South America, Travel

Wild Ecuador:  you’d be mad to skip it.

You’d be mad to miss out Ecuador on a long term travel trip through South America. Yet nearly everyone I met travelling early in my trip did- hopping over it to get to the up-and-coming, cooler travel destination, Colombia.  Now I’ve been to Colombia as well I can see why they’re so excited. But skipping Ecuador means missing out on so much incredible wildlife, I can’t understand why anyone would do it. And I couldn’t even afford the Galapagos….

Sure, culturally, it’s a dud compared to Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. Whereas Bolivia and Peru retain their cultural heritage in every corner you look, and Colombian people ooze a positive energy and vibe unique to them, Ecuadorean culture seems a bit… bland. By which I mean Americanised. I was gutted when I arrived and the first thing I saw was a Dunkin’ Donuts. This was not what I travelled thousands of miles for…

So. Skip Guayaquil. Most people’s entrance into the country as the largest city, but also the ugliest place I’ve ever set eyes on. Get out into the wild. There I saw things I’ve never seen in my life.

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My first stop was in Montanita, a surf/party  beach town on the southwest coast. I’d been gagging for some hot weather after the freezing climates of Bolivia and Peru, but sadly was disappointed as for several days it just…rained, and rained, and rained…  the party was kind of fun still in spite of this (apart from the more hippie vibe it felt like you were in Malaga or one of those dreadful places) but we didn’t see the famed hardcore drug culture and it wasn’t as wild in that way as we expected. BUT we saw whales. And that made up for everything.

Taking a tiny boat smashing (literally) out into the ocean, my friends and I tried not to hurl for over an hour before we gave up hope, and then- there they were. And it sounds stupid to say, but. Wow. Whales are big. I mean really, really, really, really, really big.

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To start we just saw the spurts of the blowhole shooting out of the water a few hundred feet away. And then we were among them. You don’t even get to see them whole, but the peaks of their fins rising out of the sea, higher than the length my armspan and so close I was worried they were going to come under the boat and flip us. Their skin was rough and barnacled.  In one moment they seemed to obscure the skyline entirely- and then- they flipped upside down and we were given a wave of the famous tale on the way down. I’ve never been so in awe at the size and strength of an animal.

From Montanita I went to Banos,  (a town not a bathroom) famed for its natural hot springs and extreme sports.  The bus ride there was the most beautiful I’ve ever taken in my life, like travelling through a fantasy wilderness from Lord of the Rings. The town is set amongst mountains with waterfalls cascading down at all sides. Here, if you can think of a death-defying activity, you can do it.

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I did paragliding. I’ve always wanted to and it’s one of the few extreme sports I hadn’t checked off my list yet. And actually, it was beautiful- like the best bit of skydiving where you’re drifting through the air looking at the incredible view below, without the terrifying falling through the sky part. And the view…

My friends Sophie and Jim and I attempted a bike ride in the pouring rain the next day… and we don’t speak about that now. But we did get the worst ever picture at the Casa de Arbol, (‘swing at the end of the world’).

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Next (when we eventually were taken back to civilisation by a kindly local) the immensely powerful  Pailon del Diabalo (devil’s cauldron, see first photo in this blog), and going ziplining over waterfalls. Sophie did not enjoy ziplining.

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After Banos I spent one of the weirdest weeks of my life at a Hare Krishna eco-community in the Amazon rainforest… but that entailed so many new experiences it merited another blog.

I finally returned to civilisation in Quito, and as much as I hated to admit it, was far too excited to get back all the comforts of the modern capitalist world. I was surprised by how much I liked Quito since I usually loathe capital cities. It’s modern (if expensive) but the historical centre has loads to look at, particularly if you love really blingy churches. I’ve never seen anything like them, and Latin America generally is a bit nuts for OTT churches. Iglesia de la Compania is apparently made from over 70 tonnes of gold!

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Quilotoa has to be my highlight of Ecuador. The Quilotoa loop is a famous four day hike through Andean villages, ending up at the phenomenally beautiful Lago Quilotoa- a collapsed volcano that has become a lake- of the most dazzlingly blue shade you can imagine. Having run out of time, I took the lazy option of the day hike- and it was so worth it. I met a friend there and we just sat looking at it for two hours in the perfect Andean sun.

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My last stop was the Mindo cloudforest, a place rich in natural beauty and positive vibes. Here I got up at the crack of dawn to go bird-watching, and although I was disappointed to not see a toucan, did get to see this fellow- a ‘cock of the rock’ and various other brightly coloured flying things.

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I visited the Mariposario, a butterly house where you can sit transfixed for hours as butterflies of all shades flutter past you.

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And I spent a magical day hiking the trail through the cloudforest  that passes through seven waterfalls, cooling off in the last one for a swim, totally alone in paradise. I was splashing around like a happy duck and whooping when the peace was disturbed by a girl laughing at me. Not so alone then. But she did insist on taking this picture, while I tried to feel less like a dick…

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So Ecuador. If you like nature, you’d be a fool to skip it.

Mental Health, Travel

Dealing with anxiety and depression on the road: what the instagram posts don’t tell you

Travel was supposed to fix me. So why hasn’t it worked?

Like many people, I have turned to travel when I felt unsatisfied with my life because of the opportunities it provides to heal, let go, and regenerate.

I wrote previously about how discovering a love of travel gave me a new lease of life at a time when I was feeling very low. Travel forces you to be excited about new experiences, to challenge your assumptions, and really appreciate the beauty and diversity in the world that is sometimes hard to see when you’re stuck in a grey life in the grey suburbs. It made me see colour in a world which, to me, had become washed out.

A few months ago, I was feeling overcome with anxiety and depression in a way I haven’t experienced in a long time. I felt suffocated in the situation I was in, overwhelmed by self-loathing, and got caught in a self-perpetuating cycle of negative thoughts and feelings, unable to see a way out.

It therefore seemed natural that, wanting a change in career, in circumstance, a chance to start again, the idea of finally getting to travel long term in a new continent was something I fixated all my hopes on.

This is far from unique to me. Why else do people trek across the world in the self important hope to ‘find themselves’?

