25 (more) experiences I’m going to have before I die … updated!

Three years after first committing this list of my 25 must-do experiences to my hard drive, here’s my light-hearted look at what’s been accomplished, what’s still “on the list”, and what’s been ditched …

Why I put my 25 experiences list in writing

When I was in Bologna, I met Judy. Judy introduced me to the idea of writing down the list of things I wanted to accomplish, to help make it real.

25 experiences before I die

Hiking in the (cloudy) Annapurnas, The Himalaya

I had such a list when I was 14. I’ve since seen the majesty of the Himalaya (that one took 22 years to become reality), scored a goal at Scarborough FC’s now defunct McCain Stadium, and dated a tall, dark and handsome guy. I think I must’ve been sniffing school marker pens when I wrote I wanted to compete in the London marathon.

Still, 9 out of 10 achieved must mean the hypothesis of this entirely unscientific experiment with a sample of 2 (me, Judy) must be true. Writing stuff down helps make it happen. Not least because you’re less likely to forget it.

So twenty-(cough)-something years later, this was my new list …

The ones about new experiences

1. Live in another city or country for at least 2 months – rent a place, shop where the locals shop, absorb the culture, speak – or try to speak – the language.
What I’ve done: I’m currently (December 2017) in Oaxaca, Mexico for three-and-a-half weeks. Half (ish) way there!

2. Climb a volcano
What I’ve done. I kinda did this in Guatemala in 2013, but it was so cloudy I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, never mind that I was on a volcano. So I decided it didn’t count, and I’ll be volcano-climbing in Nicaragua in January 2015 instead. Yay!
What I’ve done: I went volcano-climbing in Nicaragua in early 2015, went up Mount Etna on Sicily in April 2016, and saw first-hand the Colima volcano in Mexico in October 2016. We’ll put this one down as accomplished 🙂

25 experiences I'm going to have before I die - Julie Sykes at Mount Etna crater - The Gap Year Edit

At the top of one of Mount Etna’s craters, April 2016

3. Take the train over the Copper Canyon, Mexico. What I’ve done: Finally ticked this one off in October 2016, and it was worth every penny!

Julie Sykes Copper Canyon train - 25 experiences I'm going to have before I die - The Gap Year Edit

All aboard the Copper Canyon Railway!

4. Drink a cosmopolitan in a fancy New York bar. I’m good at drinking cocktails. I just need to move the venue from York to New York.
Update November 2016: In light of the US election result, I’ve decided not to undertake any personal travel to the USA for (at least) the next four years. Update December 2017: Nope, still not going!

The ones about learning

5. Become fluent – or pretty much, so I can at least talk around things if I don’t know a word – in another language
What I’ve done: My Spanish improvement was slow, but went up a notch in early 2015 when I went to language school in Nicaragua! In late 2016 I took some private Spanish lessons, which ended when my teacher moved back to Spain – boo! However, I’m now (December 2017) in Oaxaca, Mexico, enrolled again in Spanish language school for two more weeks – hurrah!

reading Hemingway on the Florida Keys - Julie Sykes 25 experiences I'm going to have before I die - The Gap Year Edit

reading Hemingway on the Florida Keys

6. Read a book by Hemingway. Cos I feel as though I should.
What I’ve done: The Florida Keys were an awesome place to fulfil this one in January 2015!

7. Learn to take fabulous photos of moving water
What I’ve done: Back in March 2015. I got some tips from a photographer guru and put ’em into practice. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to go to Iguazú Falls in Argentina on honeymoon in March this year, and now also own some filters. Sorted!

long exposure photo at Iguazu Falls - Julie Sykes 25 experiences I'm going to have before I die - The Gap Year Edit

I used an improvised filter to help take this pic – aka my sunglasses 🙂

8. Learn to ride a motor-scooter, so I have options beyond a push-bike on future Asian adventures
What I’ve done: After finding out where to take classes in my home city, Andrew and I decided we’d buy each other lessons as our wedding (yup, wedding) gifts to each other. Update December 2017: We have singularly failed to do this as yet, but it is definitely still a plan for Summer 2018 🙂

The one about love

9. Fall in love … with someone who loves me too. All together now, aaaaahhhhhh!
What I’ve done: After re-joining match.com, reading lots of books women of a certain age read when they are singletons, gone out, got phone numbers; things finally came together in August 2015 when I braved Tinder and met Andrew. We got engaged a year later, and married this February. He’s fabulous 🙂

Outside York Minster in a tuk tuk on our wedding day - Julie Sykes 25 experiences I'm going to have before I die - The Gap Year Edit

Just Married! We had a quick photo stop after our wedding outside York Minster.

