No matter how we travel there is always further to go. The world is full of open doors - new friends to make, different cultures to experience, inspirational images to capture and lessons to learn. As I enjoy life's journey to DESTINATION UNKNOWN I am energised by the world we live in and inspired by those paving their own path in life. Through the intersection of my travel, writing and photography passions I share my travel adventures to help inspire you to create your own.
If you travel long or often enough, it is inevitable – something will go wrong. I’m not talking about life-threatening incidents that fingers crossed, we all manage to avoid whilst on the road. I’m referring to those moments or events that irritate even the most experienced traveler – plane delays, bus breakdowns, stolen bags, over-booked hotels, scams, bed bugs, lost passport, food poisoning – just to name a few.
When your travel adventure becomes a travel misadventure – and it will – take a deep breath and remember the following:
1. There is always someone worse off
When you refused to eat your vegetables as a child, did your parents respond with the comment “there are starving children in Africa who would love to eat your food”? Me too – and it used to drive me mad.
But let’s face it - it’s true.
The majority of travel misadventures happen when we are in an unfamiliar territory, so take a moment to really take in your surroundings and put your mishap into perspective. Bed bugs are itchy but they are not life threatening. A lost passport can be replaced. A wallet that has been emptied by thieves can be refilled with money sent from home. A cancelled flight will be re-scheduled.
Even if your travel misadventure happens in a developed, wealthy country, compare your surroundings to those a hundred years ago, fifty years ago, even a decade ago. How much more difficult or time consuming would dealing with your mishap have been back then?
It’s all about perspective.
2. Material items can be replaced
You have travel insurance and material items can be replaced. You do have travel insurance don’t you? Have you heard the quote “if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel?”
Even if you cannot afford to replace your item immediately or are not in a place where it’s available for sale, is it really an item you cannot live without? Will life stop because you don’t have your mobile phone? Will it kill you to use the internet café instead of emailing from your laptop in the air conditioned, Wi-Fi enabled café? Is watching the local action movie on the bus instead of blocking out the loud foreign words with your iPod really the end of the world?
Material items are luxuries - life will go on without them.
3. What doesn’t kill us…makes a great story
Misadventures are all part of the travel experience. Taking a deep breath and viewing your mishap as a future story to write about or embellish over beers with your mates is a surprisingly effective coping mechanism!
4. There is always a lesson to learn
Travel misadventures have the ability to teach you both tangible and intangible lessons. Patience, tolerance and inner strength are personality traits that are often enhanced by the inevitable challenges faced on long-term or regular travel stints. The ability to calmly face a travel misadventure head on is quite a liberating feeling and surviving your first mishap will definitely give you more confidence at dealing with the next one.
But there are also practical lessons to learn. I’ve learned how to recognise and medicate bed bug bites, I know how to replace a lost passport, I can find alternative accommodation when my planned guesthouse is full and I know the numbers to call to cancel my stolen credit card.
I’ve also learned that leaving the camera strap around my neck when my using my tripod will avoid my DSLR going for a swim in a glacier lagoon, leaving my bag on my lap instead of under the table is less likely to attract thieves, and having a book with me is a great way to pass the time when buses are delayed.
5. Some of the most memorable moments happen when things don’t go to plan
I have lost count of the great experiences I have had as a result of something going wrong: delayed flights that result in a conversation in the waiting lounge with a new friend, blocked roads that create an unplanned visit to a location that becomes a highlight of the trip, fully booked hotels that direct you to a guesthouse owned by colourful and entertaining characters or moments of kindness that enhance your experience of a country.
I experienced one such moment of kindness when I was the only foreigner on a bus to Mondulkiri in Cambodia – a bus that broke down as the sun was setting, an hour outside my destination. As the locals accepted their fate, started passing around a bottle of rice wine and got comfortable in the bus that would provide their bed for the night, I looked for alternative options. Six hours later, after hitching a ride in the open back of a passing truck, I arrived at a guesthouse on the outskirts of the town I had been heading to. I was soaked through from the rain, my clothes and backpack covered with mud, barefoot and carrying a broken shoe and legs covered with bites from sand-flies.
As I looked around in darkness, realising the guesthouse was closed for the night, my sense of adventure and humour drained away with the streams of water from the afternoons’ rain. Exhausted and close to tears, I knocked on the door of the only room with a light on and felt my heart sink when the curtains were opened and quickly closed again. Obviously the occupant had taken one look at the state I was in and wanted nothing to do with this crazy and dangerous foreigner.
A minute later the door opened and a little old Cambodian man handed me a clean pair of shoes, took my arm and led me to a room. Unable to speak English, he silently turned on the lights and checked there was hot water. When I asked ‘how much’ he shook his head, handed me the room keys and said goodnight. This simple moment of kindness remains one of my most heart-warming travel experiences to this day.
Travel adventures all have an element of misadventure – it’s all part of the experience!
Have you had any travel misadventures? How did you cope?
Bolivia was my first experience of South America where I enjoyed three months of Spanish lessons, a homestay, volunteering and exploring the country. It remains one of my most memorable travel experiences to this day.
Bolivia is a thought-provoking and unique country, with friendly locals who will share a smile with you despite the daily hardships they endure in the poorest country in South America.
Time permitted, don’t leave Bolivia without experiencing the following highlights of this fascinating country:
1. Learn Spanish
Being able to speak the local language not only simplifies the logistical aspects of travelling through Bolivia but it enhances local interaction opportunities. Whether you need a few days to brush up on a language you haven’t used for a while or as in my case, a month to learn your first foreign language, the university town of Sucre is a popular destination for travellers who want to unpack their rucksack. Many of the Spanish schools offer homestays which provide a great opportunity for travellers to immerse themselves into the local culture and extra activities such as salsa lessons, cooking classes and volleyball are a helpful way to meet other travellers.
If your aptitude for learning languages is as poor as mine, remember three key things:
- Locals appreciate the effort you are making and the attempt to have a conversation with broken and grammatically incorrect Spanish can be a great source of entertainment for both parties
- There is a direct correlation between the amount of alcohol you drink and your ability to speak Spanish to the locals
- When all else fails, charades is still a universally recognised form of communication
2. Create an Optical Illusion on the Salt Flats
The Salar de Uyuni is Bolivia’s number one attraction and the world’s largest salt flat provides the opportunity for endless photographic fun. The 12,000 square kilometre area is so flat and extensive that there is no sense of depth, creating an optical illusion that is every traveller’s ‘must take’ photo of Bolivia. As you approach the salt flat all objects surrounding you become potential props for your photo – shoes, guidebooks, bottles, corkscrews, body parts – anything!
3. Buy a Stick of Dynamite
Potosi is one of the highest towns in the world with an altitude of more than 4,000 metres and is dominated by the Cerro Rico Mountain, from which mined silver once made Potosi one of the biggest cities in the Americas. To better understand Potosi’s turbulent past head underground on a mine tour.
All tours start at the Miners Market, where you will be kitted out for your visit underground and purchase gifts for the miners from a grid of shops selling dynamite, clothing, equipment, coca leaves and food and drink.
Visiting the mine itself can create conflicting emotions as igniting a stick of dynamite before heading underground provides a distraction from the tragic reality that is Potosi. The mines are haunted by thousands of mine-related deaths, and even in today’s modern world manual processes, outdated equipment and toxic gases contribute to a miner’s life expectancy of just 35 years. It’s a sad reality when miners choose an almost guaranteed short life to support their families.
Before your claustrophobia takes over you, take a moment to turn off your headlamp and discover the true meaning of darkness!
4. Find Your Altitude Limit
Not only is it difficult to avoid the high altitude in Bolivia it’s also difficult to predict the impact it will have on you. Altitude sickness doesn’t discriminate. I came across young, fit and healthy athletes who could not continue hikes they would normally complete with ease and watched overweight smokers effortlessly run past.
On my first day in Bolivia, I left my hotel for a short walk in La Paz. Within one block I was short of breath, embarrassed at what I thought was an incredibly bad fitness level. Despite living in Sucre for two months, I still struggled on a bike ride one weekend, and had splitting headaches when I reached 5,000 metres on the trip from Tupiza to Uyuni.
The altitude is what makes Bolivia unique, combatting it is an integral part of being there and it’s like the weather in the UK – it’s always a great conversation starter!
