Central America, South America, Travel

Daily struggles for the mid-late twenties traveller

The mid to late twenties is a weird and frankly terrifying time in life. You’re young enough that you still feel like you don’t really know what you’re doing, yet old enough that everyone assumes you do, and everyone around you also seems to have everything sorted. Everyone I know seems to be flying in their careers, buying houses, and getting sodding well engaged. Fucking happy arseholes.

I’m so not ready for any of that. It’s part of why, when I had a steady job, a lovely boyfriend, and was living in a nice, comfortable town, I freaked out and buggered off to Latin America. I want to overhaul my career. I want to see the world. I’m too scared to settle in case I miss the chance to do all the things I do in my head when I can’t sleep at night.

I feel like this is the case for a lot of people who travel in their mid to late twenties. It’s an awesome time to go in many ways- you’re still young enough to have the freedom to travel solo, but old enough that you have probably worked for a few years and have a bit more money, and frankly, are  more savvy and less of an idiot than you were at 18. I wanted to travel at 18 and I now thank God that I didn’t because I know I would have got lost or scammed on day one.

But travelling in your mid to late twenties also puts you in an odd position as a backpacker, between the two extremes of traveller you seem to meet everywhere. One are the super-young, just-left-college 18 year old gap-yah-ers. The other are the older, unbearably lovely and civilised and yet slightly dull couples*. The former seem to want to get trashed all the time, the latter just can’t wait to check out that incredible exhibit in the museum they read about in Lonely Planet, or that ruin, or castle.

I want to do a bit of both. And I feel a bit out of place in both worlds.  Here are some conflicts I’ve experienced s as a traveller in the over 25 bracket:

  1. You want to look great in your group facebook photos, but all your clothes are from Millets.

How are all the young girls bopping around in hot pants? South America is actually not that warm. Sensible layers, people. Zip-offs. Quick dry. Oh god, I look like my mother.

  1. I want to get drunk but I also want to visit the museum tomorrow.

I would smash back the cuba libres, but there’s that really interesting inka exhibition which I will never see again otherwise…. Priorities.

  1. The couples judge you like you’re some sad spinster Bridget Jones character for having more than one drink with dinner, but you can’t drink a litre of vodka with the kids in the hostel either.

Everyone else seems to bounce out of bed after being back from the club for two hours and throw themselves straight into rock climbing. Now after a night out I need at least two days of moaning in bed with my hands over my eyes to recover.

  1. Your need to B/S knowledge out of your own experience is off the radar.

In the morning with your old friends, you have to pretend to know about ancient Amyran civilisations. By night with the youngsters, you have to pretend to know what ‘taking a key’ means. Yeahhh. Totally. My favourite to both.

  1. You are intrigued to experiment with er… keys… but you also really miss fresh organic vegetables.

It doesn’t harm you long term if you eat plenty of kale, right? God I miss healthy eating.

  1. On that note, you thought you were too good for instant noodles now, but your budget says otherwise.

I really thought I’d never eat these things again. Now they make up 40% of my diet.

7. When you get flirted with by a totally hot hombre and then find out he’s only 20. Yuk!
That’s younger than my brother.

8. You’re so perpetually exhausted anyway that you’re more interested in forming a relationship with the hostel cat than having to deal with anyone trying to fiddle with your stuff.

(And at least he cuddles you after).

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Part of me wishes I could admit my impending old-hood and just kick back and settle into it. But given my teetering career trajectory and perpetual broke-ness I guess I’ll be clinging on to the hostel life a little longer…

*Sophie and Jim this does not apply to you! ❤

South America, Travel

Cool as Colombia: a country in rebirth

What do most people think of when they think of Colombia? Cocaine, Pablo Escobar, gangs, civil war, fiery women with boob jobs…. Most likely. Throw away all your stereotypes and misconceptions about Colombia (well actually the last one is partially true)- but Colombia really has undergone a remarkable change in the last years and, particularly since the signing of the peace agreement has become THE up and coming place to travel- so you’d better get there while enough people are still scared of it before it becomes the next over-sold tourist trap. While my family at home worried about Colombia, everyone I met travelling since I arrived in Bolivia had done nothing but rave about it- so what is it about Colombia?

