About Verity Danbold

Verity Danbold has written extensively for stage and page. After completing her BA Honours (English and Drama) and MA (Theatre and Development) at the University of East Anglia, Verity went on to write for a number of international NGOs, including the UN Maternal Health Project in Cambodia, dance4life Vietnam and Empowerment International in Nicaragua. Her creative writing credits include Scenes from an Everyday Affair and Soliloquies for My Lost Sisters, nominated for Best Emerging Writer and Green Room Awards in the 2011 Melbourne Fringe Festival. She is currently working on the film of Soliloquies and two new works.

Common River: Connecting Communities

Common River

Common River

Deep in the Ethiopian Rift Valley, inside a bamboo hut, the air is cool and sweet. Fresh beans snap and whistle in the heat of the fire, sending out rich plumes of coffee-scented smoke. The process is peaceful, methodical. The mortar grinds the beans and water boils. Soon, from the elegant black coffee pot, lush chocolaty coffee spills into cups. Welcome to Common River, Aleta Wondo.

The collaboration of Tsegaye Bekele and Donna Sillan, Common River is a multi-faceted project that improves the lives of Aleta Wondo’s inhabitants. This once stable range has been hit hard by the falling price of coffee and the impacts of global warming. The wide range of projects reflects the diversity of Aleta Wondo’s volunteers and participants. From education to agriculture to cultural exchange, this is a place where futures are secured.

Aleto Wondo

Aleto Wondo

The school on the Common River site provides the young inhabitants to one of the most vital tools for a happy and successful life: an education. Four classrooms hold children of all ages: polite, eager to learn, attentive and dedicated, this is a teacher’s dream. A large field extends the learning space into the Ethiopian sunshine. Art, music, and sports complete a well-rounded education. Volunteers visit from all over the world, sharing their skills. The school lunch programme keeps the young learners at their best. Fresh milk from the school’s cows and produce from the fields ensures a healthy, balanced meal. The classrooms are picturesque, including a brightly painted traditional Sidama hut. When the bell rings for home time, the school doesn’t rest. Trickling from the village and fields, all bright skirts and happy laughter, come the women. The Common River Female Literacy programme is a wonder. It is said that to educate a woman is to educate a family and here educated women are formed. For two years, they return to school, receiving the basic education so many of us take for granted. When class is finished, they will go back to being mothers and wives with the dinner to cook and the children to put to bed, but for a few hours a day, they are something they thought they might never be- a pupil with their hand and head held high.

Ethiopia is well known as the birthplace of coffee. Common River and the coffee growers of Aleta Wondo have worked together to produce a single-origin coffee that is available worldwide. As small-scale producers, the amount of coffee produced each year is limited. Profits return directly to the community and it makes a wonderful – and socially conscious- souvenir. Less portable, but no less amazing, is the traditional bamboo huts that dot the sight. The locally based collective can make and design bespoke bamboo huts. Fragrantly cool, sustainable and beautiful; it’s a pity these won’t fit in a suitcase home!

School at Common River

School at Common River

Common River’s projects also include a new irrigation system, bring water to more members of the community than ever before. Having easy access to water will mean fewer trips to the communal springs. Their sanitation centres improve the health of community members, as does their provision of medical checkups, nutrition classes and first aid training. Annually, medical volunteers visit and provide care and information to the townspeople. Other projects include a bio-diversity garden that supports and showcases the area’s rich bio-diversity, rain catchment and wells, reforestation and improvement to local infrastructure.

Common River welcomes guests and volunteers to visit and assist with their range of projects. Tours, school groups, and volunteer placements are all available. Coffee can also be purchased via their website. Visit their website at www.commonriver.org to find out how you can experience this wonderful place or enjoy a taste from the comfort of your own living room.

Cycles with Zebras

Zebra ParkingCycling with zebras is not something you are likely to forget in a hurry. At Hell’s Gate National park, its high time you did away with your safari stereotype, put down the North Face khakis, slip on your trainers and get on your bike. Located just an hour and half from Nairobi, this national park is home to zebras, giraffes, elephants, birds, the endearing hyrax and a host of wild deer and antelope. While you won’t see any of the big cats that roam other parks, their absences means you are free to explore by bike. For the adventurous, there are night safaris, rock climbing and a long gorge to climb down. Be careful in the rainy seasons when flash floods can make the gorge a deadly trap. However, its just as rewarding to cycle down the dirt path, stopping to take in the rock cliffs that served as the inspiration for Lion King. After you realize that, its hard not to sing Hakuna Matata at all the warthogs. Try not to… you’ll probably offend them with your awful Kiswahili! And there’s nothing worse than an offended warthog!

Hire a bike!

Further from the lake is Mt Longonaut, an extinct volcano that towers over the flat landscape. It’s a beautiful hike that goes from the base of the volcano and then circumnavigates the crater. While no guide is necessary for the summit walk, it is worth hiring one to explore inside the crater, where thick vegetation and crumbling rock faces constantly hide the path. Book well ahead if you wish to camp in the crater and be sure to check all camping equipment is good quality as it gets cold at night. The hike is not a challenging one, but good footwear is necessary. Be aware that in the rainy seasons, flashfloods can degrade the trail further. Bring plenty of water, as there is no shade during the walk.

View from the SummitWhen your legs get tired, head towards the lake for a boat ride amongst the hippos. If you don’t fancy waiting for a boat to fill or are on a tight budget, just sit by the lake long enough, a hippo or two will drift by. Near the lake, everyone knows someone who knows someone who’s been eaten or partly eaten by hippo. After a while it gets to sound a bit like an urban legend, but the dangers are real. Be sensible and listen to your guide. Even if you don’t see a hippo, there are hundreds of birds wandering its shores, making it a favourite spot for bird watchers. Enjoy a drink (try a Stoney Tangawazi!) at one of the food stalls that dot the shores of the lake along the more popular access points or follow a random path to see locals going about their daily life in their wood salvage houses.

There is a range of accommodation options- from camping in the national park or lakeside to luxury resorts. The Sanctuary is a remarkable venue for lunch or a few nights stay. Safari animals brought in to star in the film Out of Africa were never returned to their natural habitat. Finding their new home blissfully free of predators, what was once handful of animals took the “discovery channel” route and now roam in herds across the hotel grounds. If you are on a tighter budget, the camping is excellent and there is a selection of hostels, including the YMCA. Most of the resorts will offer food at a price, but there are few local restaurants around the lake. For a good feed, at a good price, head to Naivasha Town. Meat lovers will love the disco nyama choma (barbequed meat) spot on the main street- just look out of the disco lights and listen out of the pounding bass! While hardly picturesque, this a good spot to shop for supplies, as well as catch matatus to and from Nairobi and the rest of Kenya.

Whether you are after a hippo or a nightclub in a greenhouse, you will find it around Lake Naivasha. Its close proximity to Nairobi makes it a popular spot for travellers and locals alike. It’s the perfect spot of an active weekend, followed by a luxurious massage and watching the moon rising over the lake. What are you waiting for? On yer bike…Zebras, giraffes and the odd hyrax are waiting!


Lake Turcana: The Final Frontier

The journey to Lake Turcana in far north Kenya is not for the faint of heart. Nor is it for those short on time. While flights are possible, this is definitely a trip where getting there is half the fun…or adventure… insanity… death wish. At some point during the journey, all those thoughts will cross your mind, as well as doubt. Plenty of doubt, frustration, and ultimately- the most wonderful feeling of success. Dipping your toes in an emerald lake on a shale-covered shore has never felt so good.

IMG_9607There are many routes to Lake Turcana, each with their merits and individual beauty. Starting at Naivasha, a short distance from Nairobi, and traveling north to Barangoi is just one of them. There are numerous small towns and national parks to stop off at along the way. As you travel north, the ‘mzungu’ (foreigner) becomes the tourist attraction. Be prepared for a Music Man trail of small children and constantly having hair pulled (yes! It’s real. It’s attached.) and skin pinched (again, real.). Traveling at night is ill advised so get ready for early mornings and early nights. Most transport, if it comes or leaves on time, will leave very early. Make sure you bring a waterproof bag, to protect your assets against possible sudden downpours!

Arriving at Barangoi, it’s a bit of a shock to learn there’s no reliable transport. In either direction. Possibly for weeks. This is a journey that takes time. And patience. And a stomach for tea that tastes inexplicably of kerosene and fish. Grab your cup of tea, and sit by the road. Talk to the khat chewers, the ubiquitous leafy mild amphetamine that has its hold on the population, buy some intricate beading work. There are two streets, enjoy them- you will get to know them very, very well.  Visit every restaurant several times. While the local tribes people are stunningly covered in beadwork, silver mirrors and fake flowers, with ears and necks straining under their weight, it is considered highly disrespectful to take pictures. If you feel you must, always ask and be prepared to pay, quite literally, their soul.  As you may be stranded here for many days, making friends, rather than causing offense, certainly seems the better option!

Armed GuardFrom Barangoi, there are no more buses. Transport consists of lorries carrying anything from food to furniture to hundreds of dead dogs killed in an attempt to control a rabies outbreak. After a few days, the expression ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ starts to come to mind. Have your bag packed and with you whenever possible. When a lorry or a truck says you’re in, be ready to seize that opportunity with both hands! The road out of Barangoi to South Horr is stunning. Wide planes cascade into mountains. Herds of diminutive dik-diks scurry along the road, ostriches and eagles divide the earth and sky. As beautiful as the landscape is, this is bandit territory.  Chose an armed vehicle if you have the luxury. The juxtaposition of old and new is harsh: tribal herdsmen in traditional dress, an AK-47 slung casually over a shoulder.