5. Give Something Back
Taking the time to volunteer in Bolivia is a great way to give something back to the local community you are visiting, better understand the local culture, improve your Spanish skills and make local friends. But be warned – you may experience a range of conflicting emotions. I spent a month volunteering at a day care centre in a small village near Sucre. It was my first volunteer experience and one of the most heart-warming, heart-breaking, thought-provoking, rewarding and disturbing months of my life.
The merit of volunteering in developing countries is a topic that is always guaranteed to create heated debates amongst travellers. Are the genuine good intentions of travellers doing more harm than good? Is the money donated to the organisation actually being used by the organisation? Are volunteers taking away jobs from locals? My side on this debate continues to flip back and forth with the more I learn and from my own personal experiences.
Of all the emotions I felt whilst volunteering in Bolivia, rewarding was the strongest and I hope that providing an extra pair of hands to three over-worked and exhausted carers made my presence a help more than a burden for them.
Volunteering in Bolivia can be rewarding for both sides. Just keep your eyes and mind open…
Bolivia was my first experience of South America where I enjoyed three months of Spanish lessons, a homestay, volunteering and exploring the country. It remains one of my most memorable travel experiences to this day.
Bolivia is a thought-provoking and unique country, with friendly locals who will share a smile with you despite the daily hardships they endure in the poorest country in South America.
You know you are in Bolivia when:
Your first short walk in the country leaves you out of breath after landing in La Paz, the highest airport in the world at more than 4,000 metres.
You realise high altitude does not discriminate as your young, strong and fit travel companion suffers headaches and nose bleeds at 5,000 metres whilst an overweight, older smoker races ahead on a hike unaffected.
You enjoy people-watching in Plaza Avora in La Paz or Plaza 25 de Mayo in Sucre, observing a diverse mix of young students dressed in jeans and t shirts and older woman in their full skirts, shawls and bowler hats.
You practice your Spanish with young shoe shiners who attempt to convince you to pay them money to clean your North Face trainers with black shoe polish.
You find yourself in a moral dilemma as you exit a club at closing time to be greeted by young children trying to sell you sweets. Do you follow your heart and buy all their sweets, or do you follow your head and refrain knowing that giving them money is the reason their parents keep sending them out to sell late at night?
You join every other foreign female in Sucre for a screening of Thelma and Louise at Joy Ride Café.
The only difference between the starter and main dish served by your host family in a homestay is the broth added to the soup. You soon learn there is nothing unusual about eating potato, rice, pasta and meat from the same plate – every day!
You work off your daily homestay meals with an evening game of Wally, the Bolivian version of volleyball where the ball remains in play off the walls and all body parts can be used to get it over the net.
You return to your host family’s house to find a group of drunk Bolivians singing along to a hired karaoke machine and are thoughtfully handed an English song menu with the words “Hotel California” being chanted at you.
You discover the month of Spanish lessons you took are no help when locals at the day care centre engage in conversation with each other. When you learn they are speaking Quecha you realise your Spanish is so bad you didn’t even realise they weren’t speaking Spanish!
You take part in a salsa lesson, moving your hips with enthusiasm despite knowing you have no rhythm and look ridiculous.
You lose track of what the latest protest or parade is for.
You embrace your inner Sabrina at the Witches Market in La Paz, perusing the eclectic mix of wares on sale, including llama foetus.
You blame the altitude for struggling through a day of cycling in the mountains, remain motivated by the cold beer waiting for you back in town and become horrified to discover alcohol is not served during the Easter weekend.
You discover politics is not a forbidden topic of conversation and locals either strongly support or oppose the current leader Evo Morales
You learn Sucre is the official capital by name only and all administrative functions are performed in La Paz. You soon learn not to bring this up in conversation with residents of Sucre!
You learn the Spanish word for fleas is pulga after a month of scratching the 200+ bites on your body. You also learn antibiotics are the only solution for infected bites and are handed over the counter prescription-free.
You enjoy a break from local food with a choice of four Italian restaurants in Tupiza, only to discover they all have the exact same menu.
You embrace your inner outlaw as you explore Tupiza on horseback, where according to legend Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their demise
You buy a stick of dynamite from a local store and ignite it at the start of an enjoyable but eye-opening underground mine tour at Cerro Rico, the mine from which silver once made Potosi one of the biggest cities in the Americas. You feel haunted by the tragic reality that is Potosi today, a location that has seen thousands of mine-related deaths and one where manual processes, outdated equipment and toxic gases contribute to a miner’s life expectancy of just 35 years.
You discover what darkness really means when you turn your headlamps off in the Potosi underground mines.
You find yourself in a heated debate about the production of coca leaves, popular in the countryside and with workers trying to stave off hunger and fatigue, and its conflicting impact on the Bolivian economy and cocaine industry.
You meet El Tio, a statue representing the god of the underworld which is present in every mine and is perceived as the devil. To appease the devil, offerings of coca leaves, alcohol and soft drinks are made every Friday and in certain months of the year a llama is sacrificed for additional good luck.
You take locals’ advice to bypass the ‘public pools’ and jump on a local bus from Potosi to a random stop out of town. You are rewarded with incredible scenery and the chance to relax as you share the hot springs with new local friends.
You join in fanatical celebrations after Bolivia upset Argentina 6-1 in a World Cup Qualifying match and as the party continues late into the night you have to remind yourself it was just a qualifier and not the real thing.
You read Rusty Young’s book Marching Powder and feel both disturbed and entertained by his reflection on his time in the infamous San Pedro prison in La Paz.
You are blown away by the diverse scenery during a four day tour from Tupiza to Uyuni as you enjoy lakes, volcanos, llama and vincuna filled plains, flamingo, hot springs, geysers, mountains, canyons and salt flats.
Your driver routinely puts on his overalls as he changes flat tyres and fixes engine problems on the jeep that is taking you to Uyuni.
You are grateful you have packed layers and a warm jacket as you experience the drop in temperature in the evenings on your way to Uyuni.
You stay in a hotel made entirely of salt.
You begin to think all cacti look the same, only to find yourself standing next to one that towers over you at the Uyuni Salt Flats.
Every object around you becomes a prop for an optical illusion photo on the largest salt flat in the world as you enjoy Bolivia’s number one attraction, Salar de Uyuni.
Playing your iPod on full volume in an attempt to tune out the loud, violent movie being played on a bus and being unable to sleep for the 16 hour journey becomes par for the course
You meet another traveller covered with cuts and bruises and know before asking that he has just finished a bike ride on the World’s Most Dangerous Road towards Coroico.
You realise you have no chance of winning during a game of basketball with children in a small village at an altitude of 5,000 metres
You board your plane at La Paz airport with great memories and experiences, but feeling conflicted about the country you have just visited. You find it hard to come to terms with the simplified reality that there are rich people in the world - and there are poor.
I recently joined a professional photographer for a customised one-to-one photography workshop in the Scottish HIghlands and Isle of Skye. In just five days I learnt so much about Scotland, about photography and about myself.
1.“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”
This quote from Marcel Proust has always been one of my favourites. I once met another traveller in Africa who was exploring the country without a camera as she found that looking through a lens detracted from the experience of being in the country. This may be true if you are just using your camera to capture memories. How many times do you see a busload of tourists arrive at destination and rush out to start snapping shots before they’ve actually looked around? But when you are using your camera to create an image rather than a memory, photography can actually enhance the experience.
Looking at the world through a lens helps me discovery different layers of the scene in front of me.
One of my most inspirational moments in Scotland was observing this quote in action when Glen and I arrived at one of his favourite Scottish Hills, Assynt’s Suilven (the ‘sugar loaf’). Capturing a great image of Suilven had eluded him despite a number of visits to the location, but the light on this particular day had created a new view of the static mountain and an excitement in him that was contagious. I started to understand what light stalking was all about as he raced ahead of me through muddy ground, already composing the image in his head as he looked for the best place to set up his tripod before the light changed the scene in front of him.
Watching a professional photographer who has been capturing images for decades and had visited this location a number of times get so excited about a potential image, reminded me that you don’t have to visit new locations to see something different.
2. My dad was right!
Remember being old enough that it wasn’t ‘cool’ spending a Sunday afternoon with your parents, but being young enough that you didn’t have a choice? I recall many Sunday afternoon drives in Australia where my father’s regular phrase of ‘what a magnificent view’ was met with rolled eyes and a sarcastic comment.
I’ve become my father!