The ones about achievement and challenge

10. Hike more than a week of the Camino de Santiago, Spain
What I’ve done: Sussed out some routes and figured the Portuguese Way from Porto looks good. This is one for 2016 or beyond, I reckon … make that 2018 or beyond 🙂

11. Climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
What I’ve done:
Er, yeah, not even looked at this one!

The ones about lifestyle and fitness

12. Run 10km in less than 55 minutes
What I’ve done: Ok, this one’s frustrating the hell out of me. After joining the almost-as-cheap-as-chips gym near my house and managing to speed up by a few minutes, I entered a 10k in August 2015, in part inspired by Sir Ranulph Fiennes! My racetime was 55:21 – a race PB but 21 seconds short of my target. Since then, I’ve consistently managed to do training runs around the 54 minute mark, but race times of 56 minutes. Grrrr.

However, a bigger achievement was that, in May 2017, Andrew and I each completed an Iron Man triathlon over the course of the month (2.4 miles/3.86km of swimming, 112 miles/180.25km of cycling, 26.22 miles/42.2km of running), raising >£300 for Macmillan Cancer Support in the process. Meanwhile, the 55-minute 10km running goal WILL be achieved in 2018 🙂

Askern 10k, May 2017 - Julie Sykes 25 experiences I'm going to have before I die - The Gap Year Edit

May 2017, another 56-minute 10k at Askern (Andrew was a lot faster!), but we raised over £300 in May for Macmillan


13. Do a regular yoga practice
What I’ve done: My yoga practice has been patchy, to say the least. I have gone to the occasional class, but occasional is the operative word. Best have a word with myself.

The ones about being creative

14. Design and sell something artsy.
What I’ve done: Yeah, not done that. Yet.

15. Own a Sulca weaving. He’s a weaver based in Arequipa, Peru, who I visited back in 2007. One day one of his works will be mine. One day …

16. Do cool textiles things in Oaxaca, Mexico. Cos I love Oaxaca. And all things Mexico. And textiles.
What I’ve done: Well, I’m in Oaxaca at the moment (December 2017), so that’s a good start! I’m doing a very good job at window-shopping for cool textiles … but this trip’s all about the Spanish.

The ones about how I earn money

17. I will continue to work hard, take pride in what I do, be decent to people no matter who they are, and live my values. How people respond to me is up to them, but I’m hoping it’ll be good 🙂
What I’ve done: I set up my Limited Company, specialising in marketing and communications, back in June 2015, and interesting work is still coming in. I also have some cool business plans to develop in the early part of 2018.

18. Publish a book
What I’ve done: Got an idea, learnt from an author at a book-publishing talk. Not much else.

19. Get a travel / travel-related article published in a national magazine or newspaper.
What I’ve done:
Hmmmm, this one’s not a priority at the moment – one to revisit in the future.

20. Develop sources of active or passive income
What I’ve done: Errr, compiled a reader offer page and included affiliate links (where I get a small commission) in some of my posts. If you want to use them, that would be awesome! I have a few other irons in the fire too – linked to #17 and my business.

The one from Bologna

21. Have the courage to follow and act on my gut feel earlier and not succumb to some British “being polite and nice” thing I seem to do, even when there’s no need. This doesn’t mean be rude to people, rather that I don’t have to extend the hand of friendship to people whose actions deserve only civility.
What I’ve done: Put it into practice in Bologna (and since)

view over Bologna - Julie Sykes 25 experiences I'm going to have before I die - The Gap Year Edit

Bologna – it’s inspirational just to look at it!

The one about getting up early (I am NOT a morning person)

22. See the sun rise over Bagan, Myanmar.
What I’ve done:
The current treatment of the Rohingya population in Myanmar means this one’s on hold.

The one about development

23. Volunteer abroad for at least a month, in a capacity-building role (not “voluntourism”).
What I’ve done: Since November 2015 I’ve been mentoring young people volunteering in Zambia and Uganda in all things business and marketing, via the Challenges Worldwide ICS programme. I’ve also started volunteering on a local community project in York this year (2017).

The ones about my family

I can’t completely influence these, but I can certainly offer my emotional support:

24. For my Cambodian sponsored child to fulfil his dream of becoming a policeman.
What I’ve done: In September 2015 I learnt that my sponsored child’s family had moved away from the area – I suspect for economic reasons, so I will never know if this one comes to pass. Since then I’ve been sponsoring a little girl in Bolivia.