The Long RoadSouth Horr is a good point to stop and spend the night. It’s a sleepy little village and welcomes the distraction of a visitor, eager to discuss everything from evolution to disability rights. In rainy season, the river that runs through it is a torrent, in the dry it serves as a beautifully tree lined avenue. Enjoy another cup of fishy chai and the local doughnut. It’s time to wait again. South Horr is far more picturesque. It is also the meeting point for the new bypass but try not to get too excited. The one bit of paved road for hundreds of miles still gets pointed out as a tourist attraction.  The bypass does mean (sometimes) daily transport back to Nairobi if your time has run out. However, if you chose to move on, keep your bags packed and your eyes on the road.

The road from South Horr to Turcana is unremittingly brutal and equally breathtaking. Attempting it in anything less than a four-wheel drive is insanity, but locals, and a few crazy travellers, will attempt it on foot, camel or motorbike. Sandy roads cut through lush tree covered planes. Camel savour the luxury, local huts nestle in the last bit of hospitable landscape. It is, quite literally, awesome. Soon the sand makes way to gravel and shale. The landscape becomes increasingly harsh, mile on mile of granite rock broken only be the odd dried tree or empty riverbed. In the dry season, it seems almost laughable that in a few months, this area will be impassable, cut off by raging flashfloods and watersoaked planes. Regardless of the season, take plenty of water and food. There is only one village between here and Lake Turcana, and with no daily traffic, a puncture could prove deadly.

IMG_9498Remarkably, people do live here, making their living turning the few remaining trees to charcoal. Their huts now made entirely of sacking and tarp, all the natural building materials burnt to feed families. It seems an impossible life. Continue through the landscape until, suddenly, it appears. Called the Emerald Lake, Lake Turcana stretches glistening into the horizon. Volcanic islands rise out of its depths, offering camping and safari opportunities for this with deep pockets. But most people will spend their first night in Loyanganli, Land of Many Trees.

The town is split into those who live near the water, Fish Eating Village, and those who live away from it, Stone Eating Village. The names are telling. Those in Fish Eating Villages are fishermen, subsisting on local ugali (corn meal) and fish. Fish smoked, fried, boiled, and stewed. Those in Stone Eating Village seem to survive by some miracle of perseverance, and the occasional aid package or goat. The land is arid, covered with sharp granite stones. Agriculture has no place here. People live of what can grow and what can eat it. Small clusters of huts dot the landscape, their colourful mushroom tops revealing themselves to be carefully hoarded debris- a last resort against the brutal monsoon rains.

While two or three campsites in the area may offer food, be warned that the town sleeps early and get in your main meal mid-day. Visit the fisherman down at the shore and bargain for a fish or two. They will be delighted to cook a feast if you can bring supplies and are happy to share. Aficionados of homebrews can test their taste buds on the local beer, mixed with flour, millet, sugar and cream. This ‘porridge beer’ stands in lieu of breakfast when food is lean. Hot samosas, donuts, chai, the ubiquitous ugali and fish will see you through.

Around the lake are innumerable spots to explore. Continue north to some of Kenya’s most remote safari parks, climb the mountains exploring the lake, visit El Molo, Kenyan’s smallest tribe. When its time to head home, try a different route if you can. Isolo is a good stopping point with excellent hiking opportunities, including the majestic and challenging Mt. Kenya or the more sedate Archer’s Point, a short bus ride away.  Be warned that unless you are happy and lucky enough to hitchhike, organized tours to these regions run into the hundreds, in not thousands of dollars. Many locals treat the ‘big-bus’ groups with undisguised scorn; meaning independent travel is the only route for those interested in an authentic experience.  But if you are going alone or you are on a budget, you will always be, to quote Williams, “dependent on the kindness of strangers.” Traveling to Lake Turcana may well be the hardest travel you will ever do, but, thanks to that kindness and the beauty of the world around you, you won’t regret it for a second.

Mt Abu: In Search of the Eccentric, Esoteric and Enlighted

Peace and tranquility at Mt. Abu

Bearing the unique distinction of being the Rajasthan desert’s only hill station, Mt. Abu emerges from the sweltering desert as a cool oasis. With its picturesque lake, famed sunsets, and abundance of temples, it is a favoured tourist spots for people across India. For many, it is where they will spend one of the most awkward weeks of their lives. Nearly 90% of all Indian marriages are arranged ones. As a popular  honeymoon spot, Mt Abu is filled with shy girls with intricate mehndi and their new husbands studiously avoiding eye contact or taking posed and costumed pictures in front of Mt. Abu’s many vistas. Young men bent on drinking binges away from watchful parents, families and the religiously devout all brave the curving roads and overcrowded buses to enjoy Mt. Abu’s delights. With their white bangles covering their arms from elbow to shoulder, sharply filed teeth, and elaborately embroidered and mirrored clothes, the local Rajasthani women fill the place with colour and light. As popular as it is with locals, Mt. Abu has yet to make it on the foreign tourist  checklist. As a foreigner, you’ll soon find yourself the main attraction. It’s a brief flash into the life of the celebrity, with complete strangers vying for pictures, handing you babies and asking for your autograph.

Mt. Abu is famous for its many temples and religious sites. There’s Peace Gardens for mediation, ashrams for pray and contemplation, temples for pooja and religious schools for study. Elaborate temples and schools serving the Brahma Kumaris, Jainists, Hindus and more esoteric sects abound. From the ancient Dilwara to the modern Madhuran, the temples and schools are a part of daily life. People clamour for blessings, children play and incense fills the air. The Dattatreya temple is a tough climb in the heat of the day. While its more sensible and tempting to start early, the thick morning fog obliterates any view. Remember that the temples are still active places of worship and be respectful. The markets surrounding the temples give the unfortunate impression capitalism is the greatest god here. Many spend more time haggling over the intricate Rajasthani bangles than heeding the priests!

Nakki lake is nestled into between the hills.  Young couples paddle together on swan boats, as families and friends row past admiring the surrounding mountains and Maharaja Jaipur Palace. Ancient Rajasthani men with bushy mustaches and calloused feet push squealing and giggling grown-ups down hills in “Rajasthani Helicopters’- oversized prams to the uninitiated! There’s a famous market nearby which is filled with temptations. It feels remarkably like an English seaside town- down to the penny arcade, softie ice cream stands and questionable magicians! The shops themselves tell a completely different story. Aimed at the abundance of Indian tourists, they offer an impressive range of exquisite sarees, costume jewelery, bedspreads and fluorescent-bright pictures. Heading away from the Nakki lake market you will encounter the Main Market filled with street stalls and more expensive shops filled with exquisite Rajasthani designs. Follow the other paths to a  Tibetan market or the local market. All twisting alleyways, delectable sweetshops and tiny tea stands, the local market is well worth exploring and is considerably cheaper than the lakeside area. Get into holiday mode and enjoy an illicit beer by the lake, pose with the replica Eiffel Tower and pick up some stunningly beautiful or uniquely tacky gifts for friends.

Located 5km from the town centre, Gohmuk is a popular ashram and picnic spot. While taxi services will get you there in an overpriced flash, a leisurely walk will let you work off all the sweets and offer some stunning photo opportunities. Mt. Abu rises out of the Rajasthan desert offering views of the harsh landscape, lush forests, ancient rocky outcrops, villages, temples, and more. Bring plenty of water as it is a steep climb with little shade until you reach the top of the hill. From the top of the hill, descend the 750 steps through the forest to the ashram. Enjoy the cool forest air, the impressive views and know that what awaits you at the bottom is worth the walk if only for its eccentricity.  Overcome your inhibitions and enjoy a cool drink of sacred water or explore the temple. Look out for the langurs which inhabit the places as well as leopards, scorpions and sloth bears!  The walk to Gohmuk is just one of the many hikes in the area. There are a variety of tour companies that arrange everything from rock climbs to gentle walks, many in the Mt. Abu Wildlife Sanctuary which covers part of the mountain. Take the usual precautions and enjoy exploring the unique landscape.

The shopping down, the gods appeased and the photos snapped, the world and his newly acquainted wife gather on the mountain’s slopes to watch the sunset. Famous across India, Mt. Abu’s sunset attracts hundreds of people every evening. Arrive early for a good seat and enjoy the freshly grilled sweetcorn, sweetly spiced chai or some chili’d chickpeas as you wait.  Watch Henna tattoo artists create beautiful works of art or take a short ride on a bedazzled horse. Depending on the time of year, the sunset doesn’t always live up to expectations. For many, the Mt. Abu sunset holds such religious significance that simply being there is enough to fulfill a dream.

Peace and tranquility at Mt. Abu

Arrive at Abu Road Train station early and visit the market. With its wide selection of Rajasthani clothes, esoteric shops, and tropical fruits, it’s the ideal beginning or end to your Mt. Abu trip. With its pleasant climate, it’s easy to see why Mt. Abu is such a popular summer haven from India’s more drastic climes. It does get wet during Monsoon season and, while cooler than the rest of the area, is still hot during the day. Bearing in mind it is a desert and temperatures will drop drastically at night. During winter, temperatures may fall below freezing during the night. Rain or shine, enjoying a cup of Rajasthan’s famous masala chai is always the perfect way to shelter from the elements. With its surfeit of newlyweds and priests, Mt. Abu is a wonderfully eccentric place to experience a different way of tourism. Whether its nature, culture, shopping or sport you’re after, Mt. Abu is more fun than a runaway Rajesthani Helicopter ride!