Not only do I enjoy landscapes, I now chase them. I feel most alive when I am away from the office and away from the city. I feel most energised when I am breathing in the fresh air, surrounded by wild and dramatic landscapes, enjoying the feeling of isolation such an environment creates. There is something magical about the great outdoors, it has the strength and power that reminds me we are just a smaller part of a bigger picture and it’s all about enjoying the moment.
The diversity of the Scottish Highlands makes it a landscape photographer’s dream destination. The rugged, wild and unspoilt environment exemplifies the raw power and beauty of nature. From the coastline, waterfalls and lochs that present great long exposure opportunities, to the imposing mountains and sweeping glens, I found myself constantly borrowing the long-suffering phrase from my father, “what a magnificent view”!
3. There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.
Scotland’s reputation for being cold, windy and rainy was often unfounded as we experienced many dry and light moments. But a waterproof jacket, shoes and trousers and the warmth of gloves and a hat were necessary. Without these items of clothing, the willingness to walk in the rain and wanting to be outdoors despite imposing grey clouds, I would have missed out on a walk in the waterfront village of Ullapool, a hike to the Old Man of Storr, experimenting with long exposures by Loch Ness, capturing the striking autumn colours near Kylesku Bridge and shooting the sweeping landscape of Quirang at Trotternish – just to name a few.
4. Some of the most memorable moments happen when things don’t go according to plan.
The diversity of the Scottish Highland’s landscape is matched with the diversity of the weather. This sometimes required us to be flexible with our itinerary but sometimes the most memorable moments happen when things don’t go according to plan.
A forecast of low cloud in the Assynt and Inverpolly area saw us delay our visit there by a day and instead head the other direction to Findhorn. This unplanned location ended with an energetic walk through what felt like quick sand, covering our trousers and shoes in mud, as we raced against the returning tide to share sunset with the grey seals who were sunning themselves at the water’s edge. As the sky changed colour to shades of pastel pink, yellow, orange and blue, the seals lifted their heads at the sound of our approach before ignoring or at least tolerating our presence. It was a truly magical sunset.
5. You can replenish your bank account but you can’t reclaim time
I had been desperate for a holiday, but within moments of arriving in Scotland I had forgotten why, such was the impact of my surroundings. It reminded me that our most valuable asset in life is time, and yet it’s the asset we waste more than any other. It’s so important to not only discover what we love doing in life, but to make the time to actually do it.
6. You can’t beat learning from a pro
In the digital era we live in it seems that everyone is a photographer and everyone has a camera, including the people who stand in front of a stunning sunset holding an iPad in the air (by the way, you look ridiculous!)
Just as online medical websites are no substitute for seeing a real doctor, online photography advice is no substitute for learning from a professional photographer.
In addition to technical advice on my camera settings, exposure and shooting in manual modes, the practical workshop helped me improve composition and understand how to adapt weather and light conditions to the photography subject and location.
The opportunity to shoot alongside a professional landscape photography taught me more than I thought possible in just a few days. From lens choices and protecting my equipment to assessing a location for creative potential, the lessons were endless.
7. It’s not possible to stay for “one drink” at the Old Inn
Our reward at the end of each day was a pint and a meal and it did seem that our sunset locations were conveniently located within a few minutes of a pub (a fact that I was not complaining about). The Dores Inn at Loch Ness, the Kimberly Inn at Findhorn, and Kylesku Hotel near the Kylesku Bridge all provided great food, character and views but none came close to the Old Inn on the Isle of Skye.
The first warning that I was not staying for just one pint should have been the sign outside that was inviting musicians to bring their instruments for an ‘open mike’ night. The second should have been enjoying a pint and whiskey chaser as a group of locals played traditional celtic music with a fiddle, ukulele, bongos and guitar. The next should have been the cry of “upgrade him, give him a chair with a back” when one of the locals crashed to the floor after one too many. The last was the multiple ‘one for the road’ pints I sipped after hearing some of the regulars were not there because they didn’t want a big night and know it’s not possible to ‘just stay for one’.
I also learned:
- - A tripod can be multi-purpose and is a great accessory to have when trekking through muddy ground
- - The best cure for a hangover is a hike to the Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye
- - Manic Street Preachers provide great road trip music
- - Rainbows are just as common as rain in Scotland
- - If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes
- - A man walking his dog who asks if you think he should move closer to seals at Findhorn Beach is just making conversation. When you say no, he is going to do it anyway.
- - It’s not about how high you trek, but how fast (or slow you go)
- - My North Face trainers are not waterproof
- - Photography really is all about the light
I first visited Myanmar in December 2010 shortly after the elections took place, an event that received mixed reactions internationally and signalled that a potential change was on the horizon.
The release of Aung San Suu Kyi from decades of house arrest became a key catalyst for the international community lifting the informal travel boycott that has kept many travellers away from the country in recent times. Myanmar has appeared in every ‘top travel destination’ list online and in published articles this year, as travel companies begin creating new itineraries for group tours and more independent travellers add the country to their round-the-world plans.
Myanmar deserves its place as a ‘top travel destination’. I’ve visited nearly 50 countries and 6 continents and Myanmar remains one of my favourite places.
Visiting Myanmar feels like opening a door into a charming world where time has been standing still. You will share the roads with horse and ox carts, motorbikes, bicycles, trishaws, pedestrians and an increased presence of cars in larger towns. You will witness a strong Buddhist faith where monks interact with civilians on a comfortable and regular basis. You will visit temples that rival those of Angkor in Cambodia and explore a beautiful and diverse landscape of lakes, rivers, mountains, temples and caves. You will be invited into the basic but comfortable homes of friendly locals and will be served tea everywhere you go. You will interact with people living a traditional and basic life in the countryside and will also meet those embracing change, education, modern technology and the future.
You will be welcomed into the country by people who are proud of a culture they are keen to share with you, who are equally curious about your lifestyle and country.
But before you book your flight, take a moment to remember that tourism has the ability to both enhance and destroy a culture.
To ensure you get the most out of a visit to this fascinating country, whilst also remembering you are part of a generation who has the opportunity to shape the impact increased tourism has on Myanmar, consider the following:
1. Enjoy the change of pace. From the moment you step off the plane and join the immigration queue at Yangon airport, you will feel that life has decreased a pace or two. Don’t become that tourist who complains about a bus delay, gets frustrated when a flight is cancelled, sighs during a lengthy hotel check-in or moans about having to wait to board a boat that you can see sitting ready in the water. Instead, enjoy the extra time you have to take in your surroundings, engage with the locals, be patient and most of all keep smiling.
2. Learn to say min-ga-laba (hello) and jeh-za-beh (thank you). Not only is it good ‘traveller etiquette’ to learn a few local words wherever you visit, but in Myanmar this small gesture creates opportunities for some memorable and entertaining conversations. If you can’t remember the local word for hello don’t worry – it will be called out to you so often you will start to learn it by heart.
3. Myanmar has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in the last few decades and it’s difficult not to form pre-conceived opinions and judgements. Leave them at home. The best experience you can have in Myanmar is your OWN experience. Decide if the locals’ reputation for being some of the friendliest people in the world is true by interacting with them and making up your own mind. Assess whether the Bagan temples rival that of Angkor in Cambodia by seeing them yourself. Critique the local cuisine by enjoying local food cooked and served by local people. Educating yourself with the combination of factually correct news and personal experiences is the best way to form opinions.
4. Don’t be afraid to turn left when everyone else turns right. Many of my best experiences were riding a bicycle with no clear destination in mind, coming across a little village or stopping to talk to a farmer on his way back from the market. But if someone tells you to turn right because you are not allowed to turn left, do not let curiosity get the better of you and respect their wishes.
5. The Burmese have a local saying “why use ten words when you can use ten thousand”. They like to talk and engaging with locals is a highlight of any visit to Myanmar. But let them lead the conversation. They won’t mind questions about their family or occupation but if they want to talk about politics or the government, they will bring it up. If they appear uncomfortable with a particular conversation, respect this and don’t pursue it.
6. Leave your cynicism at home. If someone approaches you on the street, don’t assume they are about to try to scam you or sell you something. I found that most locals simply enjoy interacting with foreigners and are genuinely interested in learning about you and your country. I never felt the need to be rude or aggressive or walk away from someone and every conversation I had in Myanmar left me with a smile on my face and a warm heart.
