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 :)
I have never understood how anyone can like January. The sad, sinking feeling caused by limp, leftover tinsel hanging in shops, braving the dreary weather without any promise of a mulled wine stop, realising that everyone you know has vowed to lose weight, save money or quit drinking- it is a real slog of a 31 day month. For me, the January Blues are hitting particularly hard this year (can you tell?) Having spent Christmas on holiday in India, flying back to reality on New Years Day has left me longing for backpacking adventures again. So, before I get a grip, look forward and make plans for 2014, here are my top 10 beautiful places in Asia, home to my happiest past travel memories.
10. Tiger Leaping Gorge, China
By far and away the best thing I did whilst traveling around China, The Tiger Leaping Gorge hike in northern Yunnan is, in my opinion, still massively underrated. The Hutiao Xia gorge, at 16km long and 3900m from the Jinsha River to the snow capped Haba Shan, is simply breathtaking. During summer the hills are absolutely teeming with plant and flower life and an even pace allows you to unwind in the picturesque villages along the way. The trail stretches between sleepy Qiaotou and even sleepier Walnut Garden and runs high along the northern side of the impressive gorge, passing through some of the most diverse and beautiful landscapes in the country.
Jane’s Guesthouse in Qiaotou is the perfect place to prepare or recover from the trek. The food is homemade and hearty, the coffee is strong and the rooms are cosy with clear views of the snow-capped peaks. At the other end, Sean’s Spring Guesthouse is worth every footstep of the extra walk into Walnut Garden. Keep following the painted yellow arrows- you will not regret it! We finished our trek with warm Tibetan bread, celebratory beers and an open fire in Sean’s homey lounge.
The hike can be completed in a day or two, but it is equally tempting to linger and enjoy countryside life for longer. After all, how often do you get to watch the sun set over Jade Dragon Snow Mountain while supping Chinese tea and resting your tired feet?
9. Gili Islands, Indonesia
There is a lot to be said for an island with no motorized traffic. Being able to stroll around the parameters, barefoot and still sandy from the beach, having left your friends snoozing on one of the shoreline sofa beds, is reason enough to make the trip across the water from Padang bai. Though they are certainly not undiscovered, the three irresistible Gili islands offer a quiet and serenity that the rest of Bali simply does not.
Made up of beachfront bungalows, white sands and warm waters, Gili Trawangan is the isle with the most going on. Like many of the Indonesian hotspots, it ticks all the boxes for a desert island cliché and also boasts an exciting nightlife for those living-the-dream on the South east Asia trail. Designated party venues mean you can choose between a night at one of the low-key raves or whiling away the hours at a beachfront restaurant. Highlights for me were the Nutella milkshakes, having our very own DVD night in a private beach hut, dancing under the stars at Rudy’s Bar and night swimming with phosphorescence- luminous plankton.
You can reach the tiny tropical islands by fast boat from Bali and mainland Lombok or (painfully) slow ferry from Padang bai and Senggigi. Prepare to wade ashore.
8. Malapascua Island, The Philippines
This little island off the northern tip of Cebu is sun-bleached and fabulous. Simple villages, bustling basketball courts and local fiestas play a huge part in making this tiny speck of The Philippines a traveler’s paradise. Though it is slowly becoming more and more popular, Malapascua remains off the beaten track and humble in its approach to tourism. Home to welcoming locals and some dive school expatriates, the island community is peaceful and charming with a real sense of having left the western world behind.
The diving here is also world class. With three wreck dives, a sea-snake breeding centre and daily thresher shark sightings, Malapascua is one of the best places in The Philippines for big fish encounters. Night diving is popular, with mandarin fish, seahorses, bobtail squid and blue ring octopus making regular appearances. And if marine life isn’t your thing, the delicious local food, mesmerizing sunsets and picture-perfect Bounty beach make for a blissful dry land experience.
Sunsplash Restaurant operates a beach bar during high season and is the perfect place to wait for the sunset. For the very best views and an extra slice of quietude, stay at Logon or Tepanee.
