A month in Madagascar

‘Isn’t that where the lemurs are from?’, ‘I only know Madagascar for its vanilla’, ‘You know you’re not going to see Penguins in Madagascar’, ‘don’t get the plague’, were all comments I received before embarking on my one month volunteer programme to Madagascar.  For many people, this is what springs to mind when one thinks of Madagascar and admittedly my knowledge beforehand wasn’t much better. However, after a month of teaching English and living in a homestay, I have discovered that this extraordinarily diverse country is rich in culture, wildlife and full of surprises.

As my first big trip alone, I was quite nervous before leaving for Madagascar; it wasn’t the same as floating around South East Asia with my friends but a much bigger step into the unknown.  On arrival in Antananarivo airport, the culture shock hit me more than expected as I was suddenly plunged into constant hassling and staring; not what you want after a 14 hour trip. I also felt very, very far away. Yet the culture shock, mixed with jet lag, soon passed once I flew to the much more serene and remote Fort Dauphin which is tucked away in the south east of the country. The small town nestled between rich green mountains with white sandy beaches seemed much more manageable. To ease the culture shock even more, the family I was staying with were extremely warm and welcoming since they were used to clueless volunteers staying with them. In fact, the mother worked for the NGO I was volunteering for and she helpfully gave me a few heads up on Malagsy culture. For example, when I arrived she was quick to say ‘don’t pat the dog’ as in Madagascar dogs are extremely ‘Fady’ (taboo) and therefore lowest of the low.

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Beach in Fort Dauphin

‘Fady’ and ‘Fomba’ are extremely important in Malagasy culture and it was thus very important to respect them; Fady means taboo or the wrong way to do things and Fomba is the right way to do things, or more simply, good manners. Luckily, my homestay and the NGO I was teaching English for extensively informed me on this and much of ‘Fomba’ and ‘Fady’ are similar to how we would behave in the UK. However, there are some notable differences and taboos which are rooted in superstition.  For example, you must not buy salt after dark, not step over people selling food in the market as feet are perceived as dirty and open defecation is viewed as more hygienic. Unfortunately, one of the beaches in Fort Dauphin is a human defecation site and given that we view defecating in confined spaces as cleaner in the UK, this was the biggest culture shock for me. Indeed, open defecation is the root of many sanitation problems; the NGO I was volunteering for is working hard to change people’s mentalities and encourage the use of latrines.

Another thing I was unaware of is that Malagasy, the first language spoke in Madagascar, is nothing like French but is in fact grammatically much closer to Indonesian. As a French language student I did manage to get by but it isn’t as widely spoken as I thought and was often stumped when people could only speak Malagasy. Although Madagascar is an African country,  I was told that the first settlers came from around Indonesia and Malaysia. Therefore, not only was the language Indonesian sounding but also the people vary greatly in appearance. In addition to this, the many rice terraces surrounding Fort Dauphin reminded me of Asian countries I’d visited, making Madagascar an interesting fusion of different influences and cultures.

Yet just a few hours south of Fort Dauphin, these rice terraces soon disappear and are replaced by reddy-brown soil, cacti and other spikey vegetation.  It is here, in answer to one of my comments before coming, where the ring-tale lemurs are in their natural habitat.  My visit to Berenty reserve, which was undoubtedly the best weekend of the trip, is a playground for wildlife lovers; five different lemurs swing from the trees, chameleons come out at night and I was lucky, or unfortunate enough to see a huge Boa constrictor slither by. Unsurprisingly, the Planet Earth camera crew (I saw this in the visitor’s book) paid a visit to film some of David Attenborough’s amazing series, Planet Earth. If you find yourself in the Deep South East of Madagascar, Berenty is one hundred percent worth a visit.

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The Spiny Forest

Now back in the UK Madagascar seems like another world and regrettably, a world I wish I could have discovered more of. My friends and family ask me ‘how was it?’ ‘Did you get the plague?’ and although I returned relatively unscathed, I have struggled to explain my experience there. There is no doubt that there were some considerable lows, especially due to my sensitive stomach, yet these were certainly outweighed by the highs: breath taking views from my homestay, fresh food straight from the lake, white sandy beaches offering amazing surf, unique wildlife around every corner and a team of like-minded people to share the experience with. Unfortunately, Madagascar remains to have low levels of education, poor sanitation and a high infant mortality rate and seeing this first hand made me realise how lucky I am but also how NGOs do make a massive difference on the ground.  As cliché as it sounds, going to Madagascar gave me a different perspective and made me realise there is a beautiful, exciting and diverse world out there which we are unaware of and perhaps only hear about from the films, the news headlines and the stereotypes; we must take the plunge and discover it.

