Visiting London During Halloween

To anyone who knows me, no holiday gets me more excited than Halloween. I was shocked to find, during my first school year in Spain, that my favorite day of the year is reduced to kids dressing up in ghoulish outfits and teenagers looking to get drunk at an all-night botellón. No trick or treaters, no scary movie marathons and no candy hangover.

But even as an expat in Spain, I relish in our pumpkin carving parties and mini trick-or-treats, even if I don’t dress up. And because the holiday falls on a long weekend every year for All Saint’s Day, I have often ‘treated’ myself to a trip away in destinations as varied as Dublin and Germany.

 One such destination I have in mind for a future Todos los Santos long weekend? None other than London.

While the historic structures of London may inspire a great many things during the rest of the year, on Halloween, the city transforms itself into an eerie place. Every nook and corner hints of a terrifying creature lurking around, adding to the “spirit” of this festival. For those who have a thing for gloomy dungeons, spooky towers and bloodcurdling history; there’s no better way to get your fix than on Halloween in London.

Terrifying Events in Halloween
There is surprisingly a large number of rather terrifying Halloween events that are hosted at some of the creepiest venues around town. With a number of scary attractions and parties, people can make the most out of their well planned costume to give others some creeps as well.

The London Dungeons
With a fabulous cast of theatrical performers, The Dungeons is an amalgamation of amazing special effects, sets and a unique walkthrough experience. With a chance to see, hear, smell, feel and touch; all your senses will be in for a horrific ride. Considered a little scary, the Sweeny Todd performance at The Dungeons is a worth visit.

Jack the Ripper Ghost Walks
This tour commences right in the heart of the locality where the famed murder took place. This walk takes a rather atmospheric path through really old alleyways in the East End that are sure to give you some chills.

The Dias de los Muertos Halloween Party at Mestizo
This fun Mexican restaurant and tequila bar transforms itself into a ghoulish environ for a single night each year. Celebrate the Day of the Dead the right way by visiting this establishment on Halloween night.

London RIB Voyages’ Thames Rockets – Beware the Barrier!
This unique experience will take you at 35 knots all the way to the tombstones in the Thames Barrier. On Halloween, London RIB Voyages offers to you a spine-tingling experience. Your boat heads off into the waters in the middle of the night for a hauntingly dark experience. This experience is probably the best way you get into the spooky spirit of the festival.

Spooktacular Halloween at The Roof Gardens
There is nothing more eerie than celebrating this night at spectacular heights. Head to the Roof Gardens where you can party while overlooking the fascinating Kensington High Street.

Other gripping events include the Candlelight Club’s Halloween Masquerade Ball that will be hosted at a Secret Venue. ‘Strange Factories’ by Foolish People is also a unique Halloween experience worth considering.

Spending a Night in London on Halloween
An increasingly popular concept in London is the idea of spending a night in a haunted hotel while in the city. Most modern day hotels transform their lobbies and public spaces to represent the spooky spirit of the festival. There are also a number of properties that are centuries old and come with a fair share of eeriness around them.

A number of boutique hotels in London enhance your experience on and around Halloween. Visiting the city towards the end of October helps you be a part of these spooky celebrations.

As for this coming weekend, my friends played a nasty trick –  they got me to sign up for a 5k in Seville! 

Have you ever traveled anywhere haunted? Do you like Halloween?

Travel Highlights from the First Six Months of 2012

It really hit me when I was saying goodbye to my students last week – time really does fly when you’re having fun. I’ve been so busy with everything that I never even stopped to take it all in, and what I’ve done the most in these last six months is travel. Menudo vida, ¿no?

January

On the tail end of my trip to the American Southwest with Kike in tow, I spent three weekends in a row out of town. First up was a trip to visit Hayley in Antequera and celebrate her birthday. Amongst other things, we went to Málaga to have a seafood cumple lunch at the famous El Tintero, where there’s no menu, just a live auction for your food! I don’t know what was better – fresh espetos or Hayley’s red velvet cake!

The following weekend, I got a cheap trip to Alicante to visit my dear friend, Julie. I’d never been before, so Julie showed me her sleepy seaside town – the tapas scene, the dominating Castillo Santa Bárbara and I even snuck a night in Valencia in!