7. Mui Ne, Vietnam
For someone with a notoriously terrible sense of direction, the surf capital of southern Vietnam offers a welcome sense of order. With everything spread out along one 10km stretch of highway, it is impossible to get lost and easy to find friends. In fact, with guesthouses lined up on one side of the road and restaurants and shops flanking the other it couldn’t be any easier to negotiate your way around the coastal town.
Once an isolated stretch of sand, Mui Ne is now famous for its unrivalled surfing opportunities and laid back vibes. For windsurfers, the gales blow best from late October to April while surf’s up from August to December. Luckily for me, lounging around on the beach is possible all year through. For the very best Kodak moments, the red and white sand dunes provide endless hours of sledding fun and jump-as-high-as-you-can competitions with the local children. A beautiful walk along the Fairy Spring will also take you past some stunning rock formations. While it feels as though you should be wading upstream barefoot, be sure to take shoes if you are going during the midday sun.
When night falls, resident DJs, beach bonfires and live bands draw the surfer crowds to DJ Station, Wax and Joe’s 24 hour Café, where happy hour can and usually does last til sunrise.
6. Unawatuna, Sri Lanka
Unawatuna Beach in Sri Lanka is what I hope heaven looks like. Deliciously lazy, exceedingly tropical and just so very, very beautiful, this sandy gem is the kind of place everyone dreams about. Life moves slowly here. Sleeping under a swaying coconut palm is about the only thing on the itinerary for most.
Following the devastating effects of the tsunami in 2004, locals of Unawatuna set about re-building their businesses right on the sand. While this does mean that the beach is much smaller than it used to be, honey-mooners and hippies alike flock to this boomerang shaped bend to soak up the Sri Lankan sunshine. And it really doesn’t get much better than this. The sea is gentle, turquoise and perfect for swimming and banana lassis are brought to your very sunbed. Colourful tropical fish swim in the live patch of coral in front of Submarine Diving School and you can rent snorkel masks from any of the places on the beach. I discovered a whole new meaning of lazy in Unawatuna but, if you want to leave utter beach paradise, it is a great base from which to explore the surrounding areas.
(This one does come with a warning. A cockroach warning. It is not enough to get Unawatuna booted off the list, but please note that multiple hard-shelled creepies do feature in my memories of this otherwise utterly perfect corner of the resplendent isle. Having said that, I did choose to stay somewhat off the beaten track at Mr.Rickshaw’s brother’s cousin’s place. It is very likely that the crayon-box cute guesthouses on the beach are roach free.)
5. Yangshuo, China
For the perfect blend of bustling Chinese culture, enchanted landscapes and sleepy relaxation, look no further than this sedate and peaceful ancient city. Worlds apart from the mayhem of congested Guilin, Yangshuo lies in the mist of karst limestone peaks and the gentle Li-river. Cycling through the villages will take you past duckmen, fishermen, water buffalo and clementine farms, as well as over silky brooks, ancient caves and sights like Moon Hill and the Big Banyan Tree. And when you’re done with the countryside, get lost amongst the painted fans and embroidered costumes of Yangshuo Town and its cheery market place.
I stayed at beautiful Dutch guesthouse, The Giggling Tree in Aishanmen Village. Bamboo rafting was on our doorstep and they arranged transport to the Lakeside lightshow, ‘Impression Sanjie Liu’. Cycling into town for street side specialties, souvenir shopping and live folk music was easy enough, although the starlit ride back after a few Tsing Tao’s was a little shaky!
4. Luang Prabang, Laos
You can’t help but smile when you are in Laos. The people here are possibly the most laid back people on earth. Even after two long, long days of doing nothing on the slow ferry, arriving into the languid mountain kingdom of Luang Prabang makes you want to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. Tourists meander down the French colonial streets to the flow of the Mekong River and saffron robed monks seem to almost glide up and down the shaded sideways on their way to prayer.
Voted one of the best places in the world for ‘slow travel’ by Lonely Planet, this hushed and heady city offers everything from red roofed temples to quaint provincial coffee houses, the moonstone blue Kuang Sii waterfalls and exquisite night markets. You can watch the sun setting over the river, hear the monks chanting their oms in the distance and enjoy delicious local dishes with a cold Beer Lao. With a curfew bidding this heritage listed town goodnight at 11.30pm, catching up on your sleep has never been so enjoyable, especially if you are recovering from tubing in Vang Vieng. (For a much less sleepy evening, ask a tuk-tuk driver to take you to the local bowling alley. Trust me on this one.)