The Nightie: India’s Go-To Outfit

Like it or not, what we wear defines us- what we do, how much we earn, what music we listen to, young, old, off to the shops or out for a night on the town. Even so called wardrobe staples come in a bemusing array and will inevitably be shunned by one group or other. There is something comforting about the discovery of an article of clothing that seems to defy this. One that is found in all levels of society, equally at place in a posh resort or sea-side shack, on the socialite or the knitting grandmother, the lawyer or the beggar, the conservative of one religion and the liberal of another. The Indian nightie is, in its own way, as much of the Indian culture as its more recognizable sari or kurtis.

It will come as little surprise to even the uninitiated that the sari is a time consuming- if nearly universally flattering- garment. Many younger people eschew it in favour of Western clothes or the considerably faster-to-wear salvas kamiz. The blouse, traditionally worn in lieu of a bra, is worn bandage tight and there are increasing reports of ‘sari cancer’- a cancer that occurs when cellular mistakes are made healing the daily abrasion of the cinched-tight petticoat. With practice, draping it becomes second nature- yet how a woman is able to confidently tie a sari in a train toilet remains one of life’s true mysteries. Even the washing, the drying, the ironing and the storing of six metres of fabric are equally an art.

Enter, then, the nightie. All soft cotton and comforting bagginess. No cinched waists, pinched arms, and stifling layers of fabric. Feminine flowers, stark and minimalist, gods and goddesses, traditional patterns and fresh-of-the-runway prints- whatever your style, there is a nightie for you. Despite the rising hemlines and backless cholis of Bollywood, the nightie has remained a modest garb- its acceptability even in the most conservative of communities adding to its appeal. For the breastfeeding mother, cunningly hidden zips enable breastfeeding to be both easy and discreet. Lounging during lazy weekends in front of the television or slaving over a hot stove are done in an effortless blend of comfort and style.

Adding to their ubiquity is their acceptability outside of the home. With a dupatta for modesty, they are happily worn to pop to the shop, or for when friends come for tea. Honestly, there’s very few among us who haven’t been tempted to pull a coat over our pajamas and dash out for milk- and the nightie is just the garment! Small children dart around in them, happily covering them with the muck that miraculously appears on children’s clothes the world over. Mothers don’t mind, the cotton washes easily and soon dries, even in the steamy damp of the monsoon.

With its little additions of feminine ruffles, puffed sleeves and bows it is, to the Western eye, very much a nanna nightie. For that reason alone, it’s wonderful. There is no pressure to dress up, hold in your stomach an extra inch to tighten the petticoat, squeeze your arms down sleeves- the nightie soothes and frees the wearer. She can relax, work,  study, or play in absolute comfort.


One of travel’s many joys is the opportunity to peer into the lives of everyday people, often far more interesting than the tourist attraction on the front of the guidebook. While it may not have the glamour or the exotic appeal of India’s more noticeable garbs, the nightie is an intrinsic part of the culture. It connects the grandmother at the doorstep, the girl buying sweets from a corner side vender, the newborn nursing. And as anyone who owns one will tell you, it quickly becomes a very vital part of the wardrobe indeed.

India’s Ashrams

Sri Aurobindo Ashram at Nanital

“So priketh hem nature in hir corages/Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.” Chaucer, of course, wasn’t speaking about India when he wrote his famous tales. But every year, millions heed the call and go forth across India in search of Gods and hopes. For many, bathing in the Ganges or receiving a blessing at a certain temple is a lifelong ambition.  However, even the most ascetic of pilgrims has basic needs and even the most devote need a place of peace to truly focus. As the world gets busier and the price goes up, the ashrams and dharamshalas of India come into their own.

Ashrams and dharamshalas offer accommodation, food, and spiritual guidance in exchange for donations and work. They are a place for prayer, mediation and reflection. And with miracles few and far between in the modern world, the silence and peace that pervades them even in the heart of Delhi is miraculous even to the non-believer. With enforced silence and mandatory mediation, staying in an ashram is the perfect way to find peace, of both the spiritual and secular varieties. Ashrams are usually connected with a certain saint or guru and are an excellent place to explore India’s rich religious history.  Whether sheltering from the hectic city, or embracing the natural surrounds, ashrams come in all shapes and sizes, hidden in temples or covering city blocks. The wide range of medicinal and edible plants on display will fascinate gardeners. From austere concrete walls to glittering mirror tiles, the spaces are designed to guide your mind. Helpful reminders, relics and pictures of saints, daily quotes and an abundance of holy saffron robes all echo the rich cultural significance of the place.

Resolution for the Week from the Mother

Many go on pilgrimages to cure their ailments. To help these sufferers, many ashrams offer a variety of healing services, from prayer to yoga to traditional medicine. Skeptics may struggle with the more esoteric of treatments- from drinking cow urine to staring at the sun for long periods. However, many of the homeopathic treatments have been proven to treat as effectively and with fewer side effects than their chemical cousins. Connected to the Shantikunj Ashram in Haridwar, DVSS University is a fascinating place to explore alternative medicine. Many ashrams will also provide filling and healthy vegetarian meals and special teas. Even if you forgo the treatments, a week of yoga and fresh vegetables is bound to fill you with vim and vigor.

Neither ashrams nor dharamshalas are intended as a way to travel India cheaply. Most website state this quite empathetically. When making reservations, most will ask for a reason behind your visit. If they feel your reasons or your lifestyle is not compatible with the ashram’s principles, you may well be refused accommodation, even after you have booked. Many require guests to participate in prayer or study sessions, visit holy sites, attend lectures or complete work around the ashram. If you are planning a full day of sightseeing, it may be have to be abandoned to accommodate a mid-day lecture or 4 am prayer session. If you are truly seeking spiritual enlightenment, meditative peace, or are simply open to the experience, then it’s well worth forgoing the tour schedule and experiencing something new. If you are requested to attend a prayer or meditation session, remember to dress appropriately. Many foreign visitors will be assigned a ‘minder’ who will guide you through the ceremony and give you a tour of the ashram. While some are happy to simply act as a tour guide, others see it as their task to bring you into the fold. Remember that the ashram’s purpose is religious and be respectful to your hosts. As religious sites, most ashrams have strict rules regarding conduct; typically meat, alcohol and drugs are not allowed, western-style dress is discouraged or forbidden, and un-married couples will be expected to have separate rooms.  Only stay in ashrams or dharamshalas if you are happy to abide by the rules, or you may find yourself suddenly without accommodation.

These days, most ashrams have websites and it’s advisable to book ahead if you intend to stay. The quality of the accommodation varies and it is worth checking if you will need your own sheets and cutlery.

Jain Dharamshala – Near Mt. Abu

While most run on a donation basis, some will have a fixed price for rooms. Many ashrams will sponsor aid work in the community, as well as provide the opportunity for poor travelers to complete their pilgrimage. The bookshops, craft shops and pharmacies all help to fund the work of the ashram and are a good place to find a unique and ethical gift. Many ashrams will allow for you to visit or join for a meal even if you do not chose to stay. While you may not end up finding spiritual enlightenment or the cure for the common cold, you will undoubtedly gain an increased appreciation for the culture, a host of new friends and a calmer frame of mind.

The Hub – Changing Lives, Changing Futures

150870_10151507765426195_926473052_nBangkok sees a steady stream of travelers drawn in by its legendary hedonistic pleasures, ancient temples and chockablock markets. There are, of course, daily glimpses into Bangkok’s less-glamorous side; the beggar asleep in the doorway, the used needle in the kerb, the child begging. For too many, this is merely an annoyance, another hassle to wave away. And, for too many, Bangkok is a place to flee to, escaping rural poverty, chasing impossible dreams, running from abusive homes or hiding from personal tragedies. The children come from all corners of Thailand and scrape by on the streets.

It is a merciless existence. Children, as young as five, sleep in makeshift shelters as the trains rumble by. They find food however they can, but too often not often enough. Many find there are no role models, no access to education, and no chance to escape. Others fall prey to drugs and alcohol abuse, crime and prostitution. Children are trafficked, enduring unimaginable horrors. And others find The Hub.


An incentive of Thai and Australian charities, The Hub provides a safe and welcoming environment for Bangkok’s street and underprivileged children. Here the children receive more than the welcome “grub and scrub,” they receive a chance at a new life. Here, their most basic necessities are met with a smile: a safe place to sleep, a soothing shower, a warm meal and clean clothes. Life skills programmes, assistance with education and enrichment opportunities keep the centre filled with the sounds of happy children. From the streets of Bangkok, broken families and stolen childhood, comes a new chosen family. A place to grow, love and nurture.

The Hub’s life skills programmes empower children to take control of their health and safety. From sexual health awareness to road safety, the Hub’s children learn, day by day, a healthy and enjoyable way to develop as individuals. They are exposed to more dangers than any child should be subjected, and they meet these challenges with an unnerving grace, carefully stored wisdom and a heartbreakingly gap-toothed smile.  Doctors visit, and hairdressers come, and the therapists guide, all working together to return these children to the happiness and security they deserve. Recognizing education as a priority in poverty alleviation, The Hub provides the encouragement to return to school, monetary assistance needed and tutoring to succeed. For those uninterested in education, vocational training is provided, giving the teenage participants a chance of economic security.