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Bordeaux goes British

Bordeaux goes British

‘Books and coffee’? ‘Coffee in a cup’? Or maybe ‘Sip’? It’s not difficult to choose from any of these Bordeaux hipster cafes, as each have extremely high coffee prices, uncomfortable wooden benches and fairy lights dangling from the walls to create the ultimate Instagram aesthetic. On a rainy Saturday morning, I opted for Coffee in a Cup and for 16 Euros bought ‘Brunch’: pancakes, granola and a fruit bowl. What happened to a quintessentially French ‘Café de Bordeaux’, selling 1-euro petites cafés and croissants with red and white chequered table cloths? I thought I’d moved to France for a different culture yet apparently the perfect Instagram of your granola is just as important to French millennials.

Whilst ordering my carrot cake in a café, which could be in the heart of Hackney, I overheard a French girl saying that the café was ‘cosy’. Have English words, as well as cakes and cafes, also become cool? This was very apparent working in a French school, where most young French people are very motivated to learn English and not just because it is a useful. Instead, they all endlessly binge anglophone TV series and listen to Adriana Grande, inspiring them to move to New York or London. A fourteen-year-old girl once said to me, in perfect English: ‘New York, the city that never sleeps’, referencing Gossip Girl and said that it was her dream to live there. However, for a culture which once sought to preserve their language, it is somewhat surprising that the English language is now so openly embraced by the younger generations. But of course, the difference is that English is associated with cool TV programmes and music and consequently, words like ‘cosy’ become part of the French vocabulary.

Given that Bordeaux is renowned for its wine, I expected most of my evenings to be spent sitting in an elegant wine bar or a busy square sipping on a glass of red. Yet to my surprise, when I asked my French friend where she wanted to meet one evening, she surprised me by suggesting ‘Molly Malone’s’; a stereotypically Irish pub. Undeniably, most European cities have a token Irish or British pub yet in Bordeaux, I can count at least seven. Perhaps it is the historical ties with Britain which caused this strong British influence; Bordeaux has been ‘British’ since Eleanor of Aquitaine married into the English monarchy and thus as many Bordelaise tell me, they are ‘British’.  But does that explain why hundreds of years on, young French people love a pint in Molly Malone’s whilst doing a pub quiz? What is so exciting about drinking a pint in a dingy pub for double the price of a glass of wine in a wine bar? It could simply be because pubs seem exotic and exciting and for them, a wine bar is the norm.

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That being said, Bordeaux is a very old and beautiful city, with its grand limestone buildings, medieval archways and winding cobbled streets; the hipster cafes and pubs cannot take away the feeling that you are sometimes wondering around a fairy tale city. French restaurants still spill out onto hidden squares where you are frowned at for asking for a coffee with milk or saying you’re a vegetarian. Although there are a certain number of pubs, they cannot outnumber wine bars and ‘La cite du vin’, a modern wine museum, is regarded as one of the top tourist attractions. Indeed, Bordeaux has not lost its French charm or shining reputation for wine but just has a British twist which the younger generations seem to enjoy. Given how close our countries are in distance and history, this is not necessarily a surprising or negative thing and after all, it is not difficult to find ‘brunch’ at a hipster café anywhere in the western world.

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Indonesia

As the last stop of our rather disjointed Asiatic trip, I kept forgetting we even had almost a month in the dark horse of indonesia. Many times I had fantasized about lying on one of the 17,000 island’s paradise beaches whilst serving fish and chips in England but it had seemed so far away at the beginning. There is much more to Indonesia than the famous beaches and the reason why I’ve only just got round to writing this is because I’ve been so busy and immersed in this fascinating place. Equally, I have to admit that incessant partying on the notorious Gili islands has also consumed a lot of my time and brain.