This post isn’t really about me specifically. And that’s why I’m writing it.  Everyone I know seems to be fucking depressed. At least half of my best friends have made this clear to me.  Some talk about it very openly, others make it obvious in the most British way possible, through thinly-veiled sarcasm, quickly brushed off with a dark joke and a denial. Some share it only after more than a few drinks, very earnestly, and try to pretend the conversation never happened in the morning. Others get in competitions with each other about who has had the toughest time in life. As unique and beautiful as we like to imagine our pain is, we are really all just the same. Life is hard. It’s sad. We should never underestimate what another person has been through, because everyone is hiding darkness in some form.

I’ve never talked openly about the difficulties I’ve had with mental health for as long as I can remember. Even partners, with whom I have shared the most, have never had a full picture. I’m not one of those people that tends to post on social media about this sort of thing, and I could never understand why people do. To expose your vulnerabilities at scale seems, at the very least, attention seeking and embarrassing, and at worst, the most hideous nightmare come true- after all, the last thing a person with social anxiety issues wants to do is, I reason, draw attention to themselves. What would be worse? Being lavished in attention and well-meaning comments? Or to be totally ignored and realise that you were right all along, and no one really cares, and you might as well be dead?

But I’m writing this because the number of people who have said to me ‘I would love to do what you’re doing. You’re so brave. I’d just be too anxious to go, especially on my own’ is far, far more than I’m comfortable with. I was really surprised when more than one old friend, people whom I haven’t talked to in years, have got in touch saying how much they want to travel, but have suffered setbacks in their personal and professional lives due to mental health issues, so would have to live it vicariously through me and hope they might be able to one day. If only they could leave the house.

I’m writing this for them. Because let me tell you something. I’m not brave at all. I’m scared all the fucking  time. All I can remember in my life from being a young teenager is an intense, burning feeling of social anxiety, gnawing in my gut, fuelled by self loathing. So I’m not dismissing their/your feelings and genuine anxieties by saying this- I totally understand that it may not be possible for them- or for you- right now.

But there was a time when I was too anxious to approach an ice cream van, because requesting a FAB would necessitate talking to a stranger. At university, I was once so overcome by anxiety in my first term I didn’t leave my room for several days, eating cold food out of tins and trying to coax myself into rejoining the social bubble. At work, even in the last year, I would sometimes get so distracted and wrapped up in dark thoughts that I’d have to rush out to the toilets, or the car park, to breathe myself back to calm before anyone talked to me and noticed the tears running down my face that I’d tried to hide by turning to the wall.

So I totally get it. But my point is this. If you think you can’t travel because you struggle with depression, you really, really, can do it. Look at me now- I’m here, eating dinner on my own in a restaurant housed in a tent around a fire in Ecuador. Earlier I went paragliding. Tomorrow I’m going ziplining over waterfalls. I’m meeting friends later that I started chatting to in Spanish lessons last month, and kept in touch with, and met up with again. So, I’ve convinced myself, some people must like me, and I have been extremely lucky to do some awesome things. Through an awful lot of counselling and whinging about my feelings, some incredible partners, and friends, and by pushing myself each year to do more things that instinctively make me  extremely uncomfortable, I’ve become considerably more capable of dealing with the symptoms of anxiety, and sudden lows of depression, that I still deal with all the time. And if I can do that, anyone can. And that means you, too.

But I’m not fixed. And this is the other point of this post.

People often talk about ‘overcoming’ depression. Several times in life, I’ve gone through a period where I felt a lot better, and thought I had ‘got over’ the insecurities of the past and was now moving only forwards, onwards, and upwards, to the new, awesome me! And shortly after, of course, there would come the inevitable spiral.  So  I strongly believe that dealing with depression doesn’t mean tablets, and even with counselling (which I do recommend) it doesn’t mean one day you will be magically ‘better’: as much as I hoped it would, travel hasn’t fixed me because it can’t. Depression will come and go, and if you’re susceptible, you may have to live with it returning your whole life, like a boomerang covered in shit. And so I’ve come to realise that dealing with depression and anxiety, therefore, is not about a ‘cure’ or being ‘fixed’, but about resilience. The ability to endure the ups and downs, and keep going. And this can be especially important when you’re travelling.

Because when you’re on the road with anxiety and depression, it’s not like being at home, where you can retreat to the comfort of your own duvet, not speak to people, listen to Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter, and cry into a jar of peanut butter until you feel better. Every day is a challenge. No one speaks your language. You don’t understand the bus system. You have to make new friends in every hostel, even when you have no energy to do so. There’re often no comforts like decent wifi,  flushing toilets, or sometimes even electricity. You have to be more wary than usual of being a target of crime. You can’t kick back and relax- every day you have to work hard to look after yourself and get through new and unprecedented situations.

But when you do deal with them, as stressed as you may feel at the time, you get a huge burst of confidence- wow! I managed that. I’m still here, I’m safe. I could manage that again. And that means, even if you still panic the next time, you might panic a little bit less. Because you become someone who  knows that you can deal with stuff.

Being depressed doesn’t mean you necessarily feel bad all the time- you can still have great days, feel excited, and feel love for everyone around you. For a while I convinced myself I was bipolar because of this contradiction, and the frequency of the dramatic swings from one emotion to another, over which I seem to have little or no control. And while a lot of the time I have to work hard to ‘perform’ a happy face, or a silly or sarcastic exterior to cover what I’m really feeling,  a lot of the time I am also genuinely very happy. Which is why I think a lot of people who know me would be surprised to know the extent to which every week that passes can be a struggle.

Because even after a high, there is always a down. This could be environmental or internal, and it takes practice to recognise what is happening and try to at least slow it down. No doubt, for me at least, depression is fuelled by the dual mutually reinforcing problems of ‘the state of the world’, and my own self-loathing. And I think travel can help with both.

Before I left home, I’d become completely obsessed with how much darker the world has seemed to become in the last year or so- which is not entirely illogical, given the rise of terrorism, the surge in popularity of right wing extremism, inhumane treatment of refugees, and much more. But it became unhealthy. I would lie in bed at night becoming physically boiling hot with fury and tears, and would stay awake until dawn,  as I imagined and tried to count in my mind how many people are homeless right now, how many people are being raped, fleeing war, are starving, are slowly dying of preventable diseases. I felt that I could hear the screaming in my ears, that I could smell their blood, and tears, that they were choking me, until I couldn’t breathe, and yet what was I doing about it? Having a panic attack in a semi in Leamington Spa. Ridiculous.

