I've unknowingly become an Asia addict! After spending six months backpacking south-east Asia I sufferred severe sunshine, banana lassi and motorcycle withdrawal. Determined to satisfy these cravings, I accepted a teaching job in Hong Kong. Living in the vertical city gave me all the sunshine I could want, as well as a serious fetish for singapore noodles, a love of hiking and a true appreciation for the 'work hard, play harder' philosophy. Two years on and I have trained, bussed and tuk-tukked around China, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka. Now I'm home with a whole new set of cravings (mostly for naan bread), hoping that writing will be therapeutic :)
# VisitedThailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Borneo, Indonesia, Hong Kong, The Phillipines,China, Nepal, India & Sri Lanka countries
Dream TripRio Carnival, Brazil
Travel Quote"You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose!"
Home CountryUnited Kingdom
Whilst in Madurai, a heaving, working, shouting city of blackish earth streets and slow-moving buffalo, we take a rickshaw to Meenakshi Amman Temple. The thirty minute drive lasts for an eternity, and I disembark with a dam of unshed tears. Cycling through the slums, weaving in and out of sloppy wet mud and through rivulets of brown sewage, swerving to avoid mounds of waste and trying not to scrape against corrugate hut walls or bump into clay shacks, shatters my thoughts into shards of painful glass that stab at my chest. The people of India, as Gregory David Roberts says, ‘know how to shout with their eyes.’
The huts lean against each other almost for support; wiggly, uneven and endless rows of miniature homes that share the same sheets of plastic, ripped apart sacks, coarse pieces of tarpaulin and crunchy edges palm leaves for their walls, floors and roofs. Some are box-shaped, others more like tents- triangular and tucked further back from the path. Everyone seems to be crouching, squatting or kneeling, washing in basins or grinding rice on stones. Ladies scrub at clothes in gutter puddles; men pick at bits of iron or fiddle with spokes and wheels and everywhere, from all corners of the slum village, children peek and smile out at us. They race to catch up with our rickshaw, sprinting in the mud as fast as their rubber soles will carry them and then screeching to a halt, extending a soft black hand or simply opening their faces with one ear-splitting grin.
“Hello! Hello! Namaste!” they shout. Their eyes gleam with excitement and they giggle hysterically when we shout our replies. The parents are less forthcoming, preferring to stay where they are rather than speed into our paths, but their smiles are every bit as jubilant and beautiful as their children’s. They wave at us sheepishly, snickering when we wave back and blinking with the sense of occasion. Some encourage their babies to wave too, prodding them forward and pulling them from behind doorframes to come into view.
When we burst into sunlight again, spiralling out of the slum valleys and back onto roads, traffic roars past us; cars, bikes rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, mopeds, motorbikes. The sound is deafening- a relentless attack of horns and bells and slamming brakes. The rickshaw drivers, barefoot and with calves ripping beneath taut brown skin as they carry the weight of the cart behind them, pedal furiously to keep up with the surging vehicles. We cross a bridge, zipping past line after line of sleeping bodies under loincloths. They are dry, at least. Cows eat their way through the growing, swollen piles of sewage on the roadside.
There comes a point in every backpacker’s trip when scouting out exciting new options just isn’t that exciting anymore. Scouring menus, blindly trying to decide on something that warrants losing those precious pennies from your travelling budget, only to be confronted with a small portion or an overly western attempt gone wrong- well, it just gets tiresome. Even worse is when your friend does make the right decision, leaving you to look longingly at their local and hearty meal while you want to throw yours across the table. Step in Asian Teahouse of Pokhara, Nepal.
I was addicted to this place. So much so that the thought of going off on our trek into the Himalaya for ten days, leaving the family to wonder why our usual table remained empty, worried me a little more than it should have. Having discovered this tiny side-street café on our first day in Pokhara, I had come to depend on its unfailing ability to always get it right. Tea is 40 rupees cheaper than anywhere else on Lakeside and served in giant mugs. As if that wasn’t impressive enough when compared to the usually tiny tin cups so common in Nepal, the mugs are an eclectic collection of cartoon characters, flags, colours, polka dots and Disney faces. Before long, you are being served a morning cuppa in ‘your favourite mug’ when you’re hundreds of miles from home. Amazing.
The masala chai is amazing. So amazing, in fact, that I genuinely stopped missing my Mum’s brews (sorry Mum). The breakfast options get even better. As a cereal and muesli fan, just seeing those options on the menu was enough to impress me. Being able to choose muesli with yoghurt, milk, honey or fruit was even better. When I was then asked if I would like the milk to be hot or cold, I almost fell off my chair. And, much like the tea, the portions are huge. The fruits are fresh and the milk is steaming, no, piping hot. Shiva, the owner of this wonderful establishment, does ‘tea-runs’ around Lakeside, delivering cups of chai to the multitudes of shopkeepers, tour guides, builders and taxi drivers all working hard in the heat of the day. His celebrity status does nothing to ease his workload and, along with his wife and children, he serves locals and tourists alike from 5am to 10pm.