After being repeatedly warned to get out of Java’s hectic capital, Jakarta, we strategically only stayed one night there. Although I didn’t particularly warm to this grey and oppressive city which seemed to have ugly high rises stretching for miles, we actually had one of our most funn interesting nights out with the locals. Due to a lack of alcohol in india, we didn’t hesitate to sit down with a bin tang (indonesian beer) for our meal and soon got chatting to one of the restaurant owners and his friends. I sometimes am surprised at what a positive reception we have received all over Asia when we tell people we’re english, they look at us excitedly and say ‘so you’re English English?’ ‘Great country’ and then usually talk about football teams and strangely in Indonesia they sometimes say ‘lovely jubbly’ or ‘water’ in a London accent whilst missing the t (I have no idea how they all know this). Soon beer drinking and eating nuts escalated into lots of very enthusiastic dancing and face book adding (they now comment on all my photos). Interestingly, I think we picked up many homosexual and transsexual Indonesians as apparently backpackers street is the main place they go out; as the most Muslim city in the world Jakarta can’t be the most liberal place. Bizarrely, one of the Indonesian women, covered in diamonds, has a husband from Sevenoaks in kent, near to where my nana lives (it is extremely posh). Although she seemed very proud of her English connections and her son who was being educated in England, she said she hated her husband and missed her son dreadfully. I am shocked at how many Asian women I have seen and met who have rich husbands in England, clearly just wanting a better life for their children. It has made me realise how deeply the western world and its privileges are desired.

Thankfully one day later we were out of the extremely hectic Jakarta, although we did have spend the whole day booking a bus ticket (due to language barriers, being told 3 different bus times and the sheer size of Jakarta). After enduring an extremely bumpy 10 hour bus ride we arrived at 4am in Pangandaram, a place by the sea which is known for the surf and is delicately laced by a beautiful national park- a taste of paradise compared to Jakarta. We arrived in a dusty car park, expecting to find a tuk tuk or taxi and when we asked for a tuk tuk they said yes but only one per person. We argued away at the expense of one per person until we realised these tuk tuks were more like giant wheelchairs with someone peddling behind. So, at 4am delirious from tiredness we were peddled to our hostel in giant wheelchairs whilst I ate a giant bag of Cheeto crisps- surreal to say the least.

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From sweeping volcanic beaches to a canyon nestled in the rain forest; Pangandaram is rich in exotic and intensely beautiful landscapes. With a bit of surfing experience in Cornwall behind me, I remembered how much I loved surfing and was enthralled by our surfing lesson; being a pro surfer is my new goal. However, the most unique and interesting day by far was our visit to ‘green canyon’ and ‘green valley’; a river with waterfalls surrounded by the jungle and a canyon literally in the rainforest- hands down the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to. Everything about that day was incredible; riding on mopeds through plains of rice fields, trekking through the jungle, leaping off endless waterfalls, swimming deep into the caves. Yet green canyon was like somewhere out of a David Attenborough documentary; our guide carefully helped us swim through the river and jump and scramble through the canyon on rocks and which were full of millions of tiny scuttling crabs (I picked them up and threw them at my friend- she wasn’t very happy). Limestone cliffs towered either side of us and the noisy rainforest hung above our heads; I remember floating on my back in the water and seeing the drops of water from the rainforest falling directly on my face- a moment I will never be able to fully capture on words. Of course, we would never have discovered any of this or been able to do it safely without our guide who also helped me do a 10m jump and climb a dangerous looking cliff; he is getting an incredible review on tripadvisor. Amazingly the whole day only cost £15; it is a must for anybody who ever visits pangandarm.

One of the things I loved most Java overall was a lovely balance between having backpackers about but not being overrun by western tourists; it meant the people we met were generally more interested in java as a place over getting drunk and lying on the beach. Thus, although Yogyakarta, one of the biggest cities in Java known for its artistic and creative charm, had tourists everywhere, still managed to sustain it’s unique Javanese culture. With graffiti and street art on every street, Yogyakarta is clearly a centre for political and creative thought; a strange paradox in such a traditionally Muslim country. Although I loved Yogyakarta I unfortunately arrived on a bad note. I had been suspicious of many tiny bites climbing up my legs to be the dreaded bed bugs and although my friends said they were sure I was fine, as soon as I arrived in Yogyakarta a man (there always seems to be a man hanging around the hostels who helps you with everything, we call them ‘myman’) pointed at me and said bed bugs and knew I had come from Pangandaram. So, I had to wash every single little thing I own and wear my friends clothes and bags for the whole of Yogyakarta. I would love to say the bed bug trauma ended there but it didn’t; the terribly itchy bites continued to crawl up my legs when I arrived in Gili T (the notorious party island). In fact, I didn’t just have bed bugs but according to the clinic I also had infected bites and scabies. After almost bursting into tears I paid 50 pounds for an injection in my bum, antibiotics and antibiotic cream. Of course another tenner on top of that to wash everything I own. Who knew bed bugs could be such an ordeal?