So, although a new environment can be challenging, the positive thing about travel is, if your environment has become a reinforcer of your depression, you can remove yourself from it until you feel better able to deal with it. It’s harder to be constantly inundated with the news. People that are regular sources of negative energy can vanish suddenly from your life. There can still be stress, but it seems less chronic, because if you don’t like a situation or a person, you can just move to the next place. You do see some difficult things- poverty especially- but you also see people with so much less than you who are unfathomably happy with life.

And that leads to dealing with second part of the depression- self loathing. A lot of people say that to feel less depressed, you should feel grateful for what you have. But this has never made me feel better.  Because no matter how much I care about all of these terrible things I worry about at night, what am I really doing about them?  I am unworthy of the ridiculous luck I have received in life. Other people suffer every day, and I’ve lived a life of comfort, education, decent work, and never knowing hunger, or war. And why? Because my ancestors mass-slaughtered thousands of individuals, and our lifestyle in the so called ‘developed world’ depends entirely on people’s continued oppression. What a fucking cunt.

In the end, everything always comes down to this. Everything that goes wrong. And it’s impossible to drown out the voice in your head that says it’s because you’re a cunt. You stupid fucking cunt. Fat cunt. Pointless piece of shit cunt. Why do you even fucking bother trying, cunt. You will always fail.

Things go wrong often when you’re travelling. And it’s always because you’re a cunt. But, in order to survive here, you can’t leave it at that. Shut up, cunt head. And you get on with dealing with whatever it is. And you survive.

So travel doesn’t fix depression. But it can make you more capable of dealing with it, more sure of your ability to look after yourself.  It will increase your resilience, as well as show you loads of incredible things to inspire you to see positivity in the world along the way.

The good news is, if you’re living with depression, you’re already a person who has practiced extreme resilience. To feel every day like you wish you were dead, to fear that everyone around you hates you and wishes you were too, to be afraid, and miserable- and still get up, go to work, be nice to people, go to the pub and act like everything is normal- it takes resilience.

Resilience isn’t an inherent trait, but a thing you can practice to become stronger. So what I’m saying is- even if, right now, you don’t feel confident to get through things in life, let alone trying some place new- but you really want to travel- you don’t have to go the whole hog straight away. Just push yourself a little bit, every few months, and see how you cope at each hurdle. You might surprise yourself. Try a little weekend trip. Take a week in a country closer to home, or somewhere where they speak the same language as you. Travel with friends before you venture to travelling alone. You’ll probably find that not only can you do it, but that you love it- and as cheesy as it sounds, you’ll learn to allow yourself to love YOU a little more along the way.

For as long as I can remember, I have always assumed that my life would end when my fight with depression eventually gets the better of me. The fact I have fought it for so long, and come so far, without defeating it, cements this idea in my mind during bleak moments. But bizarrely it has also given me a strange sense of calm. Because if you think you already know the ending, without being ready yet, and you have to stay unbearably, painfully, inescapably conscious every day- you might as well throw yourself right into this bloody arse of a thing called life as much as you can. I’ve realised I’m not ready to give in. I will take this dance with depression and we will fight each other to lead. I will fight this fucker to the end  by living life as much as possible, and then maybe- maybe- I will win.  Because while it hasn’t fixed me, travel has given me experiences worth living for.  The time I almost got squashed by a hippo in the Okovango Delta. Getting lost and climbing over cows in the crazy streets of Varanasi. Sky diving over the Kalahari. Spotting a bear while hiking in the Andes.

And that is why, if you feel there is nothing to live for, you should try to travel. And every day up to that point where you feel strong enough, and during travel, remind yourself of your own resilience, your own power in the face of the darkness. The things you have overcome.

Because today I woke up feeling low, and alone. And I said, shut up depression, I’m going paragliding. And I did.

And so can you.

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food, South America, Travel

A week in the Wisdom Forest: my experience living with a Hare Krishna community in the Amazon Jungle

In one week I learned about Hare Krishna, experienced a spiritual ‘sweat lodge ceremony’, learned to use a machete, harvest tropical fruit, make chocolate from raw cocoa, press sugar cane juice, climbed up waterfalls, trekked through the jungle, made a traditional Amazonian meal, took part in mantras and ceremonies, tried to meditate (unsuccessfully), and attempted yoga (even less successfully).

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The Wisdom Forest is located in the Amazon Jungle- to reach it you take a bus to the town of Tena, and then a smaller bus, on which you ask to get dropped off at el mono– the monkey. I got hopped off at the statue of Hanuman and followed a little path that winds through a garden of incredible plants for produce- pineapples, papayas, bananas, coconuts, limes, and cocoa, flush with fruit. Bandu, the resident giant dog, and the friendliest Alsatian I’ve ever met, came bounding up to say hello. The front porch of the house is open, with fresh bananas strung up, people swinging from hammocks between the beams, reading books and chatting, guitars and drums lying around, and a little bike workshop.
The community here are Hare Krishnas. I knew next to nothing about Hara Krishna culture before coming here, but was interested to know more about their way of life, experience living in the rainforest, and volunteering on the eco-farm that produces organic vegetables and fruits, which they both live from and sell from a little tent on the side of the road.

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I am always interested to learn about religions, and ways of life other than the one I am used to, but I will admit I was a bit apprehensive about how I would cope with the level of spiritualism in this vedic community. I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a hippie- but more of a cynical hippie. I care about the environment and conservation because to me the world is beautiful, and it’s logical to look after the planet you call home. I’ve been a vegetarian for 17 years (and mostly vegan for the last) I think it just makes no sense to add to the world’s suffering, and I like animals too much to want to kill them. I object to war and always advocate love and peace because it just makes sense. Non- violence is always better than violence. I don’t like capitalism because it’s a system of fucking people over with unfathomable suffering and death tolls as the consequence. But none of this is linked to any sense of spirituality or connection to something bigger. I think that when we die, we break down and become mud, and that is it. My beliefs are firmly rooted in a combination of logic, proven science, and the general principle of not being a dick. I try to always respect other people’s beliefs, but I have to admit to perhaps sometimes being a bit of a smug twat to two of my best friends, Bethan and Jodi, who really go in for some of this spiritual stuff (reiki, magic stones, fortune telling, prayer bowls that are connected to the sound of the universe etc.) because I have to admit, to me it always seems like a lot of guff. (Sorry to them for that).
But- I told myself to keep an open mind, and even if I thought I would never be the type to go in for this, to learn as much as possible from these people. After all, I was walking into their world voluntarily.