7. If you want to party, stay over the border in Thailand. If you want to observe life in Myanmar, get up early with the locals. Burmese people are most active earlier in the day as fishing boats head out on Inle Lake, vendors set up their stalls in local markets and horse and carts head to the Bagan temples to beat the crowds. One of my best days in Myanmar involved a cold 4am start as I watched the hive of activity by the water in Nyaungshwe before boarding a small wooden boat to glide through the misty sunrise alongside fisherman and locals heading to the markets.
8. Don’t instantly dismiss the offer of a ‘local tour’ if someone approaches you on the street. Outside of the ‘main four’ (Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake, Mandalay) you are unlikely to see travel agents or local tours advertised in your hotel or guest house. If you want to explore the local area, you will need local transport and some of my most memorable days were shared with a local guide who approached me to suggest something I may find interesting. One of the most entertaining conversations I had was with a trishaw driver who didn’t speak English, as we tried to agree a time to meet.
9. Bring your camera. Burmese people LOVE getting their photo taken and showing them an image of themselves on your digital camera is a great way to break the ice and entertain young children. I lost count of the number of people who approached me and asked me to take their photo, including a novice monk in Yangon, almost every child I met and a woman in Monywa who actually chased me down the street before I realised what she wanted!
10. Be careful of drinking local water like you would in any developing country, but don’t be afraid of street food. Some of my best experiences were sitting on a small stool on the side of the road, chatting with the local
vendor who had just whipped me up a quick meal for less than a dollar.
11. Don’t visit Myanmar if you don’t like attention. Foreigners are still a novelty in many parts of the country and almost all locals you meet will greet you with a smile or simply stare at you with wide eyes. On my first day in Mandalay I was sitting in the back of a trishaw returning waves and even having conversations in moving traffic with locals who were passing me by on motorbikes and bicycles. Whilst the constant attention may become tiring, you are unlikely to feel hassled like you may in other countries. If you need a break from the constant attention take a nap behind a closed door rather than be rude to someone who only has friendly intentions! If you have chosen to join a group tour in Myanmar, don’t become a ‘tourist on a group tour’! Don’t mistake curious and friendly attention with being hassled.
12. Don’t plan a fixed itinerary. It’s ok to have a general plan, especially if you have limited time but leave enough flexibility to stay longer at places you like or to cope with that inevitable bus cancellation or broken down vehicle. I chose to stay an extra day in Monywa and I was forced to stay an extra day in Inle Lake when all the buses were full. Adapt to changes in your schedule without getting stressed by them.
13. Bring enough money! There are no cashpoint machines in Myanmar and USD is the easiest currency to change. But don’t think reports of notes needing to be in pristine condition are exaggerated – they are not! I had a $50 note that had a curled corner and had difficulty changing it. Carry your foreign notes somewhere where they will not crease, fold, tear or curl – inside the pages of a thick book for example. Also bring more than you think you need, as there is nothing worse than missing out on something you want to do because the money you need is sitting safely in a bank account that you can’t access.
14. Recognise the existence of poverty without ignoring or contributing to it. The existence of poverty in our world is a difficult reality to accept, especially when you have a full stomach, warm clothes and a comfortable room to return to at the end of the day. As difficult as it is, don’t encourage children to ask foreigners for money by giving it to them. Avoid hand-outs and don’t take advantage of someone who is trying to make a living, by haggling to a price you know is below what a service or product is worth. I also like to spread my travel wealth by using different drivers, guides and vendors.
15. Keep your wits about you. It’s extremely rare to hear negative stories about crime or attacks on foreigners but don’t be too naïve about the friendliness of locals, you just never know. Last but not least, never forget the phrase “your shadow stays with you in Myanmar even when the sun goes down”
The phrase ‘you get out what you put in’ is particularly applicable to a visit to Myanmar. Taking the time to engage with the locals, endure local over-ground transport and explore the countryside will reward you with an energising, thought-provoking and inspirational experience.
I am the type of traveller who loves to get off the beaten track. I head to a destination keen to see the famous sights and the not to be missed attractions, but the highlights for me are always the ones you can’t plan. The experiences you cannot predict in advance but end up enjoying because you are open to having them. The highlights that occur because you take the road less travelled, you engage in conversation with the locals, you travel on local transport or you try food you have never eaten before.
These experiences that appear insignificant at the time can end up creating a collection of memorable and magical moments.
My “memorable moments of insignificance” in Myanmar seemed endless, but here are a few of my favourites.
1. A hike, a monk and a flower
Whilst most of the highlights of the Inle Lake region are accessed via boat, there are a number of hiking trails starting from Nyaungshwe that provide the opportunity to explore the nearby hills and villages without other travellers. Breathing in the fresh air and enjoying the stunning scenery in relative solitude is an incredibly energising experience and the few interactions we had with locals who were returning with their cows from the morning market in town or who lived in the small and isolated villages we passed through, provided the icing on the cake of a magical day.
I joined a local guide on a hike that provided countless moments that were as unforgettable as they were insignificant. We hiked to a cave monastery to meet a 70 year old monk who had lived there on his own for twenty-five years. He spoke no English but greeted us with tea and a plate of snacks as the three of us sat in comfortable silence. We unintentionally interrupted a formal meeting between the elders of two nearby villages who were discussing the proposed marriage between their children, but immediately called a break to make us tea. And we met a local woman who sat cutting kernels from corn cobs, a task she performed every day, who wanted nothing more than her photo taken.
But the highlight of the day came from the simplest moment of all. As I was walking along a narrow dirt path a small boy who looked to be around four years of age, ran out from the trees and stopped in front of me. He shyly handed me a small hand-picked flower as he watched my face intently. I smiled and replied with the Burmese word for thank-you (jez-u-beh) and felt my heart warm as his face completely lit up and he turned around and ran back into the trees as quickly as he had arrived.
I carried the flower with me for the rest of the day.
2. Turning left instead of right
After a long but tiring day exploring the Bagan temples, I decided to spend the next day with no itinerary and started the day on a bicycle at an intersection where a right turn would take me to the popular Bagan Temple area. I turned left.
After half an hour of directionless cycling I came across a narrow dirt path and decided to follow it to what I later learned was the village of West Pwa Saw. As I cycled past a row of small wooden houses, sometimes sharing the path with dogs, cats, cows and goats, I looked up to see two small children running as fast as they could towards me. They stopped abruptly a metre in front of me, excitement turning to apprehension until I greeted them with the one Burmese word I knew, min-gala-ba. Their faces lit up, they giggled and they pointed to my camera.
Hence began a day of short, insignificant, but incredibly memorable local interactions with the villagers.
Whilst playing with the children, I noticed a woman in the distance holding a small boy who was waving me over with her palm facing down. The more traditional ‘come over’ wave that we use (palm facing up with fingers curling towards you) is a form of aggression in Myanmar so I was relieved to receive a friendly invitation and walked towards her. She didn’t speak any English but invited me into her home, offered me some nuts to chew on as she made some tea and asked if she could paint my face with Thanakha (the local sandalwood paste worn by woman and children in Myanmar). We sat together in comfortable silence exchanging nothing but smiles, as she shared a piece of her culture with me.
As I left her home I found an old lady standing outside with her little grandson, patiently waiting for me to walk past her. Word had spread – there was a foreigner in the village and all the locals wanted to come and play!
Again she spoke no English and again she offered me nuts to chew on as she made me some more tea. Through our game of charades I learned that she had five children, nine grandchildren, had a small shop at the front of her house, was 65 years of age, had lived in the same house her entire life and had never left the Bagan area.It wasn’t long before we were joined by her family and neighbours and suddenly I was surrounded by two of her daughters, four of her grandchildren and two of her 70 year old neighbours. It felt like a secret society meeting for women – and I was the guest of honour! I binged on tea as we explored different communication techniques, finding charades to be the most effective (and enjoyable) and exchanged details about our lives.
I am often reminded whilst travelling that not having a common language does not prevent communication. This memorable afternoon was proof of that. We didn’t need words to understand that we whilst we came from different countries and led different lives, we still had some things in common - we were all women and we were all human beings.
3. Bubbles at a Bus Station
Local bus stations in developing countries are usually hectic, aggressive and stressful but often provide some great people-watching opportunities and local interactions. The bus station in Monywa, from which I was boarding a bus to Pakkoku was no exception.