25. For my mum and dad to go abroad. Neither of them have ever left UK shores. Getting them passports will be a challenge, getting them on a plane nigh-on impossible. I’m thinking Eurostar. Maybe Bruges?
What I’ve done: In hindsight, I’m thinking this “must-do” is more about me than it is about my parents. Mum, frankly, isn’t interested; and I’m not convinced Dad is anymore, either. I’ll play it by ear!

So, there you have it … some progress made in 2017! These experiences have already made my life richer, and I hope some of them have made – or will make – others’ lives even just a teensy bit richer too.

Why experiences are important to me

When originally writing this list three years ago, I was thinking about how my abiding memories have all been about the experiences and feelings I’ve had and shared, and the people I’ve met along the way. They’ve not been about anything I’ve bought, with the possible exception of the hangover I had when I was 19, resulting from the fact I’d bought about 16 vodkas 😉

In my view there’s no need to wait until New Year to make a list of what matters to you. If this post touches a chord, why not write your own list, and – where you can – see what you can do to make it happen …

What experiences have been your most memorable? Have you accomplished something you’d previously put in writing? Will you make your own list? Share your ideas and thoughts below.

Bologna – where hipsters meet history

Famed for its porticoes, leftish tendencies, and a deserved foodie reputation; Bologna and its surrounds echo with the united footsteps of old and new. It’s a city where hipsters meet history.

Cyclists’ simultaneously pedal slowly and talk quickly on their mobile phones.

Students in converse trainers and skinny jeans chat to their amici, smoke curling from their cigarettes, as they scuffle across cobbled piazzas towards the university quarter’s latest outpouring of graffiti.

Fitness devotees pound the ancient portico steps on their evening workout to and from the Santuario di San Luca, a continuous 4km colonnade that climbs out of the city.

Look up, look down!

Bologna and its environs invite you to explore with your senses.

Visually, it’s a feast; and you’ll miss out on a lot if you keep your explorations at eye-level.

Join the huffing and puffing tourists (refreshingly few in number) to ascend the 498 steps of Torre degli Asinelli for €3, and snap pictures of its’ perilously leaning neighbour Torre Garisenda. The Leaning Tower of Pisa has nothing on this guy!

Gawp in wonder at the frescoed ceilings and walls which adorn university buildings, the cathedrals and Castello Estense in neighbouring Ferrara (35-55 minutes by train from Bologna, sights are around half an hour walk from Ferrara’s train station).

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Tread lightly over the world’s longest sundial, housed on the floor of the enormous Cathedral de San Petronio on Piazza Maggiore.

For a taste of something a little more 20th/21st century, head to MAMbo (€6), Bologna’s modern art gallery. The current temporary design exhibit features cool designs of showrooms, airport lounges and more. The Museo Morandi (previously in a separate building) is housed here too – one ticket covers both.

[box type=”info”]I used the Lonely Planet Guide to Italy to help me find out about Bologna and surrounds. Help the site by buying the guide through this link, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

Eat, drink and be merry from breakfast to bedtime

In the morning, do as the Italians do. A coffee (espresso or – before 10.30am – a cappuccino) at a local coffee bar. Sneak in a brioche to tide you over for a couple of hours.

Explore your senses and let your nose lead you through the streets around via Clavature.

You’ll find the indoor Mercado here – opt for a mixed meat and cheese platter for lunch, washed down – of course – with a local glass of wine. Delish.

6pm, and join the Bolognesi as they partake in an aperitivo called Spritz. It’s bright orange. To me the combination of Aperol, prosecco and soda water wasn’t smooth enough, but join in and you’ll get nibbles for free.

If you’ve not overdone the aperitivo buffet, head to a local trattoria for Bologna’s most famous dish, tagliatelle al ragu. This is the original and uncorrupted version of spaghetti bolognese. Without spaghetti or a tomato in sight, it’s a dish full of flavour. Try it at Trattoria del Rosso, home of local food at local prices, eaten with local people. The set menu (7-8pm) for a pasta dish with a glass of wine, water and coffee comes in at €10.

For your evening passagiata (walk), ice-cream is THE choice. The local Ferrara “Estense” flavour includes sumptuous fudge pieces. Prices everywhere are around €2.50 for two scoops. Mix your flavours for maximum taste heaven.