3. Mira Beach, Perhentian Pulau Kecil, Malaysia
When I discovered that Beach Tomato had included Mira Beach as one of its ‘world’s most beautiful beaches’ I physically stood up and clapped. I almost don’t want to say it aloud for fear of contributing to this unspoilt patch of paradise becoming, well, spoiled, but I couldn’t agree more. Set back on the western side of tiny Kecil island, Mira Beach is its very own secluded cove. Surrounded by forest-green jungle, lapped by bathtub warm sea and drenched in Malaysian sunshine, the white bay can be reached by taxi-boat or Tarzan inspired trek only. Steer clear if you’re looking for plush resort or summer luxury though, the stilted chalets are as basic as they come. Managed by a local Malay family, the collection of rustic huts are kept clean and framed by frangipanis for ultimate postcard perfection. We left by water-taxi, tanned and having swum with turtles. Heaven.
2. Pokhara Valley, Nepal
Whether you are in Nepal for trekking the Himalayas, volunteering with an NGO or spotting the rhinos and elephants, a visit is not complete without catching a glimpse of (or a good long gaze at) Lake Phewa in Pokhara. Popular for being the gateway to the AnnaPurna trekking circuit, the valley has been blessed with panoramic views of this breathtaking region. Waking up to crystal clear views of snowy Mt. Fishtail, boating on Phewa’s placid waters and hiking to the sunkissed World Peace Pagoda could not have made me any happier. Throw in the cups of masala chai at Asian Teahouse, the surrounding Tibetan villages and the unimaginable hospitality of the local people and I was about ready to miss my return flight home.
Guesthouses are homely, food is hearty and the scenery really is spectacular. Pokhara is so much more than just a place to rest your feet after a hike. A month here saw us paragliding from Sarangkot, exploring the Old Bazaar, playing guitar in an underground Blues bar and falling in love with the children of the Himalayan Children’s Care Home. Don’t miss out on the Nepali specials at Asian TeaHouse and Pandey Restaurant. For me, the smaller the café, the better the food. Venture away from those Lakeside favourites!
((Drum Roll please...))
1. Varkala, India
If Varkala were a fairytale, it would be the one that made you believe in love, trust in the happy ending and doodle hearts and flowers in your notebook.
Nestled in the evergreen state of beautiful Kerala, this seaside town offers sunlit red ochre cliffs, coconut palm fringed beaches and peacock blue waves. The liquid lulls of local Malayalam, coconut spiced South Indian curries and breathtaking views of the ocean make it the perfect haven from the hustle and bustle of India’s cities. After ten days here, I wondered how I’d ever been happy anywhere else in the world.
From the singing mango-seller on the sand ‘yum, yum, yum, yum, eating eating’, to the cheeky waiters at the cafes, the locals on the cliff have got it exactly right. You could while away days, weeks and months watching the lives and loves of fishermen, frisbee-playing locals, moonlit yoga classes, Hindu temple men and strolling backpackers. Guesthouses are secret gardens and bamboo huts, restaurants are candle lit and family run and the Tibetan market wafts incense until after dark. Yet, far from being just a serene stopover, Varkala boats a ‘Shanti Shanti’ soul and cheeky community spirit that binds even the quietest visitor under its spell. By night, lanterns twinkle, candles flicker and stars burn bright over the backpacker favourites. I never knew beer could taste as good as it does here; poured from a discrete tea-pot, served with a glinting smile and supped to the blissful sounds of ocean, music and laughter.
If you tire of strolling, swimming, sunbathing or smoothie-drinking easily, the charming Varkala Town is just a 5 minute scooter ride or leisurely walk away. Surfing lessons, yoga classes and cooking workshops are all available atop the rosy cliff too. For dolphin watching, walk past the quieter Black Beach to the hamlet of Edava and watch from the cliff curve.