After awkwardly stumbling from the trishaw I had arrived at the station in, that was basically a bicycle with a chair attached, I sought out a local vendor selling bottled water to prepare for the bus ride ahead. After handing over what I thought was the equivalent of the £0.15 due for the large bottle of water, I started walking away only to hear the sound of footsteps and call of ‘lady, lady’. I had given him a 200 Kyat note instead of 100 and he, an honest vendor, had change to give me!
Being the only foreigner in a local bus station has inevitable consequences and I was immediately targeted by beggars, vendors and even nuns asking for donations. One dishevelled looking woman was holding a small, thin and dirty child and kept tugging at my sleeve. The heart breaking conflict I feel in these situations never gets any easier, knowing giving money to beggars is not the long term answer, but feeling helpless and selfish at the same time. Feeling rather useless, I suddenly remembered I had a bottle of bubbles in my bag and I took it out and started blowing bubbles in the direction of the child. His sad little eyes opened wide in terror as a bubble floated towards him and I feared my attempt at a little fun may have been a tactical error! But as it popped on his nose and he screamed in delight, I breathed a sigh of relief. I handed the bottle to his mother and watched her blow bubbles at her giggling son whilst for a few minutes she simply enjoyed the moment and forgot her troubles. I left them to it and boarded my bus.
A few minutes later I heard a knock on my window and looked out to see the mother (still blowing bubbles) waving at me and say jez-u-beh over and over. She eventually walked away and my heart warmed a little with the knowledge that a small bottle of bubbles had made them smile for a few minutes. I thought I’d seen the last of them until I heard knocking at the window again and saw her reach up to hand me half of the orange she had been eating, with tears in her eyes – her way of saying thank you.
4. A negotiation by the river
One of the most entertaining conversations I had in Myanmar was by the side of the river in Monywa. I had just returned from exploring Hpo Win Daung Caves, paying ten times more than the locals for the ‘special’ tourist boat across the river which I was forced to take, which turned out to be the same type of boat the locals were piling into but with me as the solo passenger.
I was looking for a motor-trishaw to take me to a few sights in the afternoon and it didn’t take long for one to find me instead. The driver only spoke a few words of English but seemed to understand where I wanted to go. Our challenge began when we tried to agree a time to meet. He kept holding up three fingers, I kept holding up two whilst pointing to ‘2 o’clock’ on my watch. Before long we were surrounded by another ten men who were offering to help translate our conversation, despite none of them speaking any more English than my driver.
Every time I tried to say ‘can we meet at 2pm’ he would nod in agreement and then hold up three fingers. I tried a game of charades, I pointed to my watch, I imitated taking a nap and eating lunch first, but still he held up three fingers as he nodded in what he thought was agreement. Finally, a man joined us who spoke a little more English than the others and translated something to him in Burmese before explaining to me that he was nodding in agreement to the 2pm meeting time and was then telling me the trip would take 3 hours. When the penny dropped and we finally realised we understood each other, the crowd that had grown in size starting cheering, slapping each other on the back and high-fiving me!
Before I left for my lunch and nap, our newly appointed translator asked ‘how will you remember him, we all look the same to you don’t we?’ I started to feign offense at his question before I realised he was right and I pointed to the word ‘Dunlop’ that was written on the shirt of my driver. “Mr Dunlop” I said, “I will remember this is Mr Dunlop”. The crowd burst out laughing and kept repeating “Mr Dunlop” as I realised I had inadvertently given my driver a new nickname.
Sure enough, my driver was waiting for me at my hotel on time, shook my hand and re-introduced himself as Mr Dunlop whilst proudly pointing at his watch as he said “2pm”. It was the start of an incredibly enjoying afternoon with my driver and new friend.
5. A hair salon in Monywa
Using charades to have conversations with non-English speaking locals can be useful and entertaining. When you are using charades to ask for a hair wash at a salon that also has scissors it can also be risky.
After arriving in Monywa and making my way into town from the station, I found a pleasant and relatively cheap room at one of the few hotels that are registered to accept foreign guests. I enjoyed a plate of chicken noodles for lunch and the first can of coke I had seen in the country and with the burst of energy supplied from my sugar fix I started to wander along the streets to explore this quaint little town.
When I came across a local hair salon, my girlie DNA came to the forefront and I realised how long it had been since my naturally curly hair had felt clean, straight and soft. How do you ask two young employees who don’t speak English for a wash and blow dry without ending up with short hair instead? Charades of course! Once we established scissors would not be necessary, they had a five minute conversation before deciding to charge me the equivalent of £4. I suspect the conversation went something like this:
“What do we normally charge foreigners?”
“I have no idea, we’ve never had a foreigner ask for a wash and blow dry before!”
“Well, what would we charge a local? 500 kyat? Yes? So let’s charge her ten times that amount!”
Ten times that amount was still only £4 so I happily accepted the price and sat back to enjoy what felt like an extravagant treat, sitting in silence for an hour, being pampered and having clean hair for the first time in weeks. It was only when I paid and opened the door to leave that I realised a foreigner having their hair washed at the salon was not a common sight and I had attracted a crowd who smiled at me as I left, touched my hair and said “beautiful, beautiful” over and over! I returned the smiles and stayed outside the hair salon for another half hour enjoying some banter and conversations with some of the friendliest people in the world.
It doesn’t take much to have a memorable moment of insignificance. Turning left instead of right led me to an unplanned afternoon of charades with the local women of West Pwa Saw. A small bottle of bubbles raised a smile on the face of someone who had previously been tugging at my sleeve in desperation. Negotiating a trishaw ride led to a round of applause and a new friend.
And a hand-picked flower from a little child I never saw again was better than any souvenir on sale in the country.
Exploring Bhutan is an opportunity to discover a nation who are proud of and have retained their cultural identity. It is a place like no other and visiting it feels like stepping into a magical vortex frozen in time.
Bhutan is a peaceful and spiritual oasis lying in the heart of the Eastern Himalayas, dwarfed by its neighbouring giants China and India. It has a reputation for being an expensive and exclusive destination but visitors to Bhutan are offered breath-taking scenery, a strong national identity, a significantly different culture, a unique and interesting history, the opportunity for entertaining local interactions and a thought-provoking and memorable experience.
If you are willing to forego your modern luxuries and Western influences you will be rewarded with a thought-provoking and enlightening experience in a country that believes Gross National Happiness is more important that Gross Domestic Product.
You will have the opportunity to hike amongst some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, interact with locals who wear a National Dress but are starting to gain exposure to outside fashions and influences, learn more about a deeply imbedded Buddhist religion and discover the meaning of the colourful phallic symbols painted on doors of houses.
Whilst parts of the world are in turmoil with blood being shed in countries fighting for democracy, you will be visiting a nation that peacefully introduced its first democratically elected government in 2008. Bhutan had been governed by a much loved monarchy since 1907 and not only was the change to democracy instigated by the Throne itself during a time of peace, stability and development, but it was initially opposed by the people before being reluctantly accepted as necessary for the country’s future.
Don't leave Bhutan before:
1. Enjoying a unique arrival
Don’t leave Bhutan before taking your time to soak up one of the most unique arrivals you will ever experience. Adventures in most countries begin when you have passed through immigration and left the airport but this one starts with an incredible landing through the Himalayan Mountains. It continues on the tarmac as you exit the plane to take photographs of the imposing and surreal backdrop of the small Paro airport, with airport staff patiently pointing you towards the immigration hall with an insiders’ smile that silently says ‘you haven’t seen anything yet’.
As you wait in the immigration queue you are likely to experience an incredible feeling that is a cocktail of excitement, peace, calm and anticipation. As you watch the immigration officers calmly stamp each passport attractively attired in their National Dress, take the time to look around at the large framed photographs of Kings from the much loved Wangchuck Royal Family who had successfully governed the nation since 1907. Also look for the many references to Gross National Happiness, a Bhutanese phrase you will learn a lot more about during your stay and a warning sign reminding you that the sale of tobacco and smoking is illegal.
2. Hike to Tiger's Nest Monastery
Don’t leave Bhutan before hiking to Tiger’s Nest Monastery, a sacred pilgrimage site that clings to a 900 metre cliff. This steep trek is best done at the end of your trip when you’ve had time to acclimatise. A Cafeteria provides a well –timed break for those not in peak condition before attacking the final part of the trek which culminates in one of the most spectacular sights you will see in Bhutan. The dirt track transitions to cobbled steps and the pot at the end of the rainbow is a monastery that rewards you with an incredibly spiritual and peaceful atmosphere and intriguing history.