Colombia has an insane, irresistible and infectious energy. It emanates from the people, who are, without a doubt, the warmest, most excitable, passionate and positive people I have ever met in my life. I don’t believe there is a single shy Colombian. Considering everything the country has gone through in the last decades, they are just so positive minded, and excited to see you, and welcome you, as a gringo, because as more than one of them told me, our presence there is a real mark of how much the safety situation has changed for the better since the dark years in the past.It is also incredibly beautiful, has several waves of fascinating history to unearth, phenomenal landscapes and very cool, modern and metropolitan cities.

4I arrived in Cali, the city of salsa! To be honest, there isn’t much to do here except go out and dance salsa, which the locals seem to do every night of the week until five in the morning. Colombian men seem to be constitutionally incapable of seeing a woman not dancing for more than about four seconds before addressing the outrage and hauling you to the floor, however much your stiff and awkward British limbs protest. I am convinced that Colombians must just have more joints than we do because with however much enthusiasm I try I cannot for the love of God imitate their swirling, shimmying grace- or keep up with the tempo!DSCN8900.JPG

 

From Cali I went to Salento, which may be my favourite place in Colombia, it is so breathtakingly beautiful. People come here for two things: hiking and coffee. The mystical ‘Valle de Cocoras’ is a cloud forest with deep,  beautiful sloping landscapes shadowed by wax palm trees. These are not any old palm trees, but skyscrapers reaching between 45 and 60m high. I’ve never seen a view like it. To get there from the town you hitch a lift on a car called a ‘Willy’ (yes, seriously, queue a day of willy-based jokes) which they cram with more people than you think should physically fit in one vehicle- we ended up standing on a small ledge on the back of the truck, desperately clinging on to the roof bars as we were flung around corners and went flying over bumps on the off-road track. The other thing here to do is visit the coffee plantations and see how it’s grown- which I didn’t have time for- but I can verify that, as a Brit that generally prefers tea, the coffee here is delicious.

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Medellin. I liked it so much I seriously looked into the feasibilities of living there. Everything here is brilliant. The vibe is bursting with friendliness and warmth. The climate is perfect- hot but not too hot, and cool at night. It’s seriously modern- you can easily live here with all the luxuries of a developed country. There is street art everywhere, music pumping from every corner at all hours of the day and night, loads of veggie and hipstery restaurants, cafes, and bars, and, if you’re going to be the tourist, the best walking tours I have ever done. They also have a wicked nightlife.

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If you like street art, definitely visit Communa 13- a formerly notorious and dangerous barrio which, like the rest of the city, has undergone a drastic transformation in the last few years. Modern escalators carry you up the sheer hill where you can wonder around the colourful narrow winding streets in which every surface is covered in street art. Every piece tells a story.

It’s hard to choose favourites, but I particularly liked this one- which the artist told us represents the diversity of the Colombian people, and the regenerative energy of a city in transition.

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This one represents the sadness of the community’s past on the gloomy and grey right, the throwing of dice the actions of the government that gamble with the people’s lives, and the left, the colour and life that has flourished since Medellin has come into its own and become a safe and flourishing city.

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Cartagena is a city of contrasts between old and new: the historic old town is like walking back into the colonial past, with it’s colourful winding streets, little houses with pretty verandas, and looked over by the castle which has a fascinating history of battles, sieges, leprosy, and pirates.

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But from here you can look over the modern metropolis that has replaced the Cartagena of the past: skyscrapers dominate the landscape, along with modern shopping malls.