IMG_8843The Hub recognizes the right and need of every child to express themselves creatively.  Afternoon comes and the centre is turned into a whirl of activity. Graceful Thai dancers lean over the stairwell to the B-boys turning impossible stunts below. Local school children visit and conduct an art workshop. The place is decorated with the children’s artwork, books cover the walls and computers offer a glimpse into the wider world. The running club provides a healthy outlet for the children, who burn off seemingly impossible amounts of energy after a night sleeping rough. Guest teachers come, offering everything from circus to music. The children are alive with it. The dedication displayed by the dancers is awe-inspiring. Every day, without fail, they come and practice for hours, sweat pouring off them in the steamy Bangkok heat. Some nights they head to a nearby park, transforming the street into a stage. The camaraderie is heart-warming; as older children become the role models they never had for their younger friends.  Click here to see the kids in action!

IMG_8708The Hub provides its children more than a safe haven; it offers them a new chance at life. It provides the children the vital opportunity to achieve academically, professionally and personally. It is a lifeline that helps them to escape a life of exploitation and fear, while offering them the support to thrive and grow.  To say The Hub is a miracle is not a lapse into hyperbole. Everyday, The Hub is giving children the most precious gift: the fortune to be a child today and the future of a confident, able adult.

To learn more about The Hub, enquire about volunteer opportunities or to donate, please visit their website at http://thehub.childlinethailand.org/


Bagan: Burma’s Ancient City in Modern Myanmar

Thirteen centuries ago, the ancient kingdom of Pagan was the first to unify what we now know as Burma/Myanmar. At the kingdom’s height, the capital of Pagan was prosperous, deeply religious and a nexus of trade and learning. From 1044-1287, the wealthy citizens and their rulers built over 10,000 religious monuments in an area of only 104 square kilometers. The capital’s reputation for piety was matched only by its reputation for education. Monks and students came from across the Pagan kingdom, India, Ceylon and modern-day Cambodia to study everything: grammar, gods, alchemy and law.  The influx of religions and cultures made Pagan a rich and bountiful city. It brought about a uniquely unorthodox and tolerant melting pot of religion.

Bagan's Ancient Temples (photo credit: Peter Newbigin)

While various and diverse Buddhist sects represented the majority, Hindu sects and native animist (nat) traditions flourished. Temples featured Hindi gods besides Buddha, nat deities appearing in unexpected places. Rather than divide, Pagan welcomed and grew from its cultural diversity. By the beginning of the 14th century however, repeat invasions from the Mongol empire had weakened the city beyond repair. The mighty kingdom of Pagan, its religious monuments and sites of learning soon fell into disrepair in harsh Bagan plains.

Today, 2200 of the original 10,000 remain in various states of authenticity and disrepair. Even staying a whole week in Bagan or its neighbouring villages will leave you plenty to explore on your next trip. Nyaung Oo offers the most reasonably priced accommodation as well as some beautiful temples of its own.  It’s also the local hub for boats down the river, has an excellent market and a variety of cheap eats. The hotels within Old Bagan’s walls are ostentatiously luxurious built into fancy forts and replica temples with world-class restaurants and golf courses. As everywhere else in Myanmar, there are no ATMs. Bring pristine dollar bills and know that the exchange rate will be significantly worse than in the major cities. If you can, change to kip before coming the Bagan.

With so many temples to explore, hiring bicycles or a horse drawn cart is the favored mode of transportation. Most horse-drawn carriage drivers have their preferred circuit hitting most of the larger temples. If you are heading out by bicycle, buy a map, plenty of water and sunscreen.  Along the roadside are clay pots of sterilized water that are a lifesaver in the heat. If you prefer bottled water, bring a day’s worth, as shops are scare. Take a head-torch if you plan to see sunrise or sunset over the temples… or if you decide to go on a highly recommended evening search or the locally brewed palm toddy!

Traditional Palm Toddy (photo credits: Peter Newbigin)

The larger temples have been a pilgrimage, and now tourist, destination for years. Market stalls surround them and, while impressive, are anything but peaceful. Over-eager venders stalk the tourists with remarkable determination that gets increasing maddening as the day heats up. While it’s certainly worth seeing one or two of the larger temples, the smaller temples are altogether a much nicer and more memorable experience. With so many temples, it’s possible to travel for kilometers without seeing another tourist, to contemplate quietly in total solitude, and wonder at the ancient architecture undisturbed.  Often, the temple guardians mysteriously appear to guide you for a small donation unlocking doors to reveal immaculately preserved frescos or cool inner sanctuaries. Most of the smaller temples are unlit and it’s worth having a flashlight to see the frescos in detail. The peace that surrounds these ancient monuments is unmistakable and welcome. Exploring a deserted, crumbling temple is thrilling.  If there are stairs or a lookout, climb up to a high vantage point to marvel at the plains, which are literally scattered with temples as far as the eye can see. It’s breathtaking.

Any historian or architect will enjoy seeing the change in architectural styles. With cultural influence as far afield as Kerala, India, many of the temples are unique displays of piety. As time progressed, the architectural style became more defined, resulting in the stupa and temple structure we commonly see today. At the larger temples, book sellers will happily sell you a variety of books on the subject, making for some fascinating, if often comically pompous, reading. Myanmar’s government is well aware of Bagan’s tourist draw and applied for a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1990’s.  Since the 1700’s, however, the government and local citizens had been carrying out hasty and inaccurate restoration jobs. In an area prone to earthquakes, damaged buildings were retrofitted with concrete, smeared over white wash, and restored with historically inaccurate architectural designs. For the board of UNESCO World Heritage, these restorations detracted so severely from the area, that they rejected Myanmar’s bid.

The poor restorations and denial of UNESCO World Heritage status aren’t the only problems to plague Bagan. For hundreds of years, villages had sprung up in the shadow of the temples. Some made their living caring for the temples, artists drew inspiration from the frescos and stories and children grew up scrambling amongst the ruins. The villages’ interaction with the temples was also detrimental as some pillaged the temples for building materials or items to sell to tourists. In the 90’s, the government forcefully evicted the inhabitants of ‘Old’ Bagan. Some say that the villagers had been given ample notice, but remained in their homes until the final hour in hope of a reprieve. Others say the villagers were given less than 24 hours notice to leave their homes and livelihoods. Whichever the case, the Myanmar army lived up to its notoriety, and the eviction was swift and brutal. The villagers were forcibly resettled a few miles up the road in New Bagan, a soulless town with two roads and little or no employment possibilities.  The government brought in tourist infrastructure, and a hefty $10 entrance fee to Old Bagan. Again, it’s impossible to get a straight answer about where the money goes. Does it go to restoration of the temples? Does it provide assistance for the re-settled families? Or does it go straight into the pockets of a government infamous for human rights abuses?

Bagan's ancient temples (photo credit: Peter Newbigin)

It is up to you- the visitor- to make an important ethical choice. Admittedly, the temples within Old Bagan’s ancient walls are among the most impressive.  You’ve come all this way; why not see the best Bagan has to offer? But visiting Old Bagan and paying the entrance fees condones the government and its actions. Sure, your new facebook profile picture will draw Indiana Jones comparisons from your envious friends. But at what hidden cost? With an army and government condemned for using rape, mock executions and torture as a means of controlling its citizens, that picture may have come at the cost of someone’s life, or at the very least, their ability to support their family. There are literally hundreds of temples outside of Old Bagan, many in their original condition. My question to you is, “Why risk supporting torture? Human rights activist Ginetta Sagan once said, “Silence in the face of injustice is complicity with the oppressor.” So speak with your feet, don’t pay the fee, and find a private temple where you can respect Bagan as a place of acceptance, tolerance and peace, not oppression and torture.

And while we are on the topic of ethical decisions, remember that Bagan is still an incredibly important religious site for many. Modest dress is de rigueur in Myanmar where both men and women still wear the traditional variations on a sarong. For locals and foreigners alike, it is particularly important to cover up while in the temples so definitely no bare shoulders, stomachs or legs. If cycling in 40°C heat in a long skirt sounds like a nightmare, bring along a shawl or sarong so you can cover up in the temples and villages. Respect local culture by not climbing over the monuments, taking offensive or comic pictures of deities, or eating/drinking inside the temples. While it is against local custom to criticize, be aware that failing to be respectful will cause offense and resentment.

If you’ve had your fill of ancient temples or fancy a seriously bizarre daytrip, take a bus or taxi to Mt. Popa. Journey times vary with the mode of transportation but plan on an early rise regardless. Built on what appears to be a precariously balanced boulder on a mountain, Mt. Popa is a colourful pilgrimage site. Enjoy a fresh sugar cane juice or a hearty meal in the town below in preparation for the climb to the temple. Climbing up the hundreds of steps, you’ll pass shops filled with religious artifacts, bananas and children’s toys, crowds of devout pilgrims and deities with their hands stuffed with prayerful kip. The view is superb; the monkeys are everywhere, and the tottering old grannies making their slow way to the top rather admirable. Once atop the temple, join the crowds having a picnic in the temple grounds or simply enjoy the view.

Gazing up at Mt. Popa (photo credits: Peter Newbigin)

Whether you come to pray, to indulge in a love of ancient history, to marvel at the ingenuity of our ancestors, or to play explorer, Bagan is quite simply amazing. Enjoy the solitude, peace, adventure, history and beauty that pervade the place. Take hundreds of pictures, smother on the sunscreen, and be astounded. Bagan is an amazing place, almost beyond words. Its 2200 remaining temples are powerful monuments to an ancient civilization that flourished into a nest of learning and tolerance sadly missing in present day.