Yet before the bed bug problem continued and I must have still been ridden with them, I managed to climb the most active volcano in Indonesia which lies just by Yogyakarta- Merapi. As I’m travelling with a geography student who loves volcanoes, we both happily agreed to climb the volcano at night to reach the top for sunrise. However, what we did not realise was that this volcano had a 50% incline all the way up or more and 80% at the summit- we are not experienced walkers. At the start of the climb everyone in the group started marching up the slope; my friend and I fell instantly behind. Unfortunately, my volcano loving friend felt ill and although I wasn’t as fit as the rest of the group I managed to keep up with them. I have to say, scrambling up a 50% slope in the pitch black when your legs are crunching with pain for 5 hours is definitely a way to bond with people. It was undeniably one of the most physically demanding things I have ever done, but for some reason doing it stumbling along in the dark with loads of lovely people made it much easier; you couldn’t see how much further you had to go. It was at the summit I really struggled; just before we climbed it the guide said ‘now be careful, this bit is really dangerous’. As the sun was beginning to come up, I could see the 2900 metres below me as I slipped and scrambled sideways up the 80% drop. Luckily, 3 of the others struggled too and we slowly but surely made our way to the top whilst trying not to look down. As the sun came up, igniting the sky with deep orange and purple, I stood at the top of Merapi feeling like I was queen of the world and walking on the moon. Just behind me, lay the volcano itself, smoking away- somehow I conquered Merapi and it was the most rewarding experience of the whole trip.

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From then on, i have to admit Indonesia hasn’t been particularly cultural but I have had some of the funniest and crazy nights of my life and met the most amazing people (incredibly cliche I know but don’t know how else to put it). However, we did take advantage of the Gili islands cheap snorkelling and diving; on one solo snorkelling trip I was lucky enough to swim with just me and a turtle and I saw 2 eels. Although I didn’t see as much on my dive, we went to a shipwreck overflowing with different species of fish and I forgot how amazing the feeling is to breath underwater. It is true that Gili T is perhaps overbearing in its constant party vibe and vast westernisation but I cannot deny I absolutely loved it- who wouldn’t want to party on a tiny island with only horse and carriage and push bikes? I’ve never felt so disconnected and free in my life.

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To dive, we stayed at the most secluded and sparse island Gili Meno and although beautiful we didn’t warm to our hostel like we had loved our hostel in Gili T (it had a climbing wall and pool). Instead, our hostel in Gili Meno was an ‘eco hostel’ but we didn’t realise the extent of how ‘eco’ it was; we found ourselves putting sawdust on our wee and poo and sleeping in hammocks. This wouldn’t be too bad but it was more than fact that the owner seemed like a massive control freak and clearly disliked us straight away because we’d been to the ‘mainstream’ gill t. She reminded us a lot of Sal from the beach (which I conveniently finished just before arriving) and in fact the whole hostel did. After an uncomfortable sleep in hammocks we rushed off on the speed boat to uluwatu in Bali to meet some friends.

Bali has so far consisted of chilled beach days, a beautiful sunset at a temple overlooking the ocean and having a night out at one of the best clubs in Indonesia. Although extremely fun, Evie and I have broken away from our group and decided to tackle some culture in Ubud- perhaps we’ll get a chance to see the real Bali. With 6 days left and a flight booked home from Bali we plan to appreciate every second; the thought of that flight home depresses me. So from getting drunk on a crazy island to climbing a huge volcano, Indonesia has certainly been the dark horse of the trip and a great note to finish on.

Goodbye India

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The days in Goa lazily passed by; almost everyday we had a typical beach day on the beautiful palolem beach- sunbathed, dived through the surprisingly vicious waves and in my case played cricket and football (I must have looked extra weird and shocking as a girl playing football in a bikini). One day we did branch out and tried to go kayaking, however this was a big mistake. We had conveniently picked an extra choppy day and were advised not to go out. But of course it we did and of course I volunteered to go by myself in a kayak. The waves tumbled with a ferocious rip-tide and me and my friend faced it head on in kayaks. Firstly, I watched her try to take on a huge wave and then capsise immediately. Then it was my turn, I took on the first wave but the second one was enormous. I’m afraid I just thought ‘fuck it’ leaped out my kayak and was absolutely submerged by the wave and then another. The wave was so strong it actually opened my rucksack and now somewhere my tailor made shorts I bought in Hoi An (sob) and a can of limca are floating around somewhere. Although we were slightly traumatised I cannot deny that it must have been some great entertainment for the rows of people eating their breakfast in the restaurants opposite. In fact, the first thing our Australian friend said later was ‘did someone go out in a kayak today…?’