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The only thing I didn’t really like about Colombia was the men. It’s a shame but their attitude kind of spoilt the overall amazing atmosphere. When you are travelling alone as a solo blonde chica in Latin America you tend to attract a bit of unwarranted attention, and though harassment in general has pretty bad in most of the countries I’ve been through, it was nothing on Colombia. I’ve never been pestered, catcalled, followed, sniffed (!) or made to feel as uncomfortable anywhere in all my exploring (even in India). I didn’t feel safe walking alone at night- and in one walk to the supermarket in the early evening (ten minutes each way) I was catcalled no less than THIRTY SIX times (I started counting when I became seriously fucked off after about three minutes of this happening). Usually I overlook this kind of thing but there is a turning point where it goes from being pathetic and contemptible to- as much as I hate to admit it- actually a bit intimidating just existing and walking around as a woman. And that isn’t cool.

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On the whole though, Colombia felt safe, full of life, and is amazingly cheap to travel in, and I would go back to it and recommend it in a heartbeat. No doubt there are still remnants of the past around (if you get a long distance public bus expect it to be stopped while police search everyone’s belongings at least once). A lot of people are happy about the peace agreement, a lot of people still believe there should have been harsher punishment of those who were responsible for so much death (depending where in the country you are and the extent to which people were personally terrorised  by it). However, on the whole, even those who disagreed with it said how much safer- and happier- they feel now compared to ten years ago, and are looking forward at last to a flourishing Colombia. And everywhere I went they had the same message- tell your friends to come and visit us too! So what are you waiting for?

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

Crazy for Kerala: a friend’s wedding, and a love letter to India

India blew my world apart in 2015. It was the first place I ever travelled to outside of Europe, and that trip, taken at a time when for various reasons I was feeling depressed, anxious, and insecure, was the best decision I ever made. It was the happiest I had ever been; seeing new crazy things every day, being constantly challenged, and surprised, and amused, and awed in turn- by the people, the culture, the landscape, the food. It made my world bigger, as well as my understanding of what is possible from life.  It is thanks to that trip that I decided I had to change the rest of my life in a way which would incorporate seeing as much of the world as I possible. I had found a reason to live fully and finally understand what that means; and that it doesn’t come from textbooks, grades, job security, or sometimes even relationships.

For this reason it is a country that holds a very special place in my heart; I love the generous natured people, I  love their literature (which was the basis of my Masters dissertation), and of course I love their  food. I always hoped to go back for a longer term trip next time, but when I was lucky enough to be invited for my friend Deepak’s wedding in Kerala shortly before my trip to Latin America I was desperate to go. Last time I had spent three weeks travelling in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, and here was the chance to see the other end of the country. And my god, I knew India is diverse, but it’s a different planet.

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Driving through Kerala is a lush panorama of green on all sides; palm trees, coconut trees, banana trees, jackfruit trees…. And endless expanses of water- the sea, lagoons, and rivers.  It couldn’t be more different to the harsh desert landscape in Rajasthan, where water scarcity is a serious issue for the people and is often rationed.

After being welcomed by Deepak’s family, we spent the first three days having some much needed rest and relaxation on Cherai beach, which, even when overcast, was a hot and beautiful expanse of sand and palm trees. We stayed in a beach hut on stilts a few steps from the sand. It seemed there were no foreigners around. (This proved to not be true- if you follow the only sign for ‘cold beer’ in the town- there you will find them- all huddled in one bar with an amazing sea view). We had fresh, hot, deep fried chillies, served everywhere on the beach- especially delicious if you get them straight out of the fryer. It was hard to tear ourselves away to go back to the hot city of Cochi, but the promise of an epic Indian wedding was a pretty good incentive.

We had a pre-wedding dinner with Deepak’s lovely family, then the next day had an 8 hour bus ride to the bride (Nida)’s home town. Hari, Deepak’s Dad, told us the pre-wedding dinner was just a ‘small family gathering’ and ‘no need to dress up’. Thank god we decided to anyway.

As the bus drove on to the island (!) on which Nida’s family live, we heard drumming and saw out of the window a huge marquee, and a procession to announce that the groom had arrived. We walked down a path behind it and the drummers moved into the marquee (really not adequate to describe the size of it) lit up in purple like a disco. There were speeches, a cake cutting… Nida looked stunning. An incredible array of food; veggie down one side, meat and fish another, a separate dosa counter… and dance and song tributes to the couple all night. I guess there were a couple of thousand people at this ‘small family gathering’…

The next morning the women of our group got roped (quite literally) into our sarees until we could barely breathe or walk- seriously! Thank god they looked good because they are not comfortable or practical to wear.