Bell Makers and Giant Mushrooms: Exploring the Unexpected

There’s something intrinsically satisfying about riding the train to the end of the line. Some thirteen hours out of Bangkok, Ubon Ratchathani  province is nearly at the Thai-Laos boarder. The city of same name to a working town with none of the picturesque colonial stylings, enduring cultural practices, sunny beaches or ancient wats that define Thailand’s tourist scene.  It’s interesting precisely because of that. Ubon Ratchathani offers the opportunity to see a living culture unchanged by tourism.  Gongs and drums awaken the city at five, by mid-afternoon, the town apparently closes its doors. From the fruit customized ukuleles in ukulele shop to the neon plastic flowers at the religious paraphernalia shops, there’s no shortage of unconventional gifts for friends back home.  The park comes to life at dusk, with the town’s inhabitants playing games of football or the traditional sepak takraw, joining aerobics classes to pounding techno, cycling, running, skateboarding, using the outdoor gyms. If you’ve brought your trainers, join in! Or if the sun and a day’s walking have you tired out, sugar cane and coconut venders are happy to satisfy a thirsty wanderer.   Both the morning and the night market are bustling affairs. Come with an empty belly and a willingness to try something new!

Outside of Ubon Ratchathani are some real treasures. Be warned it’s a challenge to rent a motorbike so leave plenty of time to source one.  The airport is generally recommended as a reliable source, but be aware there’s a hefty deposit required.  Ban Pao Ao has been mercifully ignored by Lonely Planet and Google. As a result, the craftsmen at this ancient bell makers’ town are pleasantly amused by the sight of travellers.  The craftsmen here have been making the brass bells using the lost wax technique for centuries. It’s a community affair, with the men working the forge and the casting the larger bells and the women working on the tiny bells and carvings. If you are lucky, you may be offered the opportunity to try a hand at bell making or see the bells coming out of their clay casts. Much of the work goes to temples, but some of the work is on sale at the site. It’s the perfect opportunity to ensure the money you spend goes directly to the community! In the village, there’s also a women’ weaving co-operative that creates breath-taking works of silks beside the gentle rustling of the silkworms.

Further afield is the Pha Taem National Park. There’s well maintained camping and accommodation in the national park. The large ‘mushroom rocks’ are the park’s most recognizable feature. Worn by erosion, the mushroom-shaped rocks are awkwardly endearing. All around, previous travellers have built small cairns. Carefully gathering rocks and balancing your own makes you feel like a child again. The park also features a dramatic landscape of stark vistas, sheer cliffs, and volcanic rocks. There’s walk to a series of ancient cave paintings, as well as several to the numerous waterfalls that dot the park. Having your own transport in the park is crucial: it’s upwards of 15km between the various sites.  As the waterfalls are often dry during the winter, it’s worth checking at the visitor centre before embarking on any walks to them.

Exploring Ubon Ratchathani district is a  delightfully curious escapade.  The refreshing lack of tourist infrastructure is all part of the charm, albeit a time-consuming one. In a previous article, I observed it’s impossible to ‘do’ a place and Ubon Ratchathani proves that observation correct. Whether you come in the wet season for the waterfalls, lunchtime for a ghost town, or the outskirts for some Thai tunes and dancing girls, it’s ever changing and surprising. Ubon Ratchathani is an adventure worth every second of those thirteen hours from Bangkok.

ATD Fourth World: Empowerment, Change & Community

ATD Fourth World offers activities for all ages

ATD Fourth World operates in twenty-five countries worldwide, championing the cause of the most vulnerable and impoverished with dedication, compassion and a human rights based approach. From its 100,000 members worldwide to its permanent delegation to the European Union, ATD Fourth World addresses the challenge of poverty on every level. ATD Fourth World believes it is crucial to allow those individuals affected by poverty to have a voice and perspective whenever and wherever poverty is discussed. Providing a platform for people to influence the national debate on poverty is at the very heart of their work. Here in theUK, ATD Fourth World works with the poorest of the poor. They work with families of hardworking and kind individuals who, brought together by hardship, strive daily to improve their lives and the lives of those around them. Paul McDonald summed up the experiences of the many families and individuals ATD Fourth World has helped by saying, ‘ATD Fourth World is a second home, an occupation, a community, a group of friends.’ It is an enduring testimony to their compassion that even as the families work to change their lives, they remain with ATD Fourth World, constantly learning and developing new friendships and skills.

Their open lunches have become something of a tradition. It’s a welcome chance for old friends and new to gather, to offer encouragement, advice, a joke or a hug. Some of the members have been coming for over thirty years, watching as people come and go, growing older and having children of their own. Bunched into one small room in theirLondonoffice are ATD Fourth World team, the ATD Fourth World families, the volunteers and a delicious spread of food. Sitting down with them is like joining a big family at the table; everyone speaks at once, food goes round and round, children knock over glasses, grandmothers laugh at each other’s complaints. From enduring spells of homelessness to custody battles, each of these people has overcome great odds to create this family. Time and time again, it’s referred to as ‘my chosen family.’ And like the best families, it’s one that has seen them through all the hardships that just keep coming.

In addition to influencing policy on national and international levels, ATD Fourth World offers families assistance with housing, legal problems, education and more. Families helped by ATD Fourth World are actively encouraged to campaign for their own change, and have spoken in Parliament on the very issues closest to their hearts. As ATD Fourth World member James Riley puts it, “You do matter and your voice is important to someone out there. And if you put your point of view across in a constructive way you will be listened to. It’s important because, that way, the people in poverty through social reasons or whatever else feel that they are a valued member of a community or organisation. And if they feel their opinions matter to someone, at least, they will constantly grow and evolve. I think that if you have enough voices in anything [then] you’re going to get heard no matter what, so I do think it makes a difference.” It is an active, participatory approach to poverty cessation which benefits everyone.

ATD Fourth World offers respite time in its Frimhurst Family House in Surrey. For many, the houses in London and Surrey have been a life-line in hard times. It may meet as basic a need as a non-judgmental environment or be the retreat which allows them to re-connect with their children away from the stress of everyday life. Long time ATD Fourth World participant, Denise Smith said at one lunch “ATD Fourth World have helped me a lot. I have changed for the better. I enjoy meeting the new volunteers and I have made new friends. ATD Fourth World help through phone calls, filling forms that sort of thing. I heard about them through a social worker around 35 years ago.” Poverty can have a hugely detrimental effect on family life and the retreats are a crucial opportunity for families to be together, for parents to hone parenting skills and children to enjoy time in the great outdoors.

ATD Fourth World offers individuals the vital opportunity to develop life skills through workshops, volunteering and organized activities. In recent times, participants have enjoyed everything from carolling to photography to respite breaks. Each of these activities offers more than merely the opportunity to develop new skills; it gives people the chance to develop confidence, self-worth, friends and regain the dignity poverty diminishes.

Inspired to find out more? Visit ATD Fourth World’s website www.atd-uk.org or email atd@atd-uk.org to find out about volunteer opportunities.

Want to donate today? Visit http://www.justgiving.com/atd for ways to help!

The Australian Outback Experience

Stark red earth, the dry gray-green of stunted plants, kangaroos and unending flat, disorienting planes; I doubt I am alone in these images of the Outback, culled from postcards, films and friends’ Facebook albums. But after a year of record rains, this is a land transformed. Blanked in thorny shrubs, frosty salt brush, and leafy trees, it is the greenest the land has been in recorded memory.

Seeing the Outback now is quite literally a once in a lifetime experience.

Looking over the Outback

We stop for coffee at an endearingly kitch café which entreats us to ‘comonananavacoffee.’ The shop next door is for sale, its for-sale advertisement praising the town’s active bowls club, several churches, easy access to kangaroo culls and country fairs. I imagine writing a similar advertisement for Marree’s general store, promising prospective buyers cold pints in a pub for hard drinking shearers, an old bush mosque made of wattle and daub, a large wooden camel, a yacht club 200 km from the nearest lake, a large sign warning drivers of dangerous and impassable roads, and apparently more small aircraft than inhabitants. With no possibility of an evening boat ride, we take to the skies for a two-hour flight over breathtaking landscapes.

Aerial View of the Outback

The old cliché of the earth looking like a patchwork quilt has no place here. The land is broad strips of dusty red, cut through with old roads, mottled swatches of green, the 5614km dog-proof fence built to keep out the dingos. The lake, an hour’s flight from Marree’s yacht club, is startling. A sudden deep blue in the red earth, surrounded by billabongs and the bleached ghosts of dead trees. In the late afternoon light, hundreds of birds come into nest. Even in the wettest year on record, the earth is visible beneath the water.

We fly on over Eyre, a salt lake roughly times the size of London. The unusual weather has brought out a bloom of cyanobacteria. The lake, all 9,500km2 of it, is a dusky rose. Even from above it is impossible to take in the whole lake at once; the white salt gradually rising from the pink, the peninsula where the land speed record was broken in 1964, the sheer scope of it. With an ever-changing landscape, it is an experience that can never be repeated, nor missed.

Pink Salt Lake in the Outback

We detour through the Flinders Ranges. The landscape changes without pause or warning. Suddenly we are surrounded by tall trees and delicate alpine flowers, we cross deep streams and descend steep mountain bends. Without the red earth to camouflage it, our first kangaroo forages in the meadows, soon another darts across the road.

More of the now ubiquitous emus scatter as we approached, all feathers, legs and confusion. But in the town of Blinman, at 614 meters above sea-level the highest in South Australia, we spy our most incoungious find. Shaggy haired camels, legacy of the Afghan cameleers, graze on the mountainsides.