February

One of my favorite places in Spain is Kike’s village of San Nicolás del Puerto. Nestled between the hills of the Sierra Norte de Sevilla and the acorn trees that feed the pigs, this pueblito of 700 people has become a treasured weekend getaway. This time, we took Susana, Alfonso and Luna, who loved the horses and piglets at Finca Los Leones.

March

I was thrilled that Kike would be spending time during a three-month training course in Galicia which has become like a second home to me in Spain. Our trip took us to Santiago, La Coruña and El Ferrol and included stunning weather, surprise run-ins and even a broken car. It’s all cake when you’re with the one you love, though!

Following that, I finally realized my dream of traveling to Turkey. Though we didn’t get to explore anything outside of Istanbul, I was taken by the warmness of its people, the monstrous monuments and the sumptuous food. I’d love to go back one day and see parts of the interior and coast.

April

After arriving from Turkey, I took a train out to Zaragosa, capital of Aragón and one of Spain’s largest cities. The weather did everything but let the sun come through, so we spent a lot of time relaxing and cooking while we stayed with Gonzalo, a friend of Kike’s from the military. Am I willing to go back? Sure, but not anytime THAT soon.

May

In 2012, I wanted to change up my travel routine a bit, so I went along with Audrey’s idea to do a giant obstacle course. She had exaggerated on obstacle course, but inversely: I signed up for the Tough Mudder, a 10-mile run with 25 obstacles somewhere along the way in the fields outside of the Boughton House. My body ached for days afterwards, but it was worth it. We got to see Oxford, too.

The weekend before, we’d gone to Murcia, a little forgotten corner of Spain where nothing happened but a wine tasting and a fight on the beach, all wrapped up into a lot of time in the car.

June

June has been quiet, comparatively. Between ending my current job and starting a new one, I’ve only made it to Marid for a weekend for a conference and a few goodbyes.

So, what’s next? The only big trips we’ve got on the horizon are this summer and at Christmas, but I’ll have three-day weekends to enjoy from September on. I’m heading to La Coruña Monday to work for the same summer camps I’ve been at the last three Julys (my apologies for the lack of posts), then making my yearly trip to America for the month of August. While I’m there, I’ll visit NYC and Boston for the first time in my life before heading back to Spain in early September. I’m also heading to the Travel Bloggers Unit conference in Porto with Lauren of Spanish Sabores.

So what’s been your travel highlight of these first few months of 2012, and what’s up next for you? Leave me a message in the comments so I know where to expect a postcard from!

Hoo-ra Hoo-ra: Tough Mudder UK South-East Midlands

The Crazy Mudder Fudders at the Starting Line

Alright, chaps, raise your hand if you’re still wondering what the hell you’ve gotten yeselves into!

I raised both, for good measure. As I pulled up my hot pink leg warmers and jumped up a few times to get warm, Audrey squeezed my hand and I jokingly gritted my teeth.

When I say HOO, you say RA! the megafone announced. Hoo!

I screeched RA as if it were going to suddenly make my pecs grow and my lungs last 10 miles As the gun sounded and orange smoke bombs signaled the start of the race, I repeated my personal mantra back to myself outloud: Finish the race, and don’t get hurt.

Our team of eight patted one another on the backs as we set off, letting all the hardcores pass up up. The Boughton House was a lovely backdrop for what proved to be a grueling morning at the first-ever Tough Mudder UK Event.

When I signed up in February, I figured I had enough time to work up to training level. What’s more, I had the added stress of fitting into my flamenco dress, so cardio workouts became a focus long before the Tough Mudder was even on my mind (call me sevillana, but I didn’t want to bulk up my arms too much so that they would look like stuffed sausages in my traje!). In prowling through their website, I realized this would be no ordinary race, but rather a race that would test my mental grit just as much as my physical strength.

I kinda panicked. Not full-blown, but enough to make my stomach jittery long before I boarded a London-bound plane. There would be a course of 10-12 miles littered with up to 25 military-style obstacles. I could expect to crawl under barbed wire, carry heavy objects, swim and even run through fire. My intentions were to train, honest. Life (and Feria, Turkey and job hunting) just got in the way.