Yet despite the kayak disaster we bought some beers (can we get anymore English) and took a private boat to an island, which we later found out we could have walked to at low tide…we enjoyed the the initial seclusion but were soon joined by lots of Indian families asking for photos. However, I am very proud to say that my friend and I made the perfect replica of the Taj Mahal out of sand…the inner child within me certainly returns when I’m on the beach.
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India overall has been very relaxed and we haven’t met many travellers; in Kerala it’s rare to see a white person. However, in Goa we did meet a group of young brits, who we rushed over to enthusiastically as they walked through the door of an absolutely terrible club called ‘on the rocks’ which was full of 30+ year olds. We then proceeded to have a very bizarre but fun night as when the night ended they kept the bar open for us and let us make drinks. Yet we did have a very weird crowd; a 46 English man who was extremely creepy, a very good looking Indian boy who had English banter with us, a small Indian man who I think had learning difficulties and then four English teenagers our age. It reminded me how although there is a lot of unwanted male attention and general lack of respect towards us in India, many men behave the same in England as that old man did. Interestingly, the Indian boy who was called ‘boy’ was lovely and not creepy at all; perhaps it isn’t always a cultural thing. It did escalate into a good night as it ended in us skinny dipping at 5 in the morning…there’s a wild gap yah story for you. We equally had another good night with an Australian and then a beach hut full of English people…it felt like an old house party back in England but was instead in a beach hut in Goa…definitely the most home like experience of India.

So Goa wasn’t exactly too different to a beach holiday but it had beenthe plan all along after rushing around Vietnam and Laos. After feeling very relaxed and bronzed we took our first Indian night train down to a hill station called Munnar in Kerala. I have to say the night train wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be; we had our own beds and had my fanny pack strapped to me with all my valuables- we did not experience any of the horror stories. We had bought just a sleeper ticket and not an ac sleeper ticket like most tourists do and we were surprised when a man said ‘go to ac they won’t mind’. He pretty much meant what are you doing here which did make me feel a little uneasy; why shouldn’t we be in the sleeper class? But it was all fine and we arrived in a town a few hours from Munnar safely. We then made the amazing discovery of the cheap local buses which have saved us a lot of money; we paid 1 pound for a 4 hour bus journey in the mountains. Although I have to admit I did think I was going to die a few times when the driver speedily swerved around those hairpin mountain roads; we arrived in Munnar somehow.

Munnar was certainly the complete opposite to beachy and touristy Goa. Yet as a hillsation with hills full of exquisite tea plantations and beautiful rivers and forest it was certainly a tourist destination but perhaps more for Indian tourists. It was a lovely bit of respite roaming around the tea plantations in in fact the pouring rain- a complete contrast to Goa. Yet the best day was when we hired a jeep and hit top sites of Munnar. Amongst the many dams, rivers and view points we visited my favourite moment was winding through the mountains and the driver said we could all climb on top of the jeep. We didn’t think twice about the danger of it and clambered on; shrieking through the mountains and shocking the locals completely…can we parade ourselves around anymore?
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Yet the strangest experience of Munnar was after our crazy jeep ride; we seemed to attract far to much attention in our hotel. Whilst sitting on the balcony a man tried to invite himself up to apparently speak english and we were constantly pestered by a little boy who knew the hotel owners and tried to sell us tours. I have to say it was an extremely stressful evening. Once we had got rid of the strange man we had to deal with the boy who although at first seems very endearing and intelligent (he told us he loved us and was going to cry when we left) he was extremely pushy and rude. At first we accepted his invite to his house for dinner, but then realised be wanted to sell us a tour to another national park, insisted we should buy all the food for the ‘party’ at his house and also wanted to buy my iPod (i think he wanted me to give it to him). He was the most pushy and insistent person I’ve ever met; he would pretty much be standing in our room demanding why we wouldn’t go with him on his tour. Thus, when we went to his house we didn’t feel very welcome in the small crowded house which clearly we hadn’t been properly invited to. We endured an awkward game of snakes and ladders, awkwardly sat on the bed whilst he tried to order us to put our feet on it…why was a power crazy 15 year old boy bossing us around?! We also felt extremely bad and rude for the rest of the family who were mostly women. Eventually we escaped and he gave my friend who is ill a medicine or potion that looked worryingly Brown and sloppy. Although it was very kind of him we decided to leave it. I did feel in Munnar we were constantly being hassled and pushed into buying things; it is so hard to know what a ‘good price’ is in India.