3. Be captivated by the hypnotic chanting of Buddhist monks
Don’t leave Bhutan before taking your time to explore the many religious structures in the country where your pre-conception of monks will be both enhanced and changed. If you arrive during one of their prayer or education sessions you will be invited to stay and be captivated by their hypnotic and disciplined chanting. You may also notice naughty novice monks struggling to maintain concentration, monks on mobile phones, monks performing daily chores and monks that may be happy to practise some English with you.
4. Watch the national sport
Don’t leave Bhutan before seeking out the location of the Sunday afternoon regional archery competition. Locals will be more than happy to explain the national sport to you and may even teach you some of the football-like chants being sung to the opposing team.
You will be impressed by the speed and accuracy of the shooters, charmed by the teenage girls holding hands whilst singing and dancing a circle and entertained by the banter of supporters on the sidelines.
5. Take a walk in Thimphu
Don’t leave Bhutan before taking a casual stroll around Thimphu, ‘the capital city with no traffic lights’, pausing on the main bridge to enjoy your picturesque surroundings, and returning the shy smile from passers-by with the local greeting ‘kuzo zangpo la’. If you are craving some Western food, search for one of the two bakeries that sell scrumptious cupcakes and enjoy it as you wander pass the National Stadium. If you are lucky you may be able to join supporters of a local football game being played outside the stadium where Bhutan’s national team once defeated Montserrat 4-0 in a game between the world’s two lowest ranked teams. This game was played on the same day Brazil and Germany competed in the 2002 World Cup Final!
6. Engage with the locals
Don’t leave Bhutan before enjoying a conversation with friendly locals in the Punakha Valley. Bhutanese people may appear shy at first but a friendly smile and greeting will almost always instigate an entertaining conversation. Children giggle at the sight of themselves on your camera viewfinder, the older generation with little English will laugh at your attempt to learn local words, and as you describe the concrete jungle you live in back home you will see a wistful look in a young girl’s eyes who dreams of visiting a country so different from her own.
My time in Bhutan reminded me how irrelevant the concept of time can be. Magical moments can happen in minutes, hours or days and can manifest themselves through shared conversations and laughs with locals, admiring unique architecture, showing a photo on your digital camera to giggling children, being mesmerised by stunning landscapes, feeling satisfied at the end of a seemingly impossible trek, letting your mind wander into a pond of reflection and contemplation during a long bus ride, laughing with your local guide one minute and having an insightful conversation with him the next that sheds light on the locals’ lifestyle, taking ten minutes to buy a bottle of water from a vendor who doesn’t speak English and so many more.
There are so many things wrong with the world. There are so many countries in turmoil. There is a growing power-struggle between the superpowers of the east and west. There are countries suffering violence and bloodshed to achieve a democratic, corruption-free and fair existence.
And then there is this little country called Bhutan, which many people haven’t even heard of, that seems to have got so much right. It has a much loved Royal Family, a newly elected and respected government and experiences a relatively peaceful existence.
A monarchy that spent the first half of the last century maintaining its culture and national identity has recently begun to open its doors to the outside world, which inevitably raises some questions. Does Bhutan have something the rest of us can learn and benefit from? Will it benefit from the positive aspects of modern technology and development? Or has it created a gateway through which the negative aspects of the outside world will creep through to challenge the peace, culture and national identity that this country is so proud of.
Only time will tell.
Bhutan is proud of the past but embracing the future.
Visit Destination Unknown for more Bhutan photography
Sharing my experiences to inspire yours
RWANDA: In a nutshell:
I visited Rwanda during my 2009/2010 career break as part of an overland tour with Intrepid Travel. Despite spending less than a week in this country, it provided some of the most memorable moments of my travel life and is a place I hope to visit again.
It is a thought-provoking nation, a country of contrasts and one that creates conflicting emotions. I experienced the thrill of getting up close and personal with mountain gorillas yet feared for the future of these endangered creatures. I was mesmerised by the stunning lush landscape and pleasant climate but learned of significant poverty that plagues so many of the people. I was hypnotised by the vibrant, colourful clothing worn by locals as I watched people walk long distances on pot-holed roads with few vehicles. And I saw signs that Rwanda is developing as a nation as it recovers from the brutal atrocities of 1994, but learned that there were still hoards of prisoners awaiting trial for the part they played.
The Rwandan genocide is like a black cloud that remains after a storm in an otherwise blue sky.
But this sky is getting brighter and Rwanda is a country that has so much to offer a traveller with an open mind and adventurous spirit.
5 GREAT EXPERIENCES
1. Mountain Gorilla Trek
There are less than 800 mountain gorillas left in the world and half of them live in the Virunga Mountains which covers the intersection of the Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo border, is famous for the studies of Dian Fossey and infamous for the on-going human conflicts and poaching that have contributed to the gorilla population decline.
Joining a trek to spend an hour viewing these endangered creatures in their natural habitat is the main reason most travellers visit Rwanda and I was no exception. I have never come across anyone who has trekked to mountain gorillas in Rwanda and regretted it. Encountering a family of gorillas who acknowledge your presence with a passing glance that borders on ignorance, turning around to find an intimidating silverback approaching you and observing a large female with an infant on her back climb a tree with an agility that seems to contradict her powerful build is an unbelievable experience. Getting up close and personal with the creatures who are over 98% similar to the human race and realising the main reason they are endangered is because of actions of that same human race is very thought-provoking.
There have been moments in my life when I have had a sudden awareness of both the insignificance of the human race in the bigger scheme of things and the importance of the human race playing our part in the bigger scheme things. This was one of those moments.
2. Genocide Museum
The Rwandan Genocide took place in 1994 and saw the mass murder of over 20% of the population in just 100 days. It was the murder of Rwandans by Rwandans. I was 20 years old at the time and whilst I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember much about it at the time, sadly I know I am not alone. Unfortunately there were people who WERE aware of it at the time but chose inaction as a course of action. The international community’s lack of response to what was happening in the country in 1994 should be one of our most shameful regrets.
A visit to the Genocide Museum is a heart-breaking but essential experience for anyone traveling in Rwanda. The Museum is an educational memorial that increases awareness of acts of genocide both in Rwanda and other parts of the world in the hope that education leads to the prevention of future tragedy. It also serves as a memorial to aid locals during the grieving process.
It’s difficult to leave the Museum with a dry eye and my head was plagued with so many conflicting thoughts. It’s difficult to comprehend the brutal atrocities that humans are capable of inflicting on each other but it’s also difficult to judge the actions of those who turned on their own neighbours and family members. How would I act if the alternative was my own death or watching the torture or a more brutal death of a loved one? I’m so thankful I’ve never been in the position to find out.
3. Cultural Village
The town of Ruhengeri is the closest location to the mountain gorilla trek headquarters and receives a number of foreign visitors as a result. In an effort to make a living from tourism in the area, a group of locals have created a Cultural Village. I have visited many locations around the world that offer a ‘genuine local experience’ where I suspect a traditional show is performed by locals who return to their modern lifestyles after pocketing naïve tourist’s dollars. So I found the Cultural Village a refreshing change.
It is a staged village where no one lives. Its sole purpose is to demonstrate the Rwandan village lifestyle through demonstrations of housing, hunting, cooking, music, dancing and a very entertaining medicine man who was only upstaged by a characteristic Pygmy who led the dancing demonstration. As we watched the locals perform, other locals watched us as children, women and men appeared seemingly from nowhere to observe curiously from the side-lines.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable day and not only provided some interesting background on the Rwandan countryside lifestyle but was an opportunity to mix with friendly and entertaining locals through general conversation, banter and of course the obligatory group dance at the end!
Travellers can sometimes get a bit jaded by ‘touristy’ moments and we sometimes forget the importance of tourism as an income to locals in developing countries. We were reminded of the contribution our visit was making to the lives of these locals who were just trying to make ends meet at the end of the day, when they reminded us we were now ambassadors for Rwanda and begged us to tell all our friends and families to visit the country.
“Rwanda is not just about the genocide. We have more to share and more to offer” was a comment from one local that I have not forgotten.
4. The Return of my Mojo
Someone once asked me what the worst thing about a RTW trip is? My instant reply was ‘that it has to end’ but the second worst thing for me was leaving one part of the adventure behind to start another. I had just spent three amazing months in Bolivia before I arrived in Africa and although I was excited about the next stage of my adventure, I was quite sad at saying goodbye to the friends I’d made and leave a country I was enjoying so much. I had also been travelling independently in Bolivia and had now joined an overland tour which I was having a little trouble adjusting to. I felt I had lost my travel mojo!