I met Lauren, Audrey and Annie, one half of Crazy Mudder Fudders, in Londontown on Saturday morning. We grabbed a rental car and spent a leisurely day in lovely Oxford before tripping to Northampton, where we’d splurged on a Hilton hotel room to rest up for Sunday’s start time. We spoke about the TM like it were He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named (seriously wish we could have gone to the Harry Potter tour), instead deciding to take our fill of local pints and enjoy a rare weekend of sunshine.

Our nerves became apparent when we got to Northampton. Two hours of driving up and down every single highway in and out of town before finding our hotel (no thanks to British English directions: Take the two-lane carriageway to the north, but not The North, till you see a lay-by. Sorry? You know, where lorries sleep).  Our nerves were frayed and we were hungry and exhausted. As we prepared pink legwarmers and headbands, cut the fingertips off of gloves and readied the facepaint, I was silently thankful we were all tuckered out long before our 10pm bedtime.

Just before 6am, I opened my eyes. It was an hour later in Spain, and my nervous pee had already come. I pulled on my gear, signed my death liability waiver and ate a few pieces of fruit. I imagined puking my guts out after such a long race, so the food intake was kept to a minimum.

Despite our disasterous take on British motorways, we arrived to the race site, prepared all of our documents and slathered our bodies with sunscreen. The day was clear and sunny, with few clouds in the sky.  A mountain of sneakers met us close to the starting line, ripped up and covered with mud.

The starting line was full of people who passed under a registration gate while five-digit numbers were painted on their upper arms and foreheads. My line was, naturally, the longest, so I had more time to let the jitters set in. I handed over my registration, showed a photo ID and the wild-haired girl at the booth wrote my number – 49705 – with a cold, black crayon. We added face paint to look tough, but our muscles wouldn’t uncramp and our tummies rumbled – Annie even got a plate of fries to help her relax!

At 9:10, a half an hour before our start time, we were led to a stage where we began a light cardio warm-up. My arms were shaking, and I worried about my upper body strength. Corralled into a line, our first obstacle was before the starting line – we had to scale a wall that fenced about 150 of us in – and my arms were already aching. I was in for a long race.

Twenty minutes later, at the sound of the gun, our legs broke into a jog. I clenched my fists and stretched out my hands, knowing that the gloves would do little against the cold, the ropes and the dreaded monkey bars. Not 100 meters down hill, we were expected to cross a mini obstacle: a small creek that was as deep as my waist, freezing and full of 150 other mudders. Noted: this is going to be a doozy.

We laughed, helping pull one another out of the muddy river. This race is about mud and this race is about teamwork, we agreed. after making a round up the hill and back down again, it was back into the river and up another muddy hill on our bellies under barbed wire: the first official obstacle of 25 was Kiss of Mud. My the end of it, I was officially covered in mud, my elbow already ripped up, white headband caught in the barbed wire and mud under my fingernails so eeep, they had to eventually be cut. I stood up, smiling ear to ear as other Mudders high-fived me. Hoo-ra!

The next few miles passed like a blur: I felt out of body as I saw myself gritting my teeth as I plunged into a tank of ice water, having to swim under the surface to reach the end, crawling over bales of hay and under thick logs, and carrying tree trunks around a circular course. The day remained bright, and I thanked no one aloud for the lack of UK weather.

Our group was ragged: the boys had been training and so had Lauren, but Audrey and I blamed life for not being in top shape. Though my body felt fine, I was cautious on the mud, not wanting to twist an ankle, or, worse still, drop out of the race. Audrey and I pulled one another up hills, taking the time to be the caboose of the pack. Anytime one of us stopped to walk or strecth out a cramped muscle, we donned our best British accents (except for the boys on our team, all Londoners) and shouted our victory cry: CHICKEN AND RICE! More obstacles awaited, and some of my most memorable of the race: the Mud Mile – 1600m of alternating mud mountains and murky pools where I nearly left a shoe behind, Boa Constrictor – following PJ, I pushed his mud-cake tennies while elbowing my way through a drainage pipe half submerged in water, Fire Walker – bales of hay ablaze with fire, causing my lungs to burn after over six miles of non-stop adrenaline.