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The stage had been reset overnight in gold for the wedding, with a pillared gold canopy in the centre framed by two smaller ones, and real roses woven into the framework. Somehow, us  bunch of ten foreigners that made up Deepak’s friends, were allowed seats in the front row to witness the ceremony.

The bridesmaids (I assume?) began the procession, in a colourful array of sarees, carrying fans with incense billowing from the centre. There was a parade down to collect the groom. Deepak sat on the stage, looking nervous but excited.  Then they collected Nida, who , if possible, seemed to be wearing more gold than the stage, her hair and makeup immaculate.

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The ceremony was very much  about the coming together of two families, and both appeared with the bride and groom on the stage. I didn’t quite  understand all the ins and outs but will try to describe them. The Hindu priest, a tiny, hairy man wearing a dhoti blessed the families, Nida and her father binding hands.  Deepak led Nida around a circle in the centre of the stage three times, and then they exchanged garlands (the equivalent of rings). The groom’s sister, the lovely Divya, was to fasten the necklace around Nida’s neck that made her officially a part of their family. They were married. Then just a casual three hours of photos, while the rest of us went for lunch.

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Lunch was a huge array of vegetarian curry, pickles, rice, popodoms, and three puddings, on a banana leaf. How do you cook for 5000 people? See below!

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After the craziness of the wedding we had a day out to explore the famously beautiful Keralan backwaters.  We spent a blissful morning on a larger ‘houseboat’, watching life on the river drift by. After stopping for lunch, the afternoon was then spent in smaller ‘dugout’ canoes, which took us through narrower rivulets, past children playing in the cool water, people washing clothes, beautiful birds, and even a river snake.DSCN1587.JPG

The following day was the after party- in which Deepak and Nida were fashionably late, their presence announced  by a stream of fireworks down the central aisle as they were lead by a troupe of dancers to the stage. Again, the whole of both families were welcomed to the stage, with what I can only assume was some banterous rhetoric about each person- though a friend tried to translate from the Malayalam, we got odd words displayed on a screen for us foreigners- like ‘cauliflower’ and ‘selfie’. I tried to keep up.

After we had said goodbye to the bride and groom, a small group of us went on to Munnar, the most beautiful place  on earth. All you can see for miles around are glimmering emerald mountains, covered in tea plants. Shrouded in clouds (literally, try taking a tuk-tuk back at night and you’ll be swamped in them), it’s like walking into a mystical fairy tale.

We took a jeep at the crack of dawn to try to see the sunrise over Kolukkumalai, the world’s highest tea plantation. Unfortunately due to Indian sense of timing, and our friend Will holding us up  for 15 minutes having a dump, we actually missed it. The jeep ride was insane- ‘off road’ doesn’t really cover it, and we all came out quite bruised.  However, the photos prove it was worth the views.

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If you come to Kerala you must not miss the Kathakali shows. This is a form of traditional dance enacting parts of the Ramayana-  an ancient Hindu epic poem. The pictures show the incredible costumes- I wouldn’t want to spoil the plot but it seemed to involve jealousy, violence, divine intervention, and eating intestines and rubbing them in people’s hair… yup.

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This was followed by a traditional martial arts demonstration which was out of this world! Seeming superheroes performed battles so fast and insane our eyes couldn’t keep up… leaped through fire, and jumped over about eight audience members.

I will never forget the incredible two weeks I spent in Kerala and all the things we saw, but most of all I am grateful to have come to know Deepak’s family, who made the whole experience so much richer. I have never met more genuine and giving people- so thank you to Bindu and Hari, Divya and Ajith, Joby and Neeraj, and the many more who made us feel a part of your family. We friends from England will always make sure that Deepak has a family in our home, too, and that your new daughter and sister Nida will be welcomed in the same way.

Love and Peace,

Helen