It returned in Rwanda! The thought provoking and conflicting emotions that Rwanda created in me helped me find my travel mojo again. There was something incredibly energising about being in a country that had been through so much and yet was full of survivors. I felt inspired by the strength of the human race, I felt inspired by the beauty of the rolling green hills surrounding me and I felt inspired by the encounter I had with the majestic mountain gorillas.
My travel mojo had returned!
5. Internet Café Porn?!
At the time of my visit, Rwanda was aiming to become the African centre for internet technology and had plans to build a backbone for high-speed internet in the form of a fibre-optic network and advanced data centre. At the time of my visit these were just plans. However, like most places in the world these days, it didn’t take long before I came across an internet café in the town of Ruhengeri and I took the opportunity of a few free hours to catch up on some emails, expecting a slow connection.
The internet café looked like a small classroom with four rows of four desks, computers and chairs. I took the only available computer in the back corner and was surprised but not disappointed that no one had given me a second glance as I sat down. I was right about the slow connection and as I patiently waited for my Hotmail account to load, I looked up to take in my surroundings.
It was then I realised why no one had noticed my arrival. Every chair was occupied by a Rwanda male between the age of 15 and 30.
And every computer screen was playing porn!
HAPPY TO FORGET:
The opportunity to leave our tents for a few nights and sleep in a dorm was not one I was going to refuse and I looked forward to getting into a bed that was already made for me and getting up in the morning without having to pack it up again. It seemed I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the comfort of the bed however as I woke up covered in the bites that every backpacker has experienced at least once in their lives. Those damn bed bugs!
HAPPY I PACKED: Comfortable hiking shoes. When planning a RTW trip there are areas you want to save money on and areas where you get what you paid for. My lightweight and waterproof North Face trainers were my best friend on many a day, including the day I trekked to mountain gorillas. Most comfortable shoes ever!
THE FINAL WORD
Thought-provoking: yes. Conflicting emotions: yes. Would I return? Definitely!
Three months travel in Africa created endless ‘great experience’ opportunities and one of the most memorable was a walk – in fact, two walks! After six weeks travelling through Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi I arrived in Zambia with the new addiction of admiring the African wildlife in their natural habitat. And the adrenalin from seeing lions up close and personal surpassed all others.
So imagine my excitement when I arrived at Livingstone, the adventure capital of Zambia, and discovered there was more on offer than just bungee jumping and white water rafting to get your blood rushing. It was also possible to go for a walk – a walk with a cat – a walk with a big cat – in fact, a walk with TWO big cats...and these big cats were LIONS!
African lions are now on the “vulnerable list” as their population is decreasing at an alarming rate and a Rehabilitation and Release Program in Livingstone is one of a number of ALERT supported programs in Africa trying to combat this impending tragedy. To help fund the program and educate people about the lion’s plight, the centre offers a ‘Lion Encounter’ which delivers exactly what the name suggests – an encounter with a lion.
Upon arrival at the centre we received a safety briefing, watched a short ALERT presentation and then eagerly walked into the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park to join two ten month old cubs for their daily walk, which is one of the first steps of the program designed to get them ready for release into the wild.
I was quite excited to hear we were walking cubs and instantly had visions of cuddling cute little lions not much bigger than over-fed domestic cats. They were only ten months old, how big could they be?
Who was I kidding?!
At ten months old the cubs already reached above my knees and despite being accompanied by an armed guide, knowing these walks were a daily occurrence and not having read anything in the news about tourists being mauled alive whilst on a lion walk, I was a little nervous. My fantasy of cuddling a little lion was very short-lived.
They might be cubs but they were still lions!
I was a little amused to be given a stick to carry before we set off – yes a stick. I still suspect it was to help us move branches out of our way rather than intimidate a potentially aggressive lion cub and I’m relieved we never had the opportunity to find out what impact the stick had on an angry ten month old lion cub.
The cubs were in a playful mood and after entertaining us with some good natured wrestling (with each other, not with us) they decided they were ready for a walk. If strolling alongside them wasn’t surreal enough, we were allowed to grab hold of their surprisingly strong tales which effectively changed the scenario into one where the lion was walking us. At times the cubs decided to stop and rest, providing us with a unique photo opportunity and if whilst posing you forgot the reality of the situation you only had to turn around and look at the cub’s eyes to be reminded these were still wild animals.
It was a truly magical experience.
A month later I had the opportunity to repeat the experience – with a twist – at the Tenikwa Rehabilitation Centre near Tsitsikamma in South Africa. This time, instead of walking lion cubs, I had the opportunity to join two of the centre’s cheetahs on their daily walk.
There was no stick this time, but the cheetahs were put on a long (and strong) leash as we led them through the nearby bush. The cheetah is such a serene, beautiful creature and as I held the leash of one of them as she gracefully loped along I was so caught up in the moment I forgot where I was and imagined I was walking my parent’s dog Misha along the road. My lapse in concentration didn’t last long as the cheetah changed direction, signalling who was in charge, and reminded me that although it was surreal to be walking a cat on a leash, this particular cat could probably eat poor Misha in one mouthful!
My initial discomfort at a big cat being put on a leash was short-lived when one of the cheetahs decided it was ready for a run and simply took off – the leash was clearly nothing more than a decoration. It was a sad reality that these particular cheetahs would not survive in the wild and whilst the centre ran a Rehabilitation and Release Program, these two would see their days out in a form of comfortable captivity. It was a timely reminder how important it is that the human race protects the freedom of these magnificent creatures.
HOW TO MAKE IT YOUR EXPERIENCE
First you need to get yourself to Africa
It’s unlikely you will fly all the way to Africa just to walk with a big cat, so it’s usually part of a greater African travel adventure. Southern Africa, where I did both my big cat walks, is accessible to all types of travellers and there are a number of international airports. Whilst Johannesburg in South Africa provides the most international connections, it is possible fly directly to Livingstone for example.
Southern African countries tend to be a little more developed than their Eastern neighbours and the wider range of accommodation and transport options mean there are more options for different travel personalities. There are also better transport options which make a Southern African short holiday a viable option if you are short of time. Adding a Big Cat walk to your African itinerary is as simple as researching the Rehabilitation Centre you want to visit and making a booking. These days everything is possible over the internet but these organisations still use that old-fashioned communication called a telephone if you are not internet savvy.
If you are on an organised tour, like the overland trip I did with Intrepid Travel, you may visit somewhere like Livingstone in Zambia where the Lion Encounter is offered as an optional activity. If you are part of a tour that doesn’t offer this activity but you know the opportunity exists in an area you are visiting, ask your tour guide about it. This is how I ended up walking with cheetahs at Tenikwa.
If you are travelling independently simply contact the Rehabilitation Centre and make a booking. Many of them offer transport to and from your hotel/campsite as part of the fee.
You may need to grow
Some organisations, like the one I visited in Zambia, will only let you join the lion walk if you are taller than 5 feet. But don’t be deterred if you have children with you, there are child-friendly activities offered as well.
It was difficult to see African wildlife enclosed in a Centre after the magical sight of lions and cheetah in their natural habitat throughout my trip, and it was a sombre reminder that the future of these big cats is less than certain. Whilst these ‘walks’ provided me with two unforgettable experiences, the money I paid for the privilege is being used to run an organisation that hopes to contribute to getting the African Lion off the ‘vulnerable list’ once and for all, eliminating the need for such programs. I hope they are successful - these animals belong in the wild.
“Quick, stand still and get ready – they are coming towards us”. This was the moment I had been waiting for.
3 hours earlier. I was standing under a tree outside the headquarters of Parc National des Volcanos, having just been introduced to our local guide for the day, a handful of specially trained gorilla trackers and seven other travellers. Nearby, seven other groups were being formed as we all prepared for what we hoped would be the experience of a lifetime.
We were about to trek towards mountain gorillas.
I felt a growing feeling of excitement as our guide talked about the gorilla family we were heading towards, gave us some information about the area we were trekking in and shared some interesting facts about the endangered mountain gorillas that lived there. This excitement was slightly offset by my nervousness of starting what I had heard could be a simple two hour hike or an eight hour intense trek, depending on where the gorillas were currently located. I was hoping that my comfortable North Face hiking shoes, waterproof jacket, cargo trousers, bandanna and small backpack disguised my poor fitness levels and presented me as a confident and experienced trekker.