I was thrown in the deep end, as when I arrived the group were getting ready to take part in a ‘sweat lodge ceremony’. First, you get in your cossie and take a jump into the freezing cold natural plunge pool, or shower in an amazing natural outdoor shower that has water running down the forest through a bamboo beam, sheltered by leaves. Then you enter the lodge- a small, thatched hut with a tiny entrance which you crawl through to get in. It’s incredibly dark. Everyone sits on banana leaves in a circle around a pit. Bhaga explains that the hut represents the womb of mother earth, and that we are going to be reborn. We are going to meditate on Mother Earth, and he talks for a while about the importance of protecting the planet and looking after the animals. So far so good. Then they start to bring in the abuelas. Grandmothers. Not old women, but the name they have for the hot stones that they place in the pit to heat the hut and create the sauna affect. The abuelas are each meant to represent a virtue we should meditate on, while they chant a song to welcome them as they are brought in- giving thanks for empathy, patience etc. There are three rounds of meditating, drumming, and chanting mantras to Hare Krishna, Madre Tierre etc., between which more abuelas are brought in, and palm fronds are used to waft the hot stones until it becomes incredibly hot, and everyone is soaked in sweat. With the heat and the beats of the drums, it’s kind of hypnotising. After, everyone comes out of the womb reborn, and plunges in the pool again to return to reality.

There are many variations on this ceremony in different cultures and practices. For some, this is a profoundly spiritual experience. I wouldn’t say I found it that, but it was certainly very relaxing, and the messages were positive. I slept well that night.

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Mornings here start at 5.30am in the temple, located in treehouse overlooking the jungle, where Bhaga, who began the community, leads the morning meditation. The Hare Krishna movement is a kind of branch of Hinduism that practices Bhakti Yoga  (it turns out yoga is a whole set of practices and not just the exercise). Although Varsana, one of the lead volunteers, insisted it’s not a religion in the dogmatic sense, but more a way of life, the ceremony was very like the many I witnessed in Hindu temples while travelling in India. Rhythmic music was played on an instrument I’ve never seen before, with drumming, and chanting mantras, in front of a cabinet full of pictures of Krishna and the gurus (all men). There are many mantras, but the most common is quite repetitive and meant to focus your mind for the meditation:
hare kṛṣṇa hare kṛṣṇa
kṛṣṇa kṛṣṇa hare hare
hare rāma hare rāma
rāma rāma hare hare
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After the meditation, there is a ‘philosophy’ class with Bhaga. This is the part I struggled with the most. I wouldn’t so much call it a ‘philosophy class’, as an hour of listening to Bhaga’s beliefs and opinions. Now, I spoke at great length with the other Hare Krishnas there- latinos from Venezuela, Guatamala, and Mexico- and they talked with great sincerity about how the Hare Krishna way of life had helped them to live in a more positive way, in accordance with nature, to learn to reject material wants and to live to serve others, overcome depression and negative feelings in the past, and feel more whole. I have immense respect for them, because they really did live a simple and peaceful life, and did everything they did with kindness, and importantly, would talk about why they believed certain things without judgement of others. Although I didn’t believe in Krishna, and found the rituals a bit bizarre, I largely agreed with their principles, and they said as long as others followed a way of life that incorporates kindness, and in accordance with protection of the earth, we should find our own way to becoming who we felt happy with.

Bhaga’s lessons were not like this. It felt like the hour of judgement. He would lecture endlessly about the dangers of meat, alcohol, drugs, and sex. Even though I agree with not eating animals, the way he aggressively accosted the meat-eaters in the group was unhelpful in engaging them in a cause I do believe in.

We did a test to find out what our ‘ayurvedic body type’ is. This is based in an old spiritual system that promotes the idea people are made either of earth, fire, or air. The definitions seem extremely random, and I can’t help rejecting any system that reduces anything as complicated as people to three types. I was told I was ‘Kapha/Pitta’- a mix of earth and fire. But realistically, elements of all three body and personality types related to me, and all of them contained elements which were completely contradictory to how I am. On the basis of this system, illnesses are treated by diet- if you are kapha you should eat less oil etc., to balance your elements. He promised this is a ‘scientific’ method, and I had to work hard to maintain politeness, and point out that adding the word ‘science’ to an idea doesn’t make it scientific.

In another class, he advised we should not wear suncream because we shouldn’t put anything on our skin that would be poisonous to eat. He said people shouldn’t put it on their children. This was day four, and I actually felt myself losing my temper. The temperature here was up to 30 degrees in the heat of the day. I feel it’s extremely irresponsible in a capacity as a ‘teacher’ to advise people (especially the groups of blancitas that frequent the Wisdom Forest) not to protect themselves against the sun, and not to protect their children. After all, there is proof that getting sunburn repetitively can cause skin cancer and death. I told him as much. He whinged on about whether there was really proof, maybe he’d have to look at statistics, but his friend told him it was bad and never put sun cream on her children and so… bla bla. At this point I felt like saying, mate. Your name isn’t Bhaga. Your real name is Ben and you’re from Chichester. And yes, the link between sun damage and skin cancer has been proven by (genuine) scientific research. Saying ‘but my whacko mate said this’ isn’t going to hold up in academic peer review. Shut up.

For this reason I had to skip the last ‘lessons’, which is probably just as well because apparently he talked about how having any sex will definitely make you a prostitute, and then you will die. Sigh.

After the hour of talking crap, there was a yoga class, which was actually quite nice, especially looking out into the rainforest, but I realised how inflexible I am as I was barely able even to cross my legs, and had to creak my way through saluting the sun, trying ‘downward dog’ etc. without falling over.