A flock of startled Emus

In total, we travel over 3000km in four days often on unsealed roads. This is not the well-worn tourist trail: we see more emus than people.  At times, it’s 200kms to the nearest hotel but we chose to sleep in the ruins of settlers cottages.

Abandoned Cottages at Sunset

Starting in the late 1800’s, it took twenty years to survey each twenty kilometers. The distances between the cottages must have been insurmountable in the height of summer.

Even today it remains an adventure, a green Outback that most likely won’t be seen again in my lifetime.

When I return, it will be to an entirely different world.

The Wonders of Rishikesh

The Ubiquitous Monkey

Whether it’s spiritual enlightenment, the swinging sixties or serious stretching, Rishikesh has long-drawn tourists and pilgrims from all over the world. Rishikesh is an obvious stop on the tourist travel- India compressed into one town: markets, ashrams, Ghats, picturesque mountains and a frightening abundance of monkeys. Rishikesh’s reputation as a holy city brings thousands of people every year to wash away their sins in the sacred Ganges River, braving the icy rapids for eternally cleaned soul. Saffron-clad sadhus, their hair thick with ash, snake hazy swirls of smokes past new-age hippies and newly wed brides.  With regular buses between Rishikesh and Delhi, few miss out the opportunity to explore the region.Most people spend their time exploring the two stretches of market on either side of the Ganges that are bracketed between Rishikesh’s famous bridges. Prices for both souvenirs and food are considerably more than those in Delhi, but the stunning wilderness that surrounds you make it an enjoyable walk. Rishikesh is often known as the world’s yoga capital. Most guesthouses will happily arrange yoga classes for you. Many ashrams will offer free yoga classes to long-term guests.  If you are serious about training, either for personal or professional practice, be sure to research when classes will start and the reputation of the school. Indulge in an ayuvedic massage or enroll in one of Rishikesh’s many cooking schools. Rickshaw drivers prowl the stretches on both sides of the river, looking for tourist to fleece. Unless you are really pressed for time, or have mobility issues, the walk is half the fun. Join sadhus for tea at crumbling temples, find unique souvenirs in dusty shops, or enjoy a freshly roasted corn with the Himalayas in the distance.

Bathing in the Ganges

For most local visitors, the highlight of Rishikesh is the Ganges. Bathing in the freezing water is a personal choice. Most foreigner-focused hotels will discourage you with tales of floating corpses, riptides and pollution. Regardless of whether you decide to bathe, the carnival atmosphere of the Ghats at dawn shouldn’t be missed, regardless of whether you decide to bathe. If you do decide to bath, remember it is a holy river! Dress and behave appropriately and bring a towel and change of clothes! While ‘bathing’ traditional varies from pouring water on the head three times to full immersion, unpredictable tides and over- enthusiastic fellow behaviours can lead to a slightly wetter than intended visit. As always, keep a close eye on your belongings and on the rapids. If bathing is too sedate, numerous tour operators offer rafting trips down the river.  With plenty of level 4 rapids, you’ll be getting cleansed whether you wanted to or not!

While most Western tourists will head straight to the Rishikesh’s bridges, exploring the old market is not to be missed. Get lost and work up an appetite for all the tempting food stalls you’ll come across. Rishikesh is famous for its vegetarian fare and delicious range of lassis. Refreshingly, this is a purely local market; expect elaborately beaded saris and embroidered kurta pajami rather than your standard traveler get-up. Despite Rishikesh’s overt Hindu flavour, the old market reveals the town’s long-history of diversity. If you aren’t quite ready for six-metres of artfully draped fabric, there’s still plenty of locally produced pottery, colourful jewelry and saffron pilgrim garb to keep your wallet busy. Bargain hard and avoid the ‘fixed-price’ shops that are generally more expensive.

Rishikesh’s Market

Need to walk off all the food you’ve ‘needed’ to try? Neelkanth is a popular pilgrimage through beautiful countryside. It’s a well-signposted and paved trail of about 18km- but be aware of the Indian mantra of ‘Only 2kms more,’ whenever you ask for directions. The views over the valley are breathtaking. Most of the pilgrims are in high spirits- some added by somewhat less than sacred booze- and happily offer encouragements and blessing to the weary walker. The walk is uphill and mostly unsheltered, so its best to start as early as possible. Bring plenty of water and snacks, although small food stalls will happily ignore the ‘maximum rupee price’ printed on the crisp packets if you are desperate. Monkeys will attack for open food and visible water bottles so keep food sealed and refrain from eating while monkeys are present. While the views are definitely the main attraction for the secular wanderer, the temple itself is full of life, poojas, sadhus, families, monkeys, prayers, and the requisite sacred shopping mall. Enjoy some time here before continuing onto the sacred cave, another 6km along the track. Cutting though the mountains, this is the most beautiful part of the walk. Thick jungles, snowcapped mountains, twisting rivers, rice fields and meadows all grace the trail and its vistas. The cave temples with their ancient sadhu guardians are appropriately mysterious and the sweet chai offered to a tired hiker heartily welcomed. While walking, thankfully, remains the only means of reaching Vasishtha Guha, jeeps and taxis can take you to Neelkanth. The jeeps can be hired in their entirety, or you can wait until one is full. Full seems to mean three people to a seat so anyone with motion sickness is better off paying for the vehicle. The twisting journey down the mountain takes approximately one hour, not including waiting time.

The Sadhu’s Cave

Embrace the Rishikesh experience by staying in an ashram and taking the time to explore yourself. Rishikesh is so much more than two bridges, a Beatles album and cheap patchouli. Hire a guide and head to the hills. Who knows? You may even see the tigers and elephants that still roam its jungles!

Dhampur – Dinner is Served!

Dhampur’s city streets

If you’ve heard of Dhampur, India at all, you’re probably thinking either ‘sugar mill’ or ‘don’t go out at night.” Chances are, you haven’t heard of Dhampur. Six long hours from Delhi, Dhampur hosts a bustlingly market, a sugar mill, some schools, lots of fields of sugar cane, and little else. Unless you are a traveler with a love of discovering the ‘real India,’ there’s very little reason you’d come here. Except, of course, for the food…  Dhampur’s divinely sweet desserts and sweets couldn’t get any fresher with the sugar being grown and produced virtually on the confectioners’ doorsteps.  And then there’s the diverse salty wonders that are namkeen sold from great barrels, fresh samosas, potato cakes, spiced chickpeas, rose ice-creams, pakoras, …  Visit the Punjabi quarter for your fix of Punjab’s finest or try the market for exotic fruits and vegetables.And if you can’t go out at night, what do you do with yourself? Cook! The women of Dhampur seem to be born with an uncanny ability to cook. In times of hardship, they can somehow turn two potatoes and three tomatoes into a feast fit for a king.  In better times, the feasts take on epic proportions and you go home wondering if your food baby may well be quintuplets.

Some of Dhampur’s fresh delights…

Rashi Adhikari is a bright young lady already achieving her dream of becoming a great chef. She has already earned acclaim for her talents in the kitchen, where she blends tastes from all over India. A fan of cooking shows, Rashi draws inspiration from all over the world. Her family and friends couldn’t be more delighted with the time and effort she puts into practicing her craft- particularly when they called upon to try the latest creation.  Spicy or sweet, breakfast or dinner, veg or non-veg: whatever this talented young cook serves up is always delicious.

Rashi is delighted to be sharing her recipe for Mustard Potatoes with City Connect readers. Enjoy!

Mustard Potatoes

Mustard Potato

Ingredients: —–    

     Potato                                      -                        10 to 12 (Small)

      Mustard Oil                        -                        2tbsp

      Mustard Paste                        -                        2tsp

       Ginger paste                        -                        1tsp

       Garlic paste                        -                        2tsp

      Tomato puree                         -                        half cup

     Onion paste                         -                        2tbsp

      Asafoetida (heeng)            -                        1pinch

      Cumin                                    -                        1/2tsp           

      Salt                                    -                        To taste

      Turmeric Powder             -                        1tsp.

      Red chili Powder            -                        To taste

      Coriander Powder            -                        1tsp

      Coriander leaf                         -                        To garnish

       Water                                    -                        as required

      Garam masala                         -                        ½tsp


NOTES- Mustard paste is made from pureed mustard seeds, rather than the mustard available from supermarkets. Garam masala should be readily available at your local supermarket. If you cannot find it, prepare a mixture of cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, pepper, and cloves to taste.



1) Wash and peel the small potatoes. Small potatoes can be left whole, larger potatoes should be cut into smaller pieces and par boiled.

2) Heat the mustard oil in pan on a medium heat.

3) Add Asafoetida and cumin to oil and let them pop.

4) Brown the potatoes in the oil until half-cooked.

5) Using a blender or mortar and pestle, blend ginger, garlic, onion, tomato and mustard, turmeric powder, coriander powder, red chili powder, garam masala and salt into a thick paste.

6) Add paste to the pan with the potato and fry on low heat until the paste become brown and potato is fully cooked.

7) Garnish with Finely chopped Coriander

Serve and enjoy the innovative flavours of Dhampur’s finest up and coming chef!

Thailand: An Ongoing Adventure

You meet them in droves when traveling, people who’ve ‘done’ Fiji, the Amazon and China. Three weeks on a tourist bus and they have miraculously acquired supreme knowledge of the food (delicious but avoid the water), the people (so friendly!) and sites (amazing, but not nearly as good as Angkor Way which they did in 2003).  When the OED defines ‘to do’ as ‘to complete/achieve’, the question that begs to be answered is, ‘How? How on earth have you ‘done’ anywhere?’ One of travel’s greatest joys is that it can never be fully completed. Every time you visit a place it will have changed, your perspective will be different, your experiences new. Whether you’ve lived somewhere for years, or visited for the first time, there is always something new to explore.