We jumped into a small mini-van and drove the short distance to our starting point, the edge of the 160km² national park that protects Rwanda’s section of the Virunga Mountains which is a range of six extinct and three active volcanos crossing the intersection of the Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo border and home to the endangered mountain gorilla.
There are less than 800 mountain gorillas left in the world and half of them live in the Virunga Mountains, a region famous for the studies of Dian Fossey and infamous for the on-going human conflicts and poaching that have contributed to the gorilla population decline. There are currently eight gorilla families living in the region and each group was trekking towards a different one.
A few months earlier I had paid $500 for my trekking permit in what seemed an expensive fee. But already I realised it was money well spent as I learned more about the conservation efforts employed by the Park as they not only worked to avoid a further decline in the mountain gorilla population but aimed for future growth and sustainability.
As we started our trek I forgot the gorillas for a moment as I was mesmerised by the stunning Rwandan landscape. Endless green, lush mountains surrounded me with the occasional splash of colour from the clothing of local farmers brightening the landscape. The bright sun warmed my face as my jacket protected me from the bitter wind and after twenty minutes of a steady but comfortable walk across the relatively flat ground, I took my first step into the tree-filled forest and began to climb up towards an impending meeting with a mountain gorilla.
The guide and trackers kept my mind off my aching knees as they shared facts and antidotes about the gorillas and the local farmers. Information about the alpha-male role of a silverback in a gorilla family was amusingly followed by a tale of farm bosses placing a bottle of vodka at the end of a field as incentive for their staff to work harder and faster. The trackers often ran ahead or communicated with their colleagues on their radios to ensure we were heading in the right direction and as we grew closer they reminded us of the ‘rules’ of gorilla trekking, designed to protect the great animals:
Viewing time is limited to one hour
Always keep a distance of at least 7 metres between yourself and the gorilla
Keep your voice low
Do not make any rapid movements
If you are charged by a silverback stand still, look away and make no eye contact
And the one rule above all others: follow the direction of your guide. After all, they carry the rifle!
A couple of hours into the trek, I was enjoying a chat with the local guide as I learned about his lifestyle, listened to the passionate description of his job and reflected on his interesting view that poachers should be given jobs in the Park rather than sent to jail “to teach them to love, respect and protect the mountain gorillas”. It was an interesting conversation but one that ended abruptly as we looked ahead to see one of the trackers calling out to us.
“Quick, stand still and get ready – they are coming towards us”. This was the moment I had been waiting for.
We were no longer heading towards the mountain gorillas – they were heading towards us! We followed our guide’s instructions and placed our backpacks on the ground, got our cameras out and stood waiting for the majestic animals. Within a few minutes I heard the rustling of leaves and thought I was prepared for my first sighting of the gorilla family.
I was wrong. Nothing can prepare you for your first encounter with a mountain gorilla and words cannot adequately describe it.
Within seconds of seeing our first mountain gorilla many of us broke one of the gorilla trekking rules (keep your voice low) as we unintentionally called out variations of “oh wow”!
Our first viewing was of a mother and her small child and as magical as it was, it didn’t compare to the surreal arrival of the alpha male of the group, the silverback. His arrival caused the second rule break of the day but this time it was the silverback breaking the rule instead of us. We all understood that keeping a distance of seven metres was for the protection of the gorilla as human germs do not always mix well with gorilla DNA, but when a large silverback walks towards you and other gorillas in the family are behind you, you aren’t going anywhere!
I had heard stories of a silverback charging trekkers to stamp his authority on his territory but this one seemed indifferent to our existence. He sat down with his back to us for a few minutes giving us all an opportunity for the obligatory ‘photo near a mountain gorilla’ moment before climbing a tree to rest. The sight of a large silverback climbing a tree with speed and ease is one I will not forget and when the mother and child we had first seen followed him I was a bit alarmed that our one hour viewing would be reduced to ten minutes.
But it didn’t take long for the rest of the family to arrive and we were treated to an incredible hour of being up close and personal with these mountain gorillas. Like the silverback, they seemed indifferent to our presence and lazily chewed leaves, wandered around, scratched their backs and used their bush toilets! The similarity of their behaviour to that of human beings is both extraordinary and entertaining.
The hour seemed to fly by and we reluctantly started to make our way back, leaving the mountain gorillas behind. In just a few hours I had experienced one of the most memorable and uplifting experiences of my life and felt like I was skipping back to the park’s headquarters, such was my excitement at what I had just seen.
There have been moments in my life when I have had a sudden awareness of both the insignificance of the human race in the bigger scheme of things and the importance of the human race playing our part in the bigger scheme things. This was one of those moments.
It had truly been a great experience!
HOW TO MAKE IT YOUR EXPERIENCE
First you need to get yourself to Rwanda!
Rwanda is accessible to all types of travellers but when visiting any developing country I encourage you to do your research so that you are supporting local businesses and people as much as you can.
Those who are short of time, not suited to long and sometimes bumpy overland rides or not interested in long queues at overland border crossings will be relieved to learn there is an international airport 10km east of Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. There are direct flights from Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Bujumbura (Burundi), Entebbe (Uganda), Nairobi (Kenya), Johannesburg (South Africa) and Brussels (Belgium).
There are land border crossings into Rwanda from Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Uganda for the more adventurous traveller but you should always check the security situation first, especially in the often volatile regions near Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo. The Foreign Offices in both Australia and UK have great websites with updated information that I always check before I visit a country.
One of the most common ways to visit Rwanda is on an overland tour and these are designed for those ‘in between’ travellers (or those I refer to as All Rounders in my What is Your Travel Personality article) who want to travel independently without the bureaucratic red tape and security concerns that sometimes accompany travel in Africa. I spent three incredible months in East and Southern Africa in 2009 and visited Rwanda as part of an overland tour with Intrepid Travel.
Then you need to get yourself to Parc National des Volcanos (Volcanoes Park)
The most common base for visitors is the town of Ruhengeri. As there is no public transport from the town to the Park’s headquarters the most common way to organise your trek is through a pre-booked tour. This may be part of a longer overland tour, a tour specific to Rwanda or a pre-booked day for gorilla trekking. This is the easiest way to organise your trek as the tour company will organise the permit that must be obtained before you arrive and your transport to/from the Park. When I visited the Park, permit fees were $500 but these have recently been increased to $750.
In an effort to protect the already endangered gorillas trekking groups are limited to eight people and there are only eight treks a day. Don’t arrive at the Park expecting to purchase a permit and book yourself on a trek that day – it simply will not happen.
You are then ready to start trekking
You may experience both sunshine and rain in the same day so it’s best to dress in layers with a long-sleeved t-shirt and thin waterproof jacket. You will be trekking through trees and bush so long sleeved shirts and trousers are ideal and of course you will need comfortable hiking shoes (my North Face Hedgehog GTX XCR shoes were my best friend during my round-the-world trip).
Remember that your guides know best and the ‘rules’ exist for a reason. We are a visitor in the mountain gorilla’s home and their survival relies on us learning to co-exist with each other. If you have a contagious illness or even the flu or a cold, you won’t be allowed to join the trek.
Also remember that the National Park is not a zoo and the gorillas are not waiting in cages for us to come and look at them. You need to trek to reach them and you cannot predict the length or level of difficulty of the trek. I was quite luck in that my trek was only a couple of hours and relatively easy but to be honest I would have felt a little short-changed if it was anything less than that. Reaching the gorillas felt so much more satisfying knowing I had made the effort and worked up a sweat to get there. Of course some people do have limitations and letting the guides know this at the start will make it a more enjoyable day for you.
THE FINAL WORD
I have never come across anyone who has trekked to mountain gorillas in Rwanda and regretted it. It is an incredible experience that you will never forget and you can enhance this experience by visiting some other areas of Rwanda. Don’t let Rwanda’s traumatic history deter you – this is a country in recovery, a country that is relatively safe for tourists and a country full of beautiful people. Almost all Rwandans I met begged me to ‘spread the word’ about how beautiful their country is and to encourage my friends to visit. They recognise the value of tourism to their country and they are proud of their landscape, culture and wildlife.
The genocide and historical civil unrest in Rwanda is like a cloud in an otherwise blue sky and Rwandans believe a clear blue sky awaits them – they need the rest of the world to believe the same.