As we pushed through Tired Yet?, a football players tire nightmar, I could see us starting to slow down. Someone fell face first, ankles crushed under weight and we dragged ourself to the Turd’s Nest. Having been gymnasts for years, Lauren and I completed the climb easily and took our turns holding down the net for other Mudders. Dust, straw and rope flew in my eye, and the nearby water and banana station became my first aid stop, flushing out my eyes with H2O.

We guessed we were reaching mile 8. My legs started to feel rubbery, my arms tingling. I told myself it was ok to walk, and we stuck to our promise to wait for the whole team before each obstacle. Good thing, too – the next obstacle was the second round of Berlin Walls, and we needed everyone to help one another over the 12-footers and safely to the ground. I decided to opt out, fully knowing that my arms and short stature put me at an extreme risk of getting hurt, instead using my energy to bark orders and pat my teammates on the back. Shortly afterwards, we were met with one of the race newbies – Electric Eel. Crawling under barbed wire with voltages, I was, horrified, as people were sprayed down with hoses, noticing that the trademark cloud cover had started to roll in.

I stopped, not wanting to risk the consequences of shock just to call myself a Tough Mudder. In a Mudder moment of truth, I stepped over the boundaries and instead cheered on my teammates, pulling them safely out of the danger zone and handing them glasses of water. Down the hill was Ball Shrinker, where we had to traverse a freezing cold stretch of the river, using only our upper bodies. Almost done now, I called, as we made our way up a hill. The Boughton House was in sight, but the finish line taunted us through opur last six obstacles – Greased Lightning, Twinkle Toes, Funky Monkey, Walk the Plank, a halfpipe and the last electroshock treatment. The first four included that god damned creek, too.

We went head-first down the slope towards a lukewarm pool at the bottom. Thanks to our late start time, any water would have been warmed by the mid-morning sun, and the mud has long been washed away. I made a mental note to throw EVERYTHING i was wearing out as we jogged to the balance beam event. I watched Lauren practically high-kick her way through it, thus saving herself from a plunge into the cold creek. I got about three-fourths of the way done, when my legs gave out, causing me to get a jolt of cold water up my nose as I sawm to the other side. Next were the Monkey bars, now long-greased up. Splash! I could barely feel my feet as I jogged to the plank, three meters up.

And I chickened out. How could it be that I had survived fire, freezing water, jumps from 10 feet, but I couldn’t plunge into a pool? The monitor did it for me while my teammates coaxed me – I got a push, and thankfully didn’t land on any heads. Heat blankets were waiitng on the other side of the bank, and we watched as Marshall made it onto the Facebook page for his fearless climb up the half-ppe. My body said N-O, so I waited next to the last obstacle, the electroshock therapy a mere 100 feet from the finish line. Once all of us girls were together, we shouted one last CHICKEN AND RIIIIIICE and covered our faces. Lauren fell, I felt nothing, Audrey squealed.

All together, hand-in-hand, we crossed the finish line. My head wobbled like a bobblehead as I was crowned not with laurels, but with a firstcone orange Tough Mudder headband, handed a local beer and hugged by my Crazy Mudder Fudders. We peeled off layers of wet, muddy clothing, huddling together for warmth. Most of the after-race party had broken up by then, so we lay in the grass, reflecting and deciding where the next Mudder would be. Audrey’s Texas? Annie’s Colorado? All the way out to Australia to Lauren? It seemed immenent that we’d do another, even if it was all just smoke out of our (very cold and sore) asses.

As I cracked open a second beer, won from a keg toss (WHO HAS THE ARM STRENGTH FOR THAT?!), I showed off my bruises. My right knee was swollen and all kinds of shades of blue, but I smiled drunkingly. I hadn’t even felt it during the race. My determination, the helping hands from people crazy enougvh to torture their bodies and the feeling I was starting to regain in my toes seemed to vanish as I remembered what I’d promised myself: to finish. Not to beat any time, not to be the first, but to prove to myself that I still had the heart of a warrior my father touted when I was a kid.

My bib is stashed, the bruises long faded, but I can call myself a Tough (ass) Mudder.