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After breakfast, work. The work here was interesting- I learned to wield a machete and felt like a badass (though more likely just a mentally unstable person with a machete). But we harvested the food we then ate which felt very satisfying. Better yet, we used the cocoa to make chocolate- you suck the flesh off the beans (sounds gross I know, it’s sweet but nothing like chocolate) then dry them, and roast them, peel the shells off, grind them, and we then added panela before rolling them into balls. Panela is a syrup made from sugar cane juice which we cut down and crushed, and then boiled. The result was delicious, natural, and as local as you can get.

Meal times were great. The food here was genuinely incredible- all vegetarian and mostly vegan, we had one awesome giant Amazonian meal (below), which contained fruits and vegetables I’d never tried before- piton, fruitipan, chiclas etc. We also made bean stews, lasagne, stir frys, pizza, and even a birthday brownie cake on Kartik’s birthday. As with anything, there is a ritual that must come before eating in Hare Krishna culture. They consider cooking a meditation, and so before eating you make an offering to Krishna, consisting of a small amount of every dish, which is put in a cupboard, and you chant a mantra thanking mother earth for the food and offering it to Krishna, while a bell is rung and you clap. Then, before eating, there’s a cancion (song), thanking again, with guitars, and you chant the Hare Krishna mantra.

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Days off were fun- we spent a day adventuring in the waterfalls, hitching a ride on the back of a local pick up truck, then wading through rivers, hauling ourselves up waterfalls with ropes, and trekking through the jungle while the boys swung around on the real Tarzan style ropes hanging down around us. We visited a local community, and the family of a volunteer which had eleven children, on their small farm, and tried the local drink, chicha.

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The accommodation was basic to say the least- inevitably jungle bugs get everywhere, there were often cockroaches in my room, we found a small snake in the kitchen, and once when I got in the shower I was alarmed when a frog jumped out at my face. I had about 5000 bug bites when I left, though thankfully I didn’t catch sight of the resident tarantulas the whole time.

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On the whole, I had an amazing experience here. I do believe ‘Bhaga’, if I will go with his ‘spiritual’ name, is a bit of a bullshit merchant, and I dislike his negative approach of haranguing people. It makes Hare Krishna seem very negative as a culture, and I don’t believe it is. I never go in for dogma in religions, but I understand the principle of being thankful for what you have and the ceremonies do remind you to be mindful in a way that can never be achieved in the city and chaos of modern life. I could never be a Hare Krishna, and there is an element of the cultish about it, but I like the people very much, and I have to say that after a week here I did feel more peaceful, patient, and open hearted to others. Which can only be a good thing.

It was an amazing way to experience the rainforest, and if you are thinking about it, I would definitely recommend going in a volunteer capacity so you can get closer to the wildlife and really learn to live within it. I have never had so many new experiences in one week and can only thank the people who let us into their home, showed me a path to being a more gentle person, and gave me memories to last a lifetime.

Love and peace,

Helen

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food, South America, Travel, vegan, vegetarian

Peru is vegan heaven!

Peru is vegan heaven. There’s a sentence I never expected I’d write. I ate better vegan food in Peru than I’ve eaten in my whole life. It may not be the traditional fare, but veganism is a well understood concept, at least in most of the towns on the backpacker trail, and there are vegan versions of most of the typical dishes- even vegan ceviche! Everything is plentiful, delicious and healthy. In Peru I was in foodie heaven.

The surprises started in Puno. Puno is a nondescript town that most travellers use just as a gateway to Lake Titicaca. It’s big, ugly, and uninspiring- so imagine my surprise when I found the best vegan restaurant (at that point) on my trip- The Loving Hut does a ridiculously cheap set lunch menu for 15 Soles (about £3.50) that includes salad, soup, main dish and pudding. Usually with these set lunches the portions are small- but here the main was so mammoth that I broke my principle of always finishing every meal. The best thing about this place is the tofu fish and meat substitutes. I’d really missed healthy protein and realised how much I rely on Quorn  and tofu at home, but here they have vegan ceviche, vegan prawns and rice, tofu chicken, burritos, and much more.19883542_10213030267887304_1678444243_n.jpg

The owner was so friendly and told me about the next surprise of the trip- that in Arequipa there was a vegan festival on the weekend I was arriving! With ridiculously good luck, I went straight to check it out- and it was phenomenal. I ate about three meals worth of food and finished with the best cake of my life- an amazingly rich, vegan, dark chocolate and passion fruit cake- the picture can’t convey the foodgasm.

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In Arequipa I also had vegan ceviche in El Buda Profano (pictured below) which was delicious but unsatisfying compared to the Loving Hut version.

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For extremely satisfying fare, head to Burger Chulls, where I got a vegan lentil burger with sweet potato fries and a passion fruit drink for just 15 soles again! (£3.50!) and couldn’t move for the rest of the evening.

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Crepes are everywhere in South America, surprisingly, and have been the biggest test to my attempt to be vegan most of the time (sorry, I caved for nutella). But Le Petit Francaise will treat you to an incredibly delicious vegan batter hummus and roast vegetable crepe that is to die for. They are so nice they would probably also do you one with lemon and fruit if you asked.

Huacachina is an incredibly small town in the middle of the desert, so imagine how shocked I was to eat the best falafel of my life- in a hostel! Bananas has an incredible menu and these sexy bastards were melt-in-the-mouth delicious, and came with hummus! (I think I’ve had hummus deficiency since arriving in Latin America so I was too excited about this). La Casa de Bamboo is another hostel with an exclusively vegetarian menu, including Thai curry, falafel and incredible large breakfasts. I went three times in my two-day stay.

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Lima is meant to be the best place for food, but was less inspiring for me (but I hated Lima in general). However, here I did get a vegan version of a very traditional dish called causa– avocado layered with potato, and vegetable (usually with tuna or chicken). It was creamy, salty, and very satisfying.