From Munnar we hopped on another amazingly cheap local bus and spent some time in Periyar national park; famous for its tiger reserve. We stayed in a lovely hotel for just 2 pounds a night which was far better than all the other accommodation we have stayed in (our beach hut had spiders, a mouse, a chipmunk, cockroaches and frogs living in it at one point). The main reason we came was to see some animals and amazingly we saw some wild elephants on our first boat ride. However, the park was pretty pricy for tourists as we had to pay extra into places and it was twenty quid for most activities. Thus, not everyone wanted to pay and we did a free walk halfway up very steep mountain. However up the top we had one of the most eerie and surreal moments ever. We arrived at the top totally in a cloud and through the swirling layers of mist stood a large white cross, bold and ominous at the edge of the cliff. Soon a man selling bananas appeared and many Indian tourists who had just nipped up in jeeps; the special, secluded movement was over. Admittedly, as enthusiastic animal lovers my friend and I did decide to do a trek and bamboo rafting and I don’t regret that at all. Not only did we see some amazing wild animals (bison, black monkeys and my favourite red mongoose but the trek was led by some tribal men. They could therefore distinguish between every type of dung and even show us a tiger scratch and paw print on a tree. This made the trek much more interesting and was definitely worth paying the money instead of aimlessly wondering around the park.

Now here I am sunbathing on the roof in boiling Alleyepe. Famous for the backwaters, alleyepe is certainly a unique town as it is surrounded by a network of rivers and lakes with wild green plants growing freely from it. The thing to do in Alleyepe is hire a house boat but we could only afford a barge like boat (still amazing for 3 pounds each) and we drifted around the beautiful backwaters for a few hours, whilst other boats took pictures and even cheered when we came by. A German girl we met made a good point, it is interesting feeling like the minority for once as a tourist in India. We feel annoyed and even threatened away from western Europe, yet truthfully we are a spectacle not just because of the colour of our skin but equally our customs and when it comes to our group because we do stupid and funny things. For example, in Munnar we didn’t know what to order for an Indian breakfast so we all ordered exactly the same dosa (a buttery thin bread which you dip in curry). For some reason, the type of dosa we had ordered were in the shapes of party hats and were really tall; the whole restaurant cracked up laughing at us. In situations like this I can see why we are a spectacle.

With a few days left I have to say India has been the most interesting country I have visited in many ways and a complete and utter culture shock. If I was going back to England now I would be eating with my hands and find it strange wearing a seatbelt. Although in a month we didn’t get to properly explore India I feel I’ve got a taste for it that encourages me to return. I cannot deny in some ways I do prefer the laidback and backpackery south-east Asia, i especially miss meeting people from all over the world everyday and having the freedom to wear and act how I want But despite all the things you have to put up with in India and lack of western comforts it has a tantalising charm of rickshaws, bustle and astoundingly different landscapes that I don’t think you can find anywhere else. Thus, it’s been a blast India but next stop is Indonesia…

India…where do I begin?

Firstly, two mistakes that we have made about India:

1) A month is not long enough to travel around such a diverse and huge country

2) We have come in the hottest and one of the most out of season months for the usually buzzing south

Despite these mistakes I have to say I have fallen for India much more than I thought I would; on planning the trip I was the least excited for India due to dire warnings of Delhi belly and sexism. Yet what I like about it is that I feel you are exposed much more to the real Indian culture than  we were in south east Asia- the hostel ‘backpacker’ vibe doesn’t exist as much so you have to explore and find your own way more. I think the main difference being that India tends to attract an older hippy crowd who I imagine do not crave their western comforts as much. Also, most of the people we’ve met are extremely helpful and friendly, despite the countless staring/pervy men, so many people go out of their way to help you out. For example, on our first day stumbling around Delhi a man told us to put our cigarettes out because we’ll get fined and whilst proving to us he was a trustworthy student, he wrote down all the train times to Agra, found us a government taxi and agency to book our trip to the Taj Mahal (however we did still get ripped off and bought a very expensive mini van there). But would people do that in England for some baffled tourists?