To that end, I’m returning to Thailand. Bangkok, off the tourist trail of gilded palaces and Kao San Road, is a tangle of back alleys that are a photographer’s dream. Bridges cross over murky rivers, birdcages and orchids hang from eaves, small temples nestle street stalls and a fluro shellsuit clad life -size doll, eerily resembling Michael Jackson, holds up his hands in prayer. We drink coffee outside one of the many police stations, and contemplate purchasing some shiny cop shoes. We take the subway to see where it goes, coming out in a building made of blinding white lino and huge sheets of glass, the size of an airport departure lounge. Imagine coming into St. Pancreas and finding it deserted. We speak in whispers and ride nearly silent trains.

The train to Suratthani, however, takes twelve hours over night. First and second class seats are sold out and the VIP bus beyond the budget, so we resign ourselves to third. There are parts of the world where voluntarily traveling third class takes a serious degree of masochism, but on this train it’s positively luxurious. The lights are on all night and the temperature somewhere below freezing makes the journey something of an endurance test. But given it costs little less than £10, its worth the loss of sleep and blood circulation! Having said that, the seats recline and, unheard of luxury!, the bathroom has toilet paper. If you are inclined to feel cold, bring a jacket, particularly in the air-con first and second-class.  Hawkers wander the rows with beer, coffee, or fried chicken, in case you haven’t packed your own. Waking up to a sunrise over the jungle is one of life’s greatest pleasures, especially with chilled-solid chocolate for breakfast.

View over Khao Sok

The hourly local bus to Khao Sok costs a fraction of the price of the tourist mini-buses, and the interior decorating is a treat.  Khao Suk borders Khao Sok national park and caters exclusively for tourists. Enjoy the novelty of sleeping in a tree house or beside the river. If you are after good food, stick to where the locals go, rather than the resorts. It’s a stunning national park, famed for the giant rhaphiolepis and huge limestone cliffs. Tour companies have a monopoly on the activities here, and, as always, its advisable to take a guide if going into the caves. Riding an elephant in Thailand has become the ultimate tourist cliché, but it’s not for nothing that it’s become so popular. Elephants (or Elephanys as the sign says) are beautiful animals and its impossible not be enchanted with them. Chose your tour operator wisely, if it seems the animals are abused or unhappy in anyway, ask to be taken back to your hotel.

The lake trip is the de-rigueur tour and involves a boat trip across the reservoir, swimming, a walk through the jungle and a cave trip. The cave trip alone makes it worth it, with stunning rock formations, bats and spiders whose eyes shine incandescent in the torchlight. Bring a head torch and be prepared to get wet. Reef shoes or heavy-duty sandals are ideal, and swimsuits are a great way to save your clothes. If you’re on the shorter side, you’ll be swimming sections of the cage and coming up to your thighs in the rivers! Your guide will tell you if it’s safe to enter, but never enter a cave when it’s raining or surrounding rivers turn brown. We exit the cave to the first raindrops of tropical rain shower and soon it’s a beautifully muddy dash back to the lakeside camp. The boat journey back is exquisitely beautiful with jungle-covered limestone mountains rising out of the water. It’s a sobering thought that this is a man-made environment; the land was flooded in 1986 to make the reservoir. Already, the environment is showing signs of stain and change.

On the outskirts of Khao Sok is a monkey temple. After you’ve had your fill of monkey antics, explore the rest of the complex. Bring a head torch for the cave behind the  Buddha statues, or if you have had enough of subterranean adventures, climb the rusting staircase to an enclave half way up a cliff face. If you can ride a motorbike, it’s a great way to go exploring for yourself. The village markets are always worth a look, and it’s amazing what a package tour will miss. There’s a whole range of hot springs, jungle walks and waterfalls to discover.

Khao Sok’s beauty comes from its unique geographical and environmental conditions. However, they do affect the weather. Be prepared for hot, sunny mornings and tropical downpours in the afternoon and evening. It’s the perfect excuse to retreat to your tree house with a beer, a few bats and the odd chameleon and watch the heavens open.

Holiday in Haridwar

Located 32 km from the more famous Rishikesh, Haridwar is often merely a side trip on many Western traveller’s agendas. Bustling with temples, markets and rich historical past, it is a town more than worthy of its own distinction.

For many, Haridwar’s primary attraction is its profoundly religious significance. Known as Mayapuri Kshetra, it was one of the seven cities one must visit to gain entrance to heaven and one of the four sites where devas and asuras fought over a pot of elixir as the cosmos churned the ocean. The pride of the city is the Ganges. Rushing down from the Himalayas, the Ganges is regarded as India’s holiest river. Every year, millions of devotees flock to the river to take part of the Kumbh Mela or walk hundreds of miles baring gaudy bamboo structures called kavadis to collect the holy water during Shravan.

Bathing in the water of the Ganges is believed to wash away any sin, no matter how grievous. Tragically, even this close to the source, the water is filled with debris. Dead bodies, human excrement and trash, not to mention bone-chilling cold and strong currents, all make bathing in the river extremely dangerous. Despite that, millions will come to Haridwar ever year to keep their soul, if not their skin, sparkling.

Haridwar is filled with temples, from the ancient to concrete. Whether you come for tourism or soul-cleansing, the temples are certainly impressive. The most famous of Haridwar’s temples are located a short rickshaw ride down the river in Har ki Pauri. Mansa Devi and its sister temple, Chandi Devi, sit perch on the mountain tops. Saffon-clad devotees will gladly suffer the scorching walk to the summit. But most happily pay the hefty ‘entertainment’ tax to take the gondoliers to the top. Be prepared to wait for hours on weekends and longer on holy days. Offering stunning views over the Himalayan foothills and Haridwar, the gondoliers are more than worth the wait.

While the temples are dotted with bright red bindis and hazy with incense and ghee, the temple complexes sparkle with bedazzled kumkum jars and are alight with blazing saffron cloth favoured by the religious. Enjoy the view with a less-than-sacred ice-cream or thali before descending. As with everywhere in Haridwar, the rupee is king. Expect to pay for every blessing and sadhus’ word of wisdom and keep a stash of small change handy.

Har ki Pauri is worth a day’s visit. Its crowded marketplace is nothing short of amazing: richly brocaded sarees for the bride, peda lassis and kadak chai for the teetotaller, samosas and falooda for the gastronome, rudraska and spatika beads for the religious and the horticulturalist. The crowds are just as engaging: dreadlocked sadhus squat by the roadside, honeymooning newlyweds awkwardly navigate the road (and their lives) together, children scream as they play in the Ganges, their mothers laugh dripping in wet sarees.

India is obsessed with the camera, and people will happily pose for pictures. Of course, you’re expected to return the favour- often with a small child thrown in for good measure! It seems impossible, but Har ki Pauri becomes even more vibrant at night. The light from the shops sends the sequins on bangles and sarees into hyperdrive, the venders work overtime on tempting sweets, and the crowd doubles in anticipation.

Har ki Pauri is the venue for one of India’s most famous aartis, a fire prayer. Thousands will gather every night to pray and float candle-lit flower ladened offerings down the Ganges. Times vary throughout the year, but arrive early for a good spot. Have small change handy for the priests and, if sitting on the riverbank, be prepared to get wet. It’s ethereally beautiful and, given the crushing pandemonium all round, mysteriously peaceful.

Hardiwar has its share of hotels ranging from the luxurious to the hovel. For the true Haridwar experience, however, stay in one of the many ashrams. Worthy of their own article (coming soon!), these ashrams are a haven of peace, tranquillity and requisite 4am mediation! The ashrams offer their own range of activities and events, from mediation to yoga to education. Involvement isn’t always optional but is always an experience!

Gondoliers, Ganges and Ghats not enough for you? Haridwar is surrounded by beautiful scenery, filled with markets and lined with enough Ghats that there’s no excuse not to take a dip in the Ganges. At night, look out for wild elephants using the green corridor on the outskirts of Haridwar. Dev Sanskirti University is renowned for its study of alternative medicines and many stay for weeks to undergo a rich variety of traditional and revolutionary treatments. Elephants, sadhus and chai, oh my!

Images courtesy of the author

Talad Rot Fai: Bangkok’s Hippest Market

For the hip young things, Bangkok’s Chatacak market is old news. Overpriced, crawling with sweaty tourists and baby bunnies in tutus, swelteringly hot, row on row of the same stuff all held in a purpose built market. And, let’s be honest, a purpose built market? Who does that these days? If you’re all about the oversized geek-chic glasses, rockabilly beats and painted-on black skinny jeans, then Talad Rot Fai is the place to be seen.

Talad Rot Fai in Bangkok (Photo credit: Peter Newbigin)

It’s also the place to pick up everything from Bakelite to Bert and Ernie dolls, all in the dim half-light of dozens of abandoned train carriages, converted VW camper-vans, and market stalls scattered on the pavement. Started just a few years ago, disused train carriages have been converted into retro-chic bars and hold-alls for the treasures of yesteryear. Talad Rot Fai is known in English as ‘The Train Market” and it is an unmissable photo opportunity. The train carriages, the bright young things, the clothes, the jumble of antiques that changes throughout the night, the lighting… Charge your camera and get ready for some fantastic photos. Antiques dealers will be in paradise in the antiques sections, where hundreds of temptations crowd for space. Old mannequins lean against fancy pin-ball machines, ancient telephones tumble off smooth leather recliners, peeling advertisements and retrofitted vintage bikes tempt the passerby. Don’t expect any logic in layout or a set price. Half the fun is exploring and bargaining. For the serious collector, there are some definite finds here. It’s a long walk to the nearest ATM, so come financially prepared.