Author’s Note: This post has been written after the bruises have finally healed and my body is asking for another push. While Tough Mudder is by no means a life-or-death race, it will push you to the limit of your mental and psychical strength. Don’t be an idiot like me an NOT train, but do consider doing it. I didn’t care that it took me and my female teammates nearly four hours to complete it, or that I got on a plane looking worse than ever and having to explain all the muddy clothes in my bag at customs in London. While n ot in the same competitve spirit as whgen I was a kid, this race was a turning point for me, my body image and my limits. Totes worth it on many levels. Events are held across the US, UK and Australia, and I owe Nate Rawley, Arely Garcia, Mark Pickart and my Crazy Mudder Fudders Annie, Audrey, Lauren, PJ, Marshall, Perry and the other guy (my mind was clearly in the game and not on memorizing monikers) for their support thoughout. CHICKEN AND RICE!

How Oxford Changed my Mind About England

I dislike England. Phew, feels good to admit it.

I’ve now been to the British Isles four times – three to England, and once to Scotland (which, for the record, I loved). But England I just do not like. Too impersonal, too similar to my home country, too expensive and sub-par food. Add that to airport hassles each time, and it takes an awful lot of convincing to get me to England.

Audrey convinced me. A Facebook invite to an event called Tough Mudder, coupled with a cheap Ryan Air flight meant I’d be spending a weekend is cheery old London, and a little race on Sunday.

I grumpily boarded the plane on Friday evening, knowing full well I’d be missing the Feria de Jérez and the Romería of San Nicolás, my adopted pueblo. I wanted to spend the weekend in Spain. Two hours, turbulence and a long customs line meant I’d missed my bus into the city center, and in the end I arrived at my hostel near the British Museum around 3am. I hate England.

Upon seeing my friends the following morning, we were faced with a decision: where to go to get the hell out of London. Audrey got in on the wrong side of the car as we narrowed it down to two destinations: either Oxford or Cambridge. Any guesses as to how the four of us earn money??

Sunglasses on (yes, we got a sunny weekend!), map route to Oxford highlighted and Audrey finally on the right side of the road, we drove the 60 miles northwest to England’s poshest university town, admiring the vast yellow fields of rapeseed and low-hanging clouds.

Oxford was full of two things: bicycles and people wearing commencement robes. We happened to be there on the weekend that young hopefuls were packing up their rooms and heading into the Real World, while three of the four of us are on our fifth years in Spain. I’ll drink (a delicious local beer) to that.

While having pints at White Horse, a small underground pub near the heart of the village, we squeezed into a table with six older men and women. They’d come down for the weekend from the Northern end of the country, taking advantage of the postcard-perfect weather. The happily handed over a map and encouraged us to see any one of the university’s 80+ colleges.

After living in America and Spain all my life, I assumed the colleges were the different university buildings for the different areas of study. Instead, the colleges at British universities are residence halls with vast, grassy lawns and towering turrets. It was like jumping right into Hogwarts as we peered into the doors and saw graduates in their long, black robes playing cricket on the lawns.

A glimpse into the 80+ colleges that surround the Oxford campus. No beer pong here, just cricket!

Nearly all of the colleges were closed that day due to the commencement activities, so we troved the bustling center, full of shops and quaint pubs. I was immediately transported back to my trip to Ireland with my parens in 2010 and the number of roadside joints we popped into for a quick pint or some grubby pub food. A trip to the Sainsbury’s meant we were well stocked with gourmet crackers, humus and some veggies, and we did as the locals – found a soft, emerald lawn to stretch our legs and fill our bellies.

Around us, graduates snapped up pictures in front of their well-loved grounds and I likened Oxford to Galway – walkable, a bit quirky (if posh can be that at all) and inviting. The warm weather did well to lift our spirits as we talked about our own graduations: Lauren is heading to China to teach, Audrey back to Texas to start field work for a business she’s creating, and Annie to school in Colorado. That leaves me, not yet ready to walk down the commencement road and leave Spain behind for a different future.

Our time meter was not quite up on the rental car, so we ducked into a pub as the evening weather was turning cool. Tomorrow we’d be up at the crack of dawn to run the Tough Mudder, but who could really think of tomorrow when we’re all just living for today?

Have you ever been to Oxford? What were your impressions? Is there a city in a country you’re not fond of that you’ve come to enjoy?

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