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If Peru is vegan heaven, worship at the altar of Cusco, where a quick search on Happy Cow revealed more veggie restaurants than it was physically or financially possible for me to visit in my time there. The crown for best veggie food was removed here from the Loving Hut and rewarded to Green Point. I’ve never been so happy from food, and I get happy from food often.  Again, for 15 soles, a lunch menu included salad, rich and sweet pumpkin soup, a moderately spicy and fragrant chana masala, topped with yukka (god I’ve missed curry) and a delicious banana and chocolate mousse (all vegan!). The evening options are also incredible- I had a portion of vegan lasagna as big as my head and packed full of fresh veg, while my friends had dumplings and courgetti spaghetti. In spite of my fare I got extreme food envy for the people at the next table who ordered sizzling hot tacos, my god.

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Here I also enjoyed El Encuentro, which offers mainly meat substitute versions of traditional Peruvian food (which to be honest, is a lot like Chinese- meat, rice, soy sauce). And I had the best salad I’ve ever eaten in a shamanic raw vegan restaurant- which was so large it took a full forty minutes to eat!

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More than these, in Cusco, vegetarian food is advertised everywhere, even at mainstream restaurants, and you can get vegan cakes at bakeries. I’m sad I didn’t spend more time in Cusco for many reasons, but the food is a large factor.

So vegans and vegetarians- don’t fear South America- go to Peru!! And add to this list of amazing, healthy, and satisfying food. Nom.

South America, Travel

The country of wild bears, seals, dune buggies, the Inka trail and Rainbow Mountain… Peru, I love you!

Peru is a phenomenal country. I loved it a hundred times more than I was expecting it to. The people are incredibly kind, the nature is fantastic, and the cities are fascinating and steeped in culture. After one month I boarded my plane to Ecuador wishing I didn’t have to leave.

Peru’s Arequipa is called the ‘white city’ because of the number of resplendent colonial buildings, which gleam against the perpetually blue sky, and it might be my favourite city in Latin America (so far). I spent a week here having Spanish lessons, visiting museums, and partying on the weekends. One thing you shouldn’t miss is seeing Huanita- the mummified body of a young Inka sacrifice, whose body was found frozen and well-preserved on the side of the mountain where she was left to the gods.

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The main reason most people come to Arequipa is to visit the spectacular Colca Canyon, which, after much refute, has been proved by National Geographic to be the world’s deepest canyon.

The hike is hard.  Though the views of the dramatic rock faces, sudden drops, and wild landscape descending into the valley below are worth it, you basically have to descend very far, very fast- to get to the bottom on the first day. The Canyon itself is like nothing I have ever seen, particularly because of the famous condors which circle high over it. Condors, a kind of vulture, are the largest flying land bird in the western hemisphere… and they really are huge. Even from a distance they’re quite intimidating when they swoop over you when you’re not expecting it.

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After an overnight stay in the little valley at the bottom of the canyon, it’s a 5am start and a hike three hours straight up a steep zig-zagging path through the rock face to reach civilisation again. Which would be hard at the best of times, but given the horrendous altitude (which makes a lot of people ill staying still) it was the biggest physical challenge of my life. .  I deliberated before booking it because of the reputation it has of challenging even experienced hikers (which I decidedly am not), but it was good experience prior to the Inka Trek, and actually, I think it was harder.

Huacachina is known as the ‘oasis’- a town which seems to have been dreamt out of the sand in the middle of the Peruvian desert. There’s only really one reason to come here: sandboarding. I was a bit apprehensive given that when I tried this last year in Namibia, I managed to be the exception to the instructor’s promise that ‘it’s literally impossible to fall ALL the way down the sand dune’. Nonetheless, I’ll given anything a second chance (except bungee jumping).

19578081_10212918200165681_870903985_n.jpgIt was totally worth it just for the epic dune buggy ride to get to the top of the dunes. Our driver said for a small tip he would go ‘mas extremo’…and he meant it. Like a real life rollercoaster, I regretted sitting at the front as we hurtled up over peaks we couldn’t see the other end of and came crashing and swerving back down and up the next dune. The sandboarding itself was actually fun- but tame compared to Namibia. We were only allowed to go on our front, and the peaks were considerably less high. I also wasn’t (quite as) hideously hungover, which I suspect had a lot to do with how much more I enjoyed it.

We briefly stopped in Nazca to look at the famous ‘Nazca lines’, but since I suspect it’s a scam I couldn’t be bothered to pay for a flight up to see them.  So my next stop was the little beach town of Paracas. There’s not a lot to do here except to visit the nearby Ballestas Islands. So called ‘poor man’s galapagos’, I actually loved this trip (since I am too poor to visit Galapagos) and was ecstatic to see penguins and seals thriving in the wild, instead of a zoo, for the first time. I especially enjoyed meeting the world’s smuggest sea lion.

DSCN8260 (2)I hated Lima. It was the only place in Peru I hated. I’m not really a fan of big cities anyway, and it lived up to its expectations of being ugly, grey, expensive, ugly , and grey. It didn’t help that I got hideously ill here, and had my first experience of having to pay for a private doctor in South America (£80 and an injection in the butt later and I wasn’t that impressed).

However, from here I flew to Cusco for the main event- the Inka Trail!  It was four of the best days of my life. Seriously. I’d started to regret having forked out so much to do the official Inka Trail when I learned how much cheaper other options were, but it was so, so worth it. I’ve never seen so many beautiful, varying views in one day in my life. I’ve also never had the chance to completely cut off from modern life, communication, and just be in nature with my own thoughts for so long before. I came out genuinely feeling like a different person.

The first day is relatively easy, as you get into the pace of the trail, wending your way over beautiful rivers and streams, slight inclines, but nothing hard. The second day is known as the toughest, because you have to conquer ‘dead woman’s pass’- an extremely steep trail ascending to an altitude of 4,200m. It was hard- but I was not as dead a woman at the end as I anticipated, which thrilled me. I must have somehow got a bit fitter! Fat teenage Helen would not have believed it. And the view here was PHENOMENAL. However the best part for me was recognising the shout of ‘Oso! Oso!’ and getting an (apparently extremely rare) glimpse of a real life Paddington-  a baby Peruvian spectacled bear!