When one day all three tables were full and we thought we might have to come back later, the family fell over themselves to fetch us stools from their own kitchen and asked a romantic looking French couple to shimmy up so we could sit down (awkward!) The wonderful, hospitable gene so inherent in all Nepali people simply shines through in the faces of the staff here. My only advice would be to catch the waiter early on if you fancy ordering something different one day- it is more than likely that Shiva will have begun making your usual before you have even sat down.
Like most countries, India’s north and south are worlds apart. While Delhi and Jaipur pedestal grand architecture and royal palaces, Kerala boasts that it is ‘God’s Own Country’. And it is as though God himself has picked this tiny part of the world for His own. The rice paddies, the tea plantations, the coconut groves, its backwaters, beaches, cliffs and the sunshine: Kerala really does have it all. And then, pinned to the chest of this southern state, there is Varkala.
It is our fifth consecutive day by the beach. The sun is hiding in its milky cloud sky and there is a powerful wind tormenting the waves. Irritable, foamy-white ocean meets sullen, sugar-white sky at the horizon. Opposite, at shore, water cascades onto itself again and again, over and over. Searocks and sandbags glimmer wet in the tired sun of the afternoon and palm trees lean back-breakingly close to the edge of the sea, the gale forcing them to bend, bend, bend until their leaves are almost dipping in the blue.
The lack of scorching sun and sticky air is annoying; I have come to look forward to baking in the beach heat and competitively tanning. The ache of lying too long on hard-packed sand, back muscles flat against the unshifting beach, is a small price to pay for having a tan in November. The lines of swimming heat between sunbathers and sea, the crimson ripple of skin, the salt of wet bodies, the sting of burnt lips; senses are set alight in Varkala. Seaweed smelling sarongs and damp board shorts merge with the almond scent of sun lotion. Warm water bottles waste in the sunlight, the air sucked out of them.
Later on, in the lemon infused hours of early evening, the tourists will emerge once more, reeking of apple soap, aloe vera and spiced shampoo. Those sense-filled, excited, delicious beach moments will belong to personal galleries of happy times, filed away and frequently sought out from the crevices of every memory. This afternoon, marooned on white plastic garden furniture at an ocean-side café, deafened by the raging Indian Sea and whipped by the untiring wind, belongs to such a gallery.
Two weeks later. Sitting cross-legged on Helipad Beach, metres from the toddler-tumbling sea, we watch the giant ball of burnt sun streak its way through turquoise sky. The clouds turn from cotton white to a colour so beautiful that even the lonely dogs lift their faces to the horizon. Shades of rose, tangerine, crimson, peach, apricot and coral leak into one another, staining the dusk. The space above, peacock blue, matches the rippling waves below, making it appear as though a paintbrush has just been dragged through the heavens.
There are no lines in this Varkala; no edges or boundaries or fences or roads. Just colours bumping into colours, sea giving way to sand, cliffs into beach and day into night. White hermit crabs scuttle silently in their thousands, moving tiny grains of sand while no-one is looking. And, just for those rosy minutes, honey-trapped in the moonset, India is still. The beach is the sky and the sun is the star; we toast God’s Own Country with a Kingfisher beer.
Having overstayed the expected three days in sleepy Sahura village, the locals had begun to suss our familiar faces. Word had gone round that we were long termers. Shopkeepers smiled. Stray dogs wagged their tails. Even persistent tour guides had given up trying to entice us with jungle trek packages. For rather than resting at one of the tourist lodges and getting up at sunrise to spy tigers and rhinos, our mornings were spent playing with the children from OCWC- the Orphan Children Welfare Centre.
There are thirteen children altogether. They scramble. They climb. They kiss. They hug. They squeeze, tug, shout, pull, skip, giggle, tickle and run. Now, I am the oldest of five very boisterous siblings. I babysat an equally boisterous little boy and his clingy baby sister for six years. I had just finished a fifteen month teaching contract, including kindergarten classes. Nothing could have prepared me for the relentless energy of these Nepali children. We swung them round, juggling two, three children on an arm. I remembered ‘a leg and a wing, to see the king’ and spent hours bouncing them into the air and onto the grass. We chased the boys, blew kisses to the girls, caught kisses from all of them and danced on request. Nothing was ever enough, and introducing ball games opened a whole new can of worms!
Jyoti. Jaya. Jyomi. Babita. Sangita. Sanju. Kamari. Nabina. Jeet. Samir. Bimala. Susma. Salina. Thirteen children, one bedroom and four beds. Four stone walls and a stone floor, with one ABC poster hanging from the door. Down the corridor they also have a kitchen, and nineteen year old Jyoti spends day after day preparing roti and dhal bhat for the family. Mousas scurry about in the rice barrels and cockroaches swarm from behind the sink whenever it is time to watch the dishes. Jyoti can operate a rolling pin like no-one else I know. One hand smooths perfect chappatis while the other stirs masala chai in the pot, and always she talks. Her voice cracks with worry about when she might find a husband. I told her, in a firm voice, that not only is she beautiful but she makes the best bread I have ever tasted. Any man will be lucky to have her.
