years of full-time travel.
In May, I arrived in Lisbon and instantly fell in love. Travel had been making me feel unwell, so it was time to pause for a while and put down some roots in Portugal. I always thought it would feel like an enormous and terrifying step to make such a huge commitment after so many years of freedom, but the decision felt nothing but perfect.
Instead of settling into Lisbon, though, we immediately jumped on a plane to Spain because that’s what we do. We flew out to Girona for the first time to see some travel blogging friends who were living there, and then I promptly got what I think was salmonella. I’ve never had food poisoning like it! So, Girona? I liked the small part I got to see of it.
When I wasn’t in Spain, I was back in Portugal and road tripping around with a local friend I met through this site! We drove out to see UNESCO World Heritage site Monastery of Santa Maria d’Alcobaça in, um, Alcobaca, almost got blown away by the strong winds in Nazare, home to the largest wave ever surfed, and drank cherry liqueur from a chocolate cup in Obidos.
June was all about staying put in Lisbon in order to get to know the city a little better. My parents paid me a visit for a weekend this month, too, which gave me the perfect excuse to check out what brings the tourists to Lisbon.
I regularly took trains and trams and buses out to the best beaches in the city, I set myself a challenge of finding the best pasteis de nata in the city, clambered up to the castle and marvelled at the views, wandered around the narrow alleyways of Alfama, and even celebrated my birthday in the best possible way (beaches, cupcakes, and heated slippers.)
It was time to take control of my life!
I set myself a challenge of doing the Whole30 at the start of the year and in order to do it successfully, I needed to take travel off the cards for an entire month and focus on my health.
And I’ve already said a bajillion times that it was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.
The Whole30 was all about me finally finding the baby step I’d needed to take in order to get myself on the road to recovery. As I write this post, almost six months later, I’m excited to tell you that prior to jumping on the Whole30, I was experiencing panic attacks multiple times a day and barely leaving the house. And now? I haven’t had a single panic attack since finishing the Whole30, and my anxiety has never risen above a 2 or 3 out of 10 since.
I celebrated finishing the Whole30 with a trip out to Evora, which is said to be the Tuscany of Portugal. It’s known for its fantastic wine and food scene, and I spent a few days eating and drinking as much as possible. I genuinely had some of the best meals of my life there! Dave and I were staying in an old converted monastery while we were there, which was as amazing as it sounds (very), and spent our time wandering around the beautiful white and yellow buildings, checking out the amazing Roman temple that was steps away from our hotel, and battling stomach cramps, because eating dairy and gluten after a month of elimination can be excruciating.
As August rolled around, I took advantage of my European base and flew to London to visit my family for a few weeks.
First up was a week in London, where we made the decision to head east rather than back to Brixton. It was the right decision as we immediately fell for hipster Hackney and its bustling Broadway Market. As always in London, we filled our days with snacking at street food markets, catching up with friends, and realising that we really should have planned for more time in the city.
When our time in London drew to a close, Dave and I journeyed north for my first visit to Oxford. Dave’s brother is studying at Oxford Univeristy, so we hopped up to see him for a few days and spent our time snooping around the college grounds.
But the highlight of Oxord for me? Wandering into two different bookstores and finding my book in both of them! I haven’t spent much time in the U.K. since How Not to Travel the World launched, so it’s always surreal whenever I find it for sale in a real life store. Even more excitingly, Dave had yet to see it in a real life bookstore, so I was thrilled to see the look of excitement and pride on his face when he spotted it.
September marked the start of a glorious summer spent rekindling my love for Europe.
I began my travels in Greece: first, with a week on Corfu, and second, with a life-changing ten days on the ocean. I loved chartering a yacht in the Ionian, and my newfound confidence about all things sailing showed me that I was back on track to being the anxiety-free person I used to be. Plus, my new dairy-free diet meant that I stopped getting seasickness, which made the whole experience so much more enjoyable. I can’t wait to get back on the water again!
From Greece, I said goodbye to Dave and flew to Venice for a few short hours spent making the most of a layover. I bused my way into the city, cruised along the canals, grabbed a strawberry cheesecake gelato, and thought about how Venice would be my favourite city in Europe if it wasn’t for the thousands of tourists.
Next on my list was Berlin, and now that I was in a better place mentally, I was able to get back to pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I stayed at a 5-star hotel and spent way too much money on pretending I was a luxury traveller. I treated myself to my first massage since Bangkok at one of the best spas in Europe. I ate alone at a two Michelin Star restaurant. I worked out in the fancy gym everyday. And when I wasn’t pretending to have more money than I actually do, I spent my time hopping around the tourist sites, meeting up with friends, and taking a tour of an underground bunker, where I put on a fake New Zealand accent.