DSCN8350.jpgDay three was actually the toughest for me; though you don’t go as high as rapidly, there is a lot of ‘Peruvian flat’ (i.e. constant up and down) which is hard on the feet and the knees. You finish at an Inka ruin that is a taste of the next day- complete with llamas.

The last day you get up at the crack of dawn, and everyone literally pelted it the last 5k to get to Machu Picchu. This is rough after three days of walking, and I had to literally drag myself up the scramble at the end to reach the Sun Gate.

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I can’t really express how I felt to see Machu Picchu actually spread out before me. I often think you get over-exposed to ‘wonders’  of the world from TV and postcards, so nothing as impressive when you see it in real life as it would be without the anticipation. This was not so here. After our guided tour, I spent a good hour just sat looking at the view- not just the ruins of an ancient civilisation- but the depth of the landscape around that is impossible to capture on camera. Jagged, rugged mountain faces, piled layer on layer into the mists that shroud the rest of the landscape. It was hard to leave.

19401257_10212806659057223_1344888174_o.jpgThere was one more thing I wanted to do before leaving Peru… visit the so called ‘Rainbow Mountain’.  I geared myself up for one last push, having had one day of rest after the Inka Trail, and left at 3 am to get to the village where the hike starts.

I’d been quite lucky with altitude sickness until now, but I guess everyone has a tipping point, and mine is over 4.5k above sea level. I’ve never felt so terrible in my life. I managed to hike half the way, then gave up and took one of the many offers for a caballo  (horse) to the top. Which was an adventure in itself- the last time I rode a horse it had thrown me off and I’d not trusted on getting one since. Thankfully this girl was a lot more chilled, and I had the luxury of watching the view to the top of the mountain. So, thank you Peru, you wonderful country, I will leave you with this last view before I continue on to Ecuador.

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South America, Travel

A hostel made of salt, volcanic geysers, and a night on Lake Titicaca…. my continued adventures through Bolivia and Peru

An endless expanse of blue sky, and white so bright it burns your eyes, there’s literally nothing for miles around… and it’s bloody cold. The Uyuni Salt Flats are the main reason so many travellers (including me) are keen to include Bolivia in their travel bucket lists. I’ve been lucky to see some mind-blowing places in the last few years, but the landscapes of Bolivia are like another planet.

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If you’re going to go, there’s no point doing the one day Uyuni tour that only includes the Salt Flats. Like so many of these things (like the Taj Mahal for me in India), sometimes when you have seen a dramatic picture a thousand times, the main event is actually less exciting than the surprisingly incredible side-show. So it was on the Uyuni tour, where, fantastic as the salt flats are, for me they were overshadowed by the spectacular lagoons, crazy cactus island, wildlife, and volcanic geysers.

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Getting the famous mind-bending perspective shots on the salt flats is actually harder than it looks. Our lovely guide Herman, while thankfully not a drunk-driver (apparently a common problem on these tours- so beware!)  was also the world’s worst photographer, and it was kind of hilarious as much as it was frustrating that between all of us we found it literally impossible to get both us and a plastic dinosaur/beer can/hat in focus at the same time. Here are some terrible examples:

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Never mind. I was never going to be the type to get insta-famous anyway. We watched the sun disappear into the salt flats, and then drove on a few more miles to our hostel… which was made of salt. The floor, the walls, the table and chairs… one of the weirdest places I’ve ever stayed.

There are so many mind-bendingly beautiful lagoons in Uyuni, surrounded by mountains, each glowing their colour namesake ‘azul’ and ‘verde’, reflecting the minerals that are rich in their make-up.  Without a doubt the highlight is ‘Laguna Colorado’, the red lake. Inhabited by flocks of flamingos, it really was other-worldly, and I had to stop for a long time to remind myself it was real.

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The place we stayed that night was pretty bleak. It was so far in the middle of nowhere, and they only get electricity for two hours a day. Having worked for the last three years at the awesome international development charity, Practical Action, which amongst many things seeks sustainable solutions to ensuring off-grid electricity access in rural and impoverished parts of the world, I finally got a genuine glimpse of what that means for the reality of people’s daily lives. People were so poor here they apparently couldn’t afford plates from which to eat breakfast, and there was only one place in the village that evening that had heating… a bizarre little shop/pub in the middle of nowhere. We bought an incredibly bottle of disgusting Bolivian wine and tried to warm up around the wood-burner…

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On the last day of the tour, you wake up at 3 am. I’m not generally happy to do this for anything, but the chance to see volcanic geysers at sunrise is a good incentive. I feel like I’ve said this a lot about Bolivia, but it was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen… getting out of the car felt like landing on Mars, if Mars smelt like the unique evil of  post-egg curry farts. The ground was alive… literally belching and rumbling underneath us. As we peered, fascinated, into the bubbling pits, we were warned not to breathe too much sulphur and to walk on the right side of where wind was blowing boiling steam into the atmosphere, or risk being burned.

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Bathing after in a hot spring fuelled by the volcano has to be the best view I’ve ever had while taking a bath.

After briefly returning to the city of La Paz, and stumbling into the Gran Poder carnival (picture below) I continued towards Peru and Lake Titicaca, ‘the world’s highest navigable lake’.

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From the Bolivia side, you can visit the lovely but unremarkable ‘Isla del Sol’ from the little sunny town of Copacabana. The experience from Peru, in my view, though, is much more exciting.

Most visitors come for one day and experience only the Uros ‘floaitng islands’. Here, 1200 people live on 87 floating islands that are literally made of reeds. Three metres of reeds are constantly replaced as the bottom rots away, and they use sticks to anchor themselves in position. These people fled the shores of Lake Titicaca to form this bizarre existence in order to escape colonial violence, and have been there ever since, now living only from hunting, fishing, tourism, and selling textiles. They have been adversely affected by climate change, as our very wet experience of the ‘dry season’ demonstrated, but even there they have made attempts towards a better future- with solar panels installed in the reeds in order to power the radio. It’s an awesome thing to see, but no doubt somewhat Disney-ified, and incredibly touristy.