Three years her junior, Jyomi is better at maths than cooking. Too old for the ball games outside, she spends her mornings bent over text books because she is in her final year of high school; exams are fast approaching. She can’t make the extra revision classes because they are before school hours and she can’t ride a bicycle. No buses run early enough past the orphanage to get her there on time. A Japanese tourist pays for her to attend state school but these pre-paid fees expire in March 2013. Without another sponsor, Jyomi won’t be able to attend college. The house mother says she will join Jyoti- mother figure to twelve and distributor of daily rice onto tin plates. With sponsorship though, she’ll be able to study Economics at a college in Naranghat.
Babita knows the moves to every Bollywood dance routine there is. Sangita is top of her class in every subject and last night learned how to play chess. Sanju is trying to learn a new English word every day. Samir is very quiet. He gets the most impatient if we are ever too hot or tired to play ball and will often sleep in the day, face to the wall. Jeet is beautiful. All hollowed out cheeks and dark, in-set eyes, he laughs more than he talks. Bimala is just about the clingiest child I have ever met. She lolls, lounges and leans, pushes, pulls and pinches. Nabina is the tiniest and most tomboy like six year old I have ever known – her legs like matchsticks under her over-sized and bottle green school skirt. She is my guilty favourite. Kamari, at thirteen, is silent and sad. She sits cross-legged on the carpet with the other children but to be a teenager in this stone room must be so, so hard. Susma is two years old and breath-takingly, lump-in-your-throat, heart-stoppingly adorable. Jaya is eighteen and learning guitar. He wants to be a tour guide, a waiter, a rickshaw driver, everything. Salina reminds me of my teenage sister back at home. She calls us ‘beautiful darlings’ and asks to borrow lipstick.
Living with this family was harder than I ever imagined. The conditions are dire and, as a result, the smells are pretty awful too. Perched right on the very edge of Chitwan National Park, Sahura village is intolerably hot. The humidity can get so bad that walking feels like wading through soup and breathing means swallowing warm, stale air. You sweat just sitting still. Rats, mice, cockroaches and ants split their time equally between the bedroom and the shared kitchen. The children all have headlice, the two boys have scabies and all of them suffer terribly from skin infections. At 7pm, when the power cuts out, the orphanage and the village around it are plunged into pitch black darkness. Usually, the water runs out simultaneously. Going to bed by candlelight, blind to any lurking rodents and reeking of not just my own, but fifteen other people’s sweat, demands a good sense of humour and a lot of perspective. As does eating the rice, after we have just fished out the resident rat from the barrel!
Backpacking anywhere, and particularly around Asia, does of course give you a pretty thick skin. Cockroach hunting and knee-sweats are all part of the fun and waking up to views of the Himalaya certainly make it more than worth it in Nepal. What we were not prepared for was having all of our stereotypes about orphans confirmed on day one. The children really do have nothing but the clothes they stand up in. Those clothes really are patched together with bits of other material. They really do sleep on soiled, filthy bed sheets and there really isn’t any running water or electricity for most of the day. Coming face to face with that situation is something I will never forget. Getting to know each wonderful, ball-of-energy, giggling child was equally unforgettable. Putting them onto the school bus and being there when they got home, asking about their day and playing with them until dark filled me with a sense of something I’d never felt before. As clichéd as it sounds, volunteering really did teach me more than I could ever teach them. For, no matter how dirty her uniform is, Jyomi gets up and goes to school. No matter how long it has been since baby Susma was even acknowledged, she greets everyone with a smile. However hormonal Jyoti is feeling, she still gets up at 5.30am and makes thirteen people breakfast in a dark kitchen. Being a part of their life, if only for a short while, was truly humbling.
Taking the teenagers cycling, learning how to cook Nepali style, weeding the garden with the little ones, chasing the chickens outside, introducing toothbrushes, riding atop a local bus to go food shopping, carrying kilos of rice on the back of broken bikes....every single day was an adventure. The children howled with laughter everytime an elephant strolled past their window and, still not quite used to them, we ran outside to stare and snap yet more amazing photographs of their apparently ‘‘so boring’’ village. Kicking the very muddy ball at each other was a favourite game of Jeet and Nabina’s and, more than once, I was reminded of my own family back in the UK and the little annoying things about them I missed. It was no coincidence that living at OCWC filled us with thoughts of loved ones. Looking after one another is what these children do best...even when it does mean Jaya pedalling 100mph on his bike with Samir on the back, just to make him laugh after a lost game of football!
On our last night in Chitwan, the children regaled us with crayon drawings and cards and decorated the whole orphanage in leftover Christmas tinsel. Babita showcased her very best Bollywood moves and the whole family partied together to the beat of Hindi soundtracks. We danced like I’d never danced before and went to bed that night sweatier and smellier than ever. Waving goodbye to them the next morning was one of the saddest moments of my life. Telling Jyomi that we’ve raised enough money to send her to college will, I’m sure, be one of the happiest.