Costs and practicalities

  • A city walking tour, departing the tourist office on Piazza Maggiore ever afternoon at 4.45pm, costs €13. Book in advance. I personally didn’t rate this tour, but the Tourist Office is a good source of information with English-speaking staff.
  • The streets around via Clavature make for idyllic photo opportunities with flowers, fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses jostling for place with shoppers and red buildings.
  • To walk the 4km portico to the Santuario di San Luca, head south-west out of the city to start at Porta Saragozza. Number 20 bus goes to the Porta and some of the way beyond for €1.20. This is a good choice for a Monday, when many of the city museums and galleries are closed.
  • Neighbouring Ferrara, Ravenna and Modena are all within easy reach and provide “day out” options. A return train ticket to Ferrara is €9.20, castle entrance fee €6.
  • A frequent bus runs from the train station to the airport for €6.

To sum up

Bologna’s atmosphere is one of a city going about its daily business, albeit in a hipster cool kinda way. Take in the architecture, the atmosphere and the calories without the tourist hoards; and round it all off with a Spritz.


Where else have you been that has a hipster vibe? How do you think Bologna compares against other Italian cities?

How Bologna gave me the courage to act on my gut feel – pronto!

I’d only been in red-bricked Bologna a few hours when I had the feeling my original calling here could be a spurious one.

Bologna gut feel pronto!

Over the “oohs” and “ahs” of the flavoursome discoveries of the famed ragu, I’d spent my first evening there talking with Judy, an inspirational Canadian lady who’s been travelling Europe since May.

Judy, with her top coaching qualities, has a 115-strong “I am going to do this” list. The idea being that if you commit something to paper, you’re more likely to then make it happen.

Why 115? If you aim for 100 you’ll only think of 90 and then get stuck.

Egged on by the memory of Judy’s words and being the keen “do-er” that I am, the first 25 items of my own “115 list” were committed to hard-drive the following evening.

Number 25 – motivated by numerous occasions when I’ve delayed acting on my gut feel – is this:

Have the courage to follow and act on my gut feel earlier and not succumb to some British “being polite and nice” thing I seem to do, even when there’s no need. This doesn’t mean be rude to people, rather that I don’t have to extend the hand of friendship to people whose actions deserve only civility.

Little did I know I’d be putting it into practice only two days later.

The original calling

Italian ice-cream gelato

Gelato. Love it.

I confess, I’d had an ulterior motive for wanting to visit Bologna. Sure, the leftist red-bricked city had been on my Italian wish-list for all the reasons I’ve long loved Italy – culture, food, wine, ice-cream, architecture, people. But that was only 80% of it.

The other 20% came in the form of 6 foot 2 Italian hot-ness by the name of Giovanni. A Bologna resident, I met Giovanni in Rome last year when he approached me in a bar to say he “knew me from Scarborough” (my home town). I was floored.

Several thoughts ran through my head, chief of which was: “I’m pretty damned sure I’d have remembered YOU in Scarborough!”

So after one night of merriment between our respective groups of friends that ended with a very chaste peck on the cheek and an exchange of numbers at 2am; and having turned down at least three previous invitations, I arrived in Bologna some eighteen months later, as part of my month-long trip from Budapest to Athens.

The plan? To do my own thing sightseeing, and to catch up with Giovanni on the Tuesday evening I was in town.

Fast forward two days. Tuesday, 8.40pm

no shoe shopping on my career break

These were in the wrong country.

I’m stood inside Palazzo Gnudi with Giovanni and his friends. A frescoed ceiling is above me, girls in dresses and high heels are all around me. I’m not exactly in scruffs, but I feel decidedly under-dressed. This is a super-trendy bar that’s a million miles away from Bologna’s marginally casual – by Italian standards – leftist vibe. My numerous pairs of suitable heels are three countries north-west.

I feel decidedly like I’m an afterthought. A hungry afterthought at that.

A combination of factors have led me to this conclusion. His vagueness about arrangements and lack of mention of the bar/dressy factor, being half an hour late without apology, lack of desire to tell me anything about places I should see whilst I’m in town, lack of offering me a drink when he was buying a round.

I have a flashback to number 25.

Have the courage to follow and act on my gut feel earlier and not succumb to some British “being polite and nice” thing that I seem to do, even when there’s no need.

I don’t really know Giovanni from Adam; I don’t owe him anything.

My mind is made up.

I scan the bar with a cursory 360, check he and his friends are out of view, find the stairway, and leave; replying to his “where are you?” message ten minutes later with a text that is far more polite than necessary.

I seek out the local pasta speciality of tagliatelle al ragu – it’s more sumptuous than any hot Italian could ever be. Thanks Judy, I feel illuminated.

Do you have a list like Judy’s? Have you found it a help or a hindrance? Or have you ever gone somewhere for one reason and found you remember it for something completely different?