I cannot deny that the dire warnings did come true; after eating four curries in a row my weak stomach suffered an aggressive attack of ‘Delhi belly’ or perhaps just a bug mixed with it- who knows. It all started at the Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world where I was sick in the toilets; making my mark wherever I go. Unfortunately our efforts to catch an empty Taj Mahal at sunrise failed; it was streaming with tourists and very cloudy. But of course it was amazing to see one of the seven wonders of the world that you have seen in so many photographs up close and in flesh; you can appreciate the grandeur of this purely symmetrical and marble palace which almost doesn’t look real. I was equally moved that the Raj made it as a tomb for his favourite wife that died- I’d love it if someone did it for me if I died. So despite the beginnings of Delhi belly and missing the sunrise, the Taj Mahal was definitely worth every penny that we were ripped off.

I have to say my memories of the north (we only did Delhi and Agra ) are slightly clouded by my illness; sitting on the curb in Delhi being sick has to be one of the lowest points of my life. Even the mini van driver, Bunty said ‘call me tomorrow when you are ok’ with a concerned fatherly expression; I do not want to relive that again. Our original plan for India had been to head south straight away and get away from the overwhelming and less liberal cities; we kept to that plan completely. Although Delhi was not as bad as I thought it was going to be on first arrival (it wasn’t too hot or completely overwhelming) after a couple of days the constant poverty and stench of the city does grate on you. I don’t think I have ever been so aware of my wealth when people living on the edge of life and death plead and stare whilst you sit comfortably in your air conditioned car- it opens your eyes and puts things into perspective but at the same time you feel utterly useless. Will the money I give them go on a hot meal or to the head of a begging network? So we decided to break free of the cities and head south to some countryside and outdoorsy places. After a stay in a dingy hotel where my friends room smelled like a dead animal, we hopped on a flight to Goa and then further complicated our journey to meet our good friends and my friend’s boyfriend (fellow gap yahers) in Hampi – I felt like I had moved to another country or even world entirely.

Hampi is what transformed my opinion of India for the better; it is the most unique and otherworldly place that I have ever visited. 10 hours from Goa, Hampi is a town full crumbling  temples and surrounded by thousands of boulders that look like they have been thrown there; Hindus say that hanoman the monkey God threw them there and the mountains of boulders does make it look like a likely explanation. However, the real reason is the volcanic formations but I like to believe it was the monkey God. 7 days of exploring this vast reddy landscape, scouring the waterfalls and rivers with my best friends was 7 days of paradise. I even got to play cricket with the locals ,a game I used to play from my childhood but unfortunately my hand eye coordination has got much worse; but cricket is a common interest between India and England that I would love to keep exploring. I have to say Hampi was clearly on the hippy trail; flocks of hippies gathered playing the bongos and dancing weirdly on acid whilst we sat and  watched the sunset on the rocks. As I got labelled as the  ‘musical girl’ (I also have a slightly musical past) I found myself playing the bongos and singing wonderwall with the hippies thinking I am the epitome of gap yah right now. Although I liked the music it did get a bit annoying how they couldn’t just chill without getting the bongos and a guitar out. If you didn’t join in they disapproved; the hippy clique were quite exclusive. Hampi felt like a holiday within a holiday and it also felt like I was in Jurassic park; a dinosaur could easily pop out from the boulders and Palm trees. Undeniably, it wins the prize of one of the best places I’ve been to.

So now here I am in much more touristy Goa but not in season; unfortunately we’re missing out on the Russian trance nights that are normally on in the busy season from September to march (what a shame). Although Goa is a little too quiet for our liking, everything is cheaper and the paradise beaches aren’t too busy- life isn’t too hard right now.  The only thing I have disliked about Hampi and Goa (one of the dire warnings has become painstakingly true) is the constant photos and unwanted male attention. We don’t mind when people come and ask to take a photo (we had the full extended family at one point) but when men stop by a secluded spot whilst you’re in your bikini to take pictures of you that is completely unacceptable. Of course we recognise the culture is different and we only wear Skimpy things when we know it’s acceptable, but don’t they realise it is such an invasion of someone’s privacy and completely out of order? However, when you shout and tell them to go away they scarper; a lot of Indian men don’t seem to understand how to approach women and just seem scared of them- I guess they don’t get chance to talk and experiment with women in the same way men from other cultures do.