My heartfelt recommendations for Varkala are breakfast at The Juice Shack, hammock swinging at Secret Garden Homestay and Restaurant and cold Kingfishers at Backside Café. If you’re lucky enough to be there when the Alleppy Boys are playing, get down to Chill Out Lounge for a jamming session with the gorgeous and very talented local band.
There are daily trains and buses to Trivandrum, and a backwater boat to Alleppy leaves from neighboring Kollam.
Happy Traveling in 2014!
After vowing that we would be on full alert, all systems go, eyes peeled and ears cocked, money changed, visas opened and as on guard and vigilant as we could possibly appear- Delhi airport was nowhere near as scary, hectic or confusing as we were incessantly warned it would be. In fact, it was one of the calmest, most relaxed and organised arrivals hall of our whole trip.
Our first impression of India had caught us completely off guard. So many people had made cutting comments, taken sharp intakes of breath and mumbled something about us ‘ being in for a shock’ that I had truly come to believe that we were. ..and not in a good way. One particularly pompous character had even chatted to us about the backpacker suicide rate in India over breakfast, tutting at our laughter and warning us of the dangers of being ‘naive’ to its evils. We did dare to think that, having just spent 2 months in neighbouring Nepal, we might not find it as difficult, but even that was beginning to ring hollow. Frightened that it may actually be as scary as people kept arguing, we had even booked our first night’s accommodation in Delhi. We.were.prepared.
‘Really? You like to live there?’
Approximately one hour later and we were sat in the foyer of our Karol Bagh hostel, drinking a Tiger beer and trying to persuade our new friend Arrun that Birmingham is not the most boring city in the UK. ‘It is just so quiet. So boring. I missed Delhi after like, one day.’ I smiled into my glass.
Our Bangalore born taxi driver had been hilarious, regaling us with tales of uber- famous tourists he had driven and refusing to believe that we were not upset about being unmarried 24 year olds. He’d phoned the hostel to let them know we were en route and practically planned our India itinerary for us. With an aunty in almost every city, and a family reputation for the best chai in town, he seemed like a good guy to have picked for our very first encounter with the local people of India’s capital. The hostel owner refused to let us pay for our taxi, refused to let us carry our own bags and made us promise that we would join them for welcome beers after a ‘nap-sleep’. Not ones for turning down naps, beers or new friends, we did.
It took India approximately one evening to completely steal my heart. Too excited about our first meal to accept Arun’s invitation to the ‘coolest bar in New Delhi’, we had opted instead for the very local Guru Nanak market in Karol Bagh. A labyrinth of dusty street stalls, there was something going on in every single nook and cranny. Men crowded around samosa stands like they would a bar in England, supping tiny paper cups of chai and bellowing with laughter at every given opportunity. Girls shimmied up and down the pathways in reds, golds, greens and silvers- their shalwar kameez trousers sweeping dust from the ground. Kids darted between tables, shiny-eyed.
There were all kinds of shops selling all kinds of junk. Motorcycle parts, plug sockets, yarns of glittery cloth, dried flowers, rusty medicine bottles, ironworks. Hallucinatory images of Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu in all their glory. Tailors, barbers, fruit-sellers. Everyone worked to the obliterating noise of car horns and, in the midst of all this chaos, cows sauntered between cars and stands, occasionally knocking over bicycles. Flies buzzed in the smog and the heavy scent of masala spice lingered. For our deciding-what-to-order snack we bought samosas from the busiest stall on the market. Served in scraps of maths text book paper and drizzled with chilli sauce, they looked every bit as tasty as I had imagined. The crowd watched bug-eyed as we took our first bite, and then belly laughed with glee as we demonstrated our approval. Delicious.
Spurred on by the other snackers, we settled in a tiny side-street cafe for our dinner. Clearly bewildered as to why we had chosen his humble establishment for our tea, the owner recited the menu in his very best English and then decided we should definitely have the channa masala and rotis. We did not disagree, ate like kings and reassured him we would be back for breakfast the next morning. He nodded and smiled, laughing as we groaned with being too full and gushed about it being the best food we had ever tasted. Chased by the smiley rickshaw drivers, we made our way back to the hostel to sleep off our feast. We had arrived.
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.