For those settled in Thailand, the nursery sections is a great, if slightly random, place to pick up new plants. Suit up for your next fancy-dress party, burlesque performance or simply next weekend with some amazing vintage clothes. But if you don’t fancy a powder-blue suit or a polyester prom dress, head round to the clothes section. Here, venders display their custom made t-shirts, hats, dresses, toys and skirts. Everything’s new, hip, and unique. And the dek neaw (hipsters) love it. At a fraction of the price of Khao San Road or Chatarak, its the perfect place to replace your travel-worn wardrobe with something different. Perhaps a complete penguin or turtle costume? Or an ironically ‘80s tee for the less zoologically-inclined? Some sequined hot-pants for your friends back home?

Drinks and food at Bangkok’s Train Market (Photo credit: Peter Newbigin)

Tired of all the shopping? Pick a train carriage and settle down for a cold beer or iced coffee. Or if you have fond memories of Woodstock (or simply wish you’d been there), have dinner out the back of a converted VW camper van. From live music to the best of the 50’s, there’s also some classic quality audio entertainment to be found. Come with an empty stomach and a full wallet. From bargain-priced noodles to fruit shakes to retro-inspired cocktails, its the chance to dine with the in-crowd. And speaking of the in-crowd, Talad Rot Fai offers some excellent people watching. This is a crowd that knows how to dress- and doesn’t let scorching hot nights or monsoon rains stand between them and some seriously impressive fashion. So grab a cold drink, sit back, and, from a stationary train carriage, watch the world go by.

Vintage fun at Talad Rot Fai (Photo credit: Peter Newbigin)

At present, the market runs Saturday and Sunday only. While Talad Rot Fai officially opens at 2pm, venders and crowds don’t start arriving till 8pm. The market runs until midnight. Public transport closes around 11:30, so if you want to see the market through to its final glorious moments, you’ll be catching a taxi home. Getting to Talad Rot Fai is easy on Bangkok’s metro/BTS systems. Simply catch the subway to Kamphaeng Phet station and walk away from Chatacak Market. There are sometimes signs pointing to Talad Rot Fai, but if in doubt, follow the dek neaw! Walk pass a bizarre collection of bonsai nurseries and glitzy nightclubs and the market will be on your right. The gate to the market is clearly signposted, but the sudden crowds, smell of food and 50‘s rock are the best indicator you’ve made it to the right spot. If you’d prefer, take the skytrain to Saphan Khwai and then take a taxi or tuk-tuk to market. Talad Rot Fai is relatively new so ask for the name of the market to be written in Thai as many taxi drivers are still unfamiliar with it.

Got your skinny jeans, camera and an empty stomach? All aboard!

Koh Tao: Peace, Quiet & Lots of Fish

Traveling from Koh Sok to Koh Tao is an easy and affordable trip on the tourist bus and boat. If you are after a little more freedom and adventure or are feeling the need for a lie-in (the tourist bus leaves at 6am), a couple of local buses and an overnight boat will get you there in a more leisurely style. Be prepared to fight for your bunk on the boat and a long wait at the pier. Waiting at the pier, however, is all part of the fun. There’s a range of street stalls selling everything you could possibly want to eat or drink, from fruit juices to candied sweet potato to a sophisticated G&T. Explore the tent market, with its tailors, gambling and stationary supplies.  It’s wonderful opportunity to people watch, be it locals or your fellow travelers!

Koh Tao

Landing in Koh Tao and it’s the usual barrage of tourist touts. If you know where you are going, be firm. If you don’t, get on island time from the moment you land, grab a fruit juice and then go about finding accommodation. After the tourist hoards have cleared, it’s a far more laid-back process. Taxi boats are a wonderful way to get about. While expensive, it’s a taxi and a sightseeing trip rolled into one and presents the opportunity to stay somewhere a little more out the way.  Enjoy it while you can,  by day two, the constant call of ‘taxi boat’ will start to grate! If its wild nights you’re after, its better to stay near the main beaches; negotiating the dirt roads after dark or a few drinks is a sure-fire way to make paying for that travel insurance worth every penny.  But if its tranquility you want, take a boat and go away from it all.  While you pay for the privilege, and there’s not much in the way of nightlife, there’s something to be said for a few days in a beach hut, falling asleep to the sea and cicadas instead of psy-trance and drunken teens.

Butterfly in Koh Tao

It’s the ultimate opportunity to pack light: swimsuit, sarong, sandals and sunnies. And mosquito repellent… Lots of mosquito repellant, several packs of mosquito coils, and copious amounts of whatever anti-itch method you subscribe to.  But any place where mosquitoes are the only drawback has to be pretty special. Of course, the sea is the ultimate retreat from the mozzies and the stress of everyday life. The beaches are stunning, archetypal clear blue water and white sands. There’s an abundance of tropical marine life, from literally rainbow fish to turtles. Koh Tao is a diver’s paradise and nearly every resort, tourist operator, restaurant, club or pub is affiliated with a dive school. Companies keep prices fair by all staying at roughly the same cost per dive, but may sweeten the deal with free accommodation or free dives, so its worth looking around for the best package.  Even if you aren’t interested in diving, the snorkeling is accessible and fun, and it’s easy to spend hours gazing at all manner of marine life without branching far from shore.

Puppies in Koh Tao

Motorbikes, scooters, dirt bikes and ATVs are all available to rent. They are a great way to see the island, particularly when it’s hot and the hills make walking hard work. All your mother’s warnings about being safe and sensible should be heeded, the dirt or sand roads can be rough going, and tourists and locals alike abandon any pretense at road courtesy or safety.  While travel guides seem to place the blame on the ‘three-to-a-bike with an underage driver’ locals, its much more likely to be the 18 year old gap-yearer with a hangover, trail bike and no concept of a speed limit that will be your undoing. Convince yourself its all part of the fun and enjoy the freedom. After all, when you get back to London, chances are you won’t be swerving to avoid the lizards!

Unfortunately, there aren’t many isolated beaches left, and half the restaurants offer more Western food than Thai. If you want a chance to experience Thai culture,  Koh Tao certainly shouldn’t be your only Thailand destination.

But whether you spend your days diving or relaxing, your nights falling asleep to the sea or drinking spirits by the bucket, Koh Tao offers something for everyone.

One Love – Community, Circus, Change

“Community-led development” has become a bit of a buzzword in the NGO world, the Holy Grail, it would seem. More laudable, however, is “community-initiated,” especially when the people leading the change are children. In 1998, a group of children in the Ethiopian city of Awassa began to practice circus. They practiced with an untiring dedication and their hard work began to be recognized. First came the accolades in competitions, and then came the notice of Awassan Aster Dabels and a German friend Dr. Herman Hunzinger. The artists of Debub Nigat (Southern Dawn) may have drawn audiences in to spectacular, beautiful worlds as they performed, but the reality of their daily lives was sobering. Many were hungry and unable to afford an education. Some had lost family members to AIDS or Ethiopia’s turbulent history. Dabels and Dr Hunzinger raised the money that kept Debub Nigat’s performers in school with food in their stomachs.


Three years passed. Muscles strengthen as stunts become increasing challenging, the stack of circus toys grow and fade with use. In 2002, the troupe collaborated with American director, David Schein, to create a performance promoting HIV/AIDS awareness. It was a topic close to the hearts of the performers and the audience, and performed with uncommon insight, creativity and skill. The Awassa AIDS Education Circus was born. Recognizing its contribution to HIV/AIDS awareness, the town of Awassa donated land to build the Debub Nigat Circus and Vocational Training Center. Then came tours of Ethiopia.

Touring as One Love, the group began to spread awareness all over the country. From remote towns to the capital, from markets to schools to theatres, the group brought a unique perspective to life-saving messages. They broadened their topics, developing works on topics as diverse and challenging as FGM, land-mine awareness and khat addiction. Their skills in awareness-raising were recognized by an ever-increasing number of NGOs and IGOs, including the UN and the American Embassy.


Now One Love works under their own umbrella NGO, Action for Youth and Community Change (AYCC), which also provides a home for the Awassa Peace Dojo, an immensely popular aikido centre. As Ethiopian’s only centre for studying the peaceful martial art, the Awassa Peace Dojo is a haven of respect, hard work, and global citizenship. The AYCC Campus is alive with creativity, a meeting point for all of Awassa’s children to learn and grow. Classes in theatre, dance, music, visual arts and sports keep young minds and bodies active. Academic assistance, life skills and counseling keep them healthy. Dedication and perseverance come from the children and young people themselves.

Some rehearse for a music video, others turn endless handsprings, somewhere a child is singing, while others draw. There are cheers from the football court, the whistle from the basketball game. It’s a place of love, learning and inspiration.


Nowadays, performers have found themselves capable of competing with circus performers the world over. Casting directors came calling, offering the performers positions in circuses all over the world. Fame came for some; others found work at One Love, mentoring a new generation of performers. A true rags to riches story – although the riches found are often kind heart, a willing mind, a strong body and a bright future.

Help One Love Theater continue to produce impeccable performances that are literally changing the lives of rural Ethiopians. Visit http://onelovetheater.org/ to donate. Be sure to put One Love Theater in the note line and receive