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If you have more time and want a more authentic experience, take the boat a further three hours to Amantani Island. Here I stayed, with two friends, with an Amantanian family overnight on Lake Titicaca. Staying on this unspoilt island is like stepping back into the 1950s, and provides excellent hiking opportunities, if you can hack the altitude, to the shrines on top of the hill to ‘Pachamama’ and ‘Pachatata’. In the evening there was a live band playing Peruvian music, we were encouraged to dress like the locals (see Mel and I looking bangin’ below), and spent one of the most bizarre nights of my life with about 50 people (locals and tourists) doing a kind of high-speed sideways conga to Peruvian pipe music, fuelled by local beer… we slept well.

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Watch out for my next blog as my adventure continues through the west coast of Peru!

Travel

Latin America, baby! Cholitas, Pachamama, rock bands and protests… my first impressions of urban Bolivia

Swooping into Laz Paz from the Telerifico (cable car) is the best way to experience a city for the first time. The lives that are somehow built into the jagged rocks of the dramatic mountain face that frames the city spill out beneath you… the shanty areas of El Alto, the millions of rows of little houses stacked on top of each other, the winding streets, the larger, gleaming buildings, the little green plazas that are dotted around all over the place…

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The markets are where you really find the heart of life in the city. In the main market in the centre of the city, piles of fresh fruit and vegetables in every colour under the sun are stacked high, gleaming red, green, orange, purple…. . Tables of eggs, and cheese, and spices, are everywhere… and toys, and books, and rip-off dvds, and beauty products, bras… They don’t have supermarkets as we know them, because everyone comes here to buy from their Cholita.

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Cholitas are the indigenous Aymaran and Quechan ladies that come to the market to sell their wares. Ever seen the typical postcard picture of a lady in a wide skirt, bulky knitwear, a small bowler hat perched on her head, and long thin plaits that end in pom-poms? She’s a Cholita, and yes that is how they dress day-to-day. Allegedly, the position of the hat signals their relationship status to passers by: straight on means married, no chance- on the side of the head? Single, potentially ready to mingle. Perched on the back of the head? In a relationship, but it’s complicated…

If you really want to buy everything you could ever need, you should head up the mountain to the El Alto Sunday market. It’s said that if you have your phone stolen you’re likely to be able to find it in this market. The biggest market in Bolivia, you can find everything from cheese graters to car parts.

The more touristy, and probably best known market, is the so called ‘Witches Market’. There aren’t really potions sold here anymore, though there is a powder that is supposed to cure the difficulty men sometimes have er… rising… in the high altitude, as well as a ‘love potion’. The main curiosity for most are the dehydrated llama foetuses that hang ominously from stands along the winding street. These are an offering to ‘Pachamama’, the goddess worshipped by the indigenous Andean communities, a fertility goddess or ‘mother earth’.

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At night, there is a thriving live music scene in La Paz. I was fortunate to meet with Monica, who works in the La Paz office of the charity I had been working for before my trip, who was an incredible host, showing me the coolest local places to go out, and how to party like a Bolivian. La Costilla de Adan is the height of hipster-cool, a speakeasy bar in the bohemian area of Sopocachi (where I was staying in a great hostel called The Greenhouse). There is no obvious entrance to get in, so you have to know where it is, or be lucky enough to have friends to pull you through the un-assuming door… into a bar which is an oasis of antiques and nick-nacks from all over Bolivia including dolls, books, record players, old signs… everything you could ever find in a flea market. They sell wicked-cheap cocktails, too.

From here we went to see a gig at Equinoccio by the local band ‘Atajo’, which Monica described as ‘a Bolivian fusion group against hegemony and domination, its lyrics are questioning everything all the time, with great rhythm, like cumbia/reggae/blues/rock’. Always down for resisting hegemony, I was well up for it. The energy in the place was insane, so although I wasn’t able to understand a lot of the lyrics (though Monica tried to translate in breaks) it was an incredible night out, the band supposedly in their last ever show returning for encore after encore as the audience screamed for more. We even got a sweaty hug with the lead after.

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Politics, and resistance to it, is a strong theme in the city of La Paz. The clock on the government building has time seemingly going anti-clockwise… and why? As a mark of resistance against the historical dominant influence of the northern hemisphere over their country…  because the clock has evolved from the sundial, and while sundials in the northern hemisphere show shadows going one way… in the south, they go the other. It is a mark of resistance, and independence, and about returning to its Southern roots. And I can’t help but respect that.

Another form of subverting global dominant powers is that Bolivia refuses to have any McDonald’s restaurants…. one of the few places in the world! It seems, locals would rather buy their fried snack-goods, like their groceries, from local traders. And for that they have a huge piece of my heart.

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Though there have been protests in the last few years, President Morales seems on the whole to be respected in Bolivia. He has made huge progress in increasing education and prosperity in the country, and it seems that people love him for that. However, he is not free from controversy. Apart from staying in office a term longer than is customary… with no sign of moving anywhere in the future, he has had some wacky ideas. He apparently warned against eating chicken, because the hormones might make you gay… and Coca Cola, because it makes you bald… and was spotted in the same week eating chicken with Coca Cola. Go figure.

More seriously, though, in an effort to increase the low population of Bolivia, he suggested introducing a tax on condoms, to make them unaffordable to the average person. Needless to say the health minister stepped in highlighting why this would be a potentially catastrophic idea… thankfully it is still possible to buy condoms in Bolivia (though the brand name Masculan makes me chuckle).  I also heard tell on the street that Morales put forward a proposal to tax childless women, who weren’t pregnant, in order to try to solve the same problem. Women, naturally wanting to be treated as people, rather than reproductive machines, took to the streets to protest until he was forced to retreat on the issue.  However, Monica disputes these allegations, and says that the system now is rather to give tax breaks and benefits to women with children, in order to encourage motherhood.

One protest that can’t be disputed, however, was a huge uprising in support of our favourite yellow family, The Simspons. When The Simpsons was taken off the air in Bolivia and replaced with a reality TV show, thousands marched in the streets, some even dressed as the Simpsons themselves,  and as bottles of  Duff beer, to demand they returned to the television! And you know what- they were successful. Now The Simpsons shows in Bolivia three times a day. So who says political protest doesn’t work?

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It was an incredible, vibrant and varied first week in a new continent. In my next blog I will share my experience of the other side of Bolivia-  the wilds!

Love and peace,

Helen