Onwards! Next on my list was Paris, which was probably my biggest European oversight of all. I based myself in the Marais neighbourhood, which was amazing, and visited the Eiffel Tower, checked out the Louvre, wandered around Père Lachaise Cemetery, and failed at trying to stick to a paleo diet. I also almost got scammed and thought I’d seen the Arc de Triomphe when I had, in fact, seen a tiny arch that looked nothing like it.
The travels continue! Next up on my agenda was Luxembourg, which I now firmly believe is the most underrated country in Western Europe. It was so wonderful! I spent most of my time in Luxembourg City, but managed to squeeze in a day trip to the fairytale village of Vianden while I was there, too.
Next up was a week in Nice, which, um, was a bit of a disaster. I’d planned to road trip my way across the French Riviera but when I arrived and found police cars on every street, policemen with massive guns on every block, and a nervous, jumpy population of locals, I’m embarrassed to say I let fear win. Rather than beach hopping along the coast, I spent most of my time inside and feeling fearful whenever I made it down to the streets below. I’m annoyed I didn’t get to take advantage of my time in such a beautiful part of the world, especially as I visited to prove you can’t let the terrorists win.
One thing I did manage to do while I was in Nice was check out a new country. I spent a day in Monaco and honestly, it was boring. The mountain scenery was impressive, and it was cool to see all the fancy yachts, but there wasn’t really that much to do that. I’m glad I got to see it, but I can’t see myself returning anytime soon.
To celebrate breaking up with my panic attacks, I decided to change up my appearance and go blonde!
From the age of 16 up until the day I left to travel, I’d always had my hair coloured various shades of the rainbow, but I’d never been brave enough to try blonde. I stopped colouring my hair when I started travelling because, well, I’m lazy and it sounded too hard to maintain. Now that I’ll be in one place for six months of the year, I wanted to do something drastic to celebrate my clean bill of mental health. I researched the best salon in Barcelona, let them dump a bucket of bleach on my head, and ended up thrilled with the result, thank god!
The final part of my Europe trip was an incredible tour from Barcelona. The trip takes you to three countries in one day and I loved that it allowed me to see so much of Andorra. We stopped at a medieval village called Braga, in Spain; Ax Les Thermes, a village full of thermal hot springs in France; and then spent our afternoon driving around multiple towns and villages in Andorra. Most people who head to Andorra only visit the capital city, so this was a great way to see more of what it has to offer. I’d definitely return in the future — the small parts I saw were gorgeous.
November was a laid back month spent hanging out with friends old and new. And I always know I’ve had a good month when I look back and realise I was having too much fun to take any photos!
This month, I celebrated Thanksgiving with a huge get-together at a friend’s place, where I discovered cornbread and honey butter and devoured it until I felt sick. I also found some amazing bars and tasty restaurants I can’t wait to write about, and even got to have friends stay over, which feels so good after having spent five years abusing others’ hospitality and sofas as we’ve travelled around the world!
I celebrated my five year anniversary with Dave this month, too! After developing a taste for fancy, expensive food in Berlin, we opted for a meal at a Michelin Star restaurant in Lisbon to celebrate the occasion. It was totally worth it, although definitely a once-a-year occasion from now on!
November was also about improving my health. I spent a lot of money getting extensive bloodwork done this month in order to learn more about my body, how my organs are functioning, and what I need to do to improve my immune system, recover from the many antibiotics I’d taken, and keep my anxiety at bay. I learned a ton and have already taken steps to help me live happier and healthier. Unsurprisingly, my results showed me that my gut flora was all over the place, that I have some deficiencies that are linked with anxiety, and that my white blood cell counts and liver function were a little all over the place. Yay for antibiotics!
Just when I thought things were getting back on track, 2016 couldn’t resist giving me one final slap in the face. It was in December that I found myself battling yet another infection, on yet another course of antibiotics, and making the discovery that I most likely have an auto immune disease that could have me in pain for the rest of my life. If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that stress is not something to be taken lightly or ignored. It can seriously mess with your health.
But let’s end on a happy note! I finished up my year with a trip home to London, where I’ve had one of the best Christmases of my life. Meals at my favourite restaurants, films at my favourite cinema, catching up with friends and having a big family reunion, going to a rugby match, heading to an amazing cinema that’s made to look like you’re sitting in someone’s back garden, attempting to find the cosiest pub in London, and going for walks beside the river.
I ended this year on a high and I can’t wait to see where 2017 will lead me!