I have never been a massive fan of the 'nice night in'. Like many things, I think the idea of an evening on the sofa with the telly on is a lot nicer than the actual reality of it. Sure, when you're exhausted or stressed or fed up of the rubbish weather, a Friday night snuggled up in your onesie might sound appealing. I get that. But by the time it gets to 9pm you've usually remembered just how awful TV is, you're stuffed from all the comfort food you've treated yourself to and you're probably stalking all the fun things everyone else on Facebook is doing. I would much rather power through and start the weekend with a bit of fire in my belly (or a few too many gins).
The problem is, I am not a massive fan of extortionate taxi fares either. Or of the three buses I have to catch to my best friends's flat. I loathe the 'to drink or drive' debate. Neither am I particularly fond of everyone I know being half of a romantic couple and wanting 'a nice night in together' instead of great craic with everyone, single people included, doing something fun. And then, without me even realising it at the time, moving to Hong Kong in 2011 was the answer to all of these problems.
Suddenly, the notion of 'staying in' was taken clean off the table. Just like that, answering the obligatory 'what are you up to this weekend?' question became a case of sifting through options, trying to piece all the choices together without missing something, or someone, important out. Hong Kong's energy, like its fried rice, is addictive. People live and breathe the 'work hard, play hard' mantra and, regardless of how tired you are or how busy your week has been, your down time is always exciting. Picking which rooftop bar to visit on a Saturday night, which happy hour to make the most of, which beach to recover on the next day...these become the burning dilemmas of the weekend. And, best of all, getting anywhere and everywhere in Hong Kong is simple, fast and all part of the experience.
I lived six stops and less than twenty minutes away from Central Hong Kong on the MTR. The journey cost me next to nothing and, even better, the trains are all fully air-conditioned and clean-my hair would not become victim to the humidity until I at least got to the first bar. Thats one option. Another would be to just hail a very cheap taxi from right outside my front door. Squeezed in the back with my friends, laughing and singing along to the Canto pop on the radio, pre-empting the drama of the night to come, we would curve past stunning Victoria Harbour and rip roar into the glitzy centre, coming head on into the throng of Chinese, British, American, Europeans, expats, locals, everyone. Our friends would be among them somewhere, clinking glasses in one of the bars on Lan Kwai Fong.
Our nights out were guilt-free. We'd worked all week, taught lesson after lesson, caught train after train, ran to make spinning classes and gym sessions and yoga clubs. We'd skyped far-away family and emailed distant friends. Now it was Saturday, the week was behind us and our Sunday stretched ahead like miles and miles of untouched beach, waiting to be dug up in our weekend footprints. The price we all paid, of course, was having only one full day off a week. Yet, somehow, this one blissful day seemed to last forever. Rather than vegging out on the sofa, hungover and dreading going back to work the next day as I would so often do at home, Sundays were spent hiking in the country parks, cycling in Sha Tin, catching a ferry to one of the outlying islands or simply sleeping on a sunny beach. Hong Kong's transport system makes all of these quick, easy, cheap and hassle-free options. Spending your precious Sunday in your shoe-box sized flat, however many cocktails you've sunk the night before, is out of the question.
Now, I don't want this to be an alcohol friendly argument. It is quite possible to love Hong Kong without indulging in its crazy nightlife and free-drinks-for-girls ethos. In fact, I have a friend who became completely tea-total and still wouldn't live anywhere else. My point is, in Hong Kong, there is always something amazing to do. And, rather than have to plan it for months in advance and struggle to afford the expensive train tickets, people actually do it. Every day. Long hours at work are sandwiched between junk boat parties, going out for dim sum, betting at Happy Valley racecourse and shopping at the extraordinary Chinese markets. Even my yoga classes were exhilarating. There is nothing like being in the downward dog postion and seeing that incredible skyline to make you feel alive!
When you do succumb to that 'nice night in' it is because you genuinally miss your sofa. You look forward to cooking in your kitchen for once and you enjoy every second of doing nothing after having such a packed schedule. It is not because you can't brave the miserable weather or summon up the energy to meet friends on the other side of town. Hong Kongers live life in the fast lane...full throttle and with an incredible view.