A more bizarre situation occurred when a man actually came up to us whilst we were eating lunch and said ‘i have a problem, my girlfriend kicked me’. I think this was lost in translation as it sounded more like she kicked him out; he then proceeded to tell us how deeply upset he is about not being able to make her happy whilst drinking a Bacardi breezer. Yet when we suggested he talked her and asked what was wrong he said ‘oh no I know what’s best for her’; do women get a say? This is of course an unequal and to me unfair dynamic in their relationship but the thing was he honestly was trying to do his best and work hard for her; it was more a matter of him not being able to understand her and how she felt (me and my friends extensively psychoanalisyed him after). So let’s see what else India, such a geographically but also socially diverse country, will bring…

Laidback Laos

I hadn’t heard a bad thing about land locked Laos, but I have to admit I didn’t know much about it either. I was therefore pleasantly surprised by how much I fell in love with it. Of course we followed the classic tourist trail of luang prabang and then did the touristy tubing in vang vieng. However, that didn’t take away the magic of this incredibly relaxed and charming country which contrasted greatly to the busy and developing Vietnam.

Luang Prabang just seemed to be the most relaxed place in the world; I spent most of my time wondering around markets, swinging in hammocks and eating amazing street food for only 1 pound per bowl. The most memorable and beautiful part of Luang Prabang are the waterfalls just outside. Obviously everyone loves a good waterfall but what made this extra special was that we’d been told by other travellers to climb up the right hand side of the cliff (there are a series of waterfalls) and then jump over a fence that says ‘no entry’. Then, you find yourself at the top of a magnificent waterfall, so when you swim in it it is better than any infinity pool in a 5 star hotel; you can see the spectacular Laotian countryside and waterfalls for miles. To add to the ‘secrecy’ of the place we swam behind one of the waterfalls and sat in a little cave; these aren’t any old waterfalls.

The curfew in Luang Prabang limited us westerners going out until the early hours of the morning but it didn’t completely prevent us. Bizarrely, the thing to do was go to an extremely relaxed and hippy bar called Utopia (everyone takes their shoes off and lies on comfy things on the floor) to moving on to a bowling alley once utopia had closed. Yes a bowling alley; loads of westerners drunk and having very interesting games of bowling- I honestly don’t think I’ve had was weirder night out. Although this was all very fun we did have one incident when my friends shoes were stolen from Utopia (apparently this is very common). Of course she was a bit pissed off as it was her sturdy birkenstocks however the very next day we saw a girl wearing her rather unique burgundy birkenstocks. So we snapped into action and my friend had an awkward conversation claiming they were her shoes. Instead of denying it the girl simply said she wasn’t at utopia last night then just kind of left the shoes out for my friend; I didn’t think I’d be crime solving in Laos.

Our hostel had free tea and coffee with garden and hammocks so I have to say we did spend rather a lot of time taking advantage of this; I honestly don’t think I’ve ever felt so relaxed in my life. In contrast to Vietnam, Laos certainly has a much more hippy feel; a lot more smelly people with dreadlocks are wondering around. The same vibe continued when we arrived at vang vieng- notorious for its dangerous tubing but also an incredibly chilled place. A secret pleasure of Vang Vieng was undoubtedly the fact they played friends or family guy in every cafe, when you haven’t watched tv for a month this is what you want to watch. Due to limited time we didn’t venture out of doing the classic touristic things of Vang Vieng, the main being tubing. You may be wondering whilst reading this what the hell is tubing? Tubing is simply floating down the mekong river in a rubber ring (i don’t understand how this is a tube) whilst getting reeled into bars on the banks of the mokong. You may be thinking isn’t this pretty dangerous whilst intoxicated, but in fact the mekong river is very shallow and the horror stories from the past are mainly from people on opium who swing off rope swings into the river. Thus, we floated down the river, drank, had mud fights in what could have been cow poo and played volley ball in the sun; a purely hedonistic activity but I can see why everyone does it- it is so bizarre and so much fun.

I cannot say I did any amazingly cultural activity but I could have definitely continued to stay in Laos for another month, I wish I’d realised how amazing it was sooner! However, I do hope tourism doesn’t get out of hand because at the moment it seems to be beneficial for the Laotian people and Laos is still fairly underdeveloped and rural. But the more and more I travel the more I wonder whether I’m helping them by giving them money through tourism or if I’m just another drop in the ocean to ruining them. Do they like us being there? Splurging our money on pleasure whilst they work for a living? Drinking and wearing bikinis whilst we dance to our western music? Probably not, but at the same time in a poor country like Laos tourism is a massive boost to their economy. However, I think next time I visit Asia I’m going to give back in a different way which will actually help them. I know another gap yah statement but I don’t see how else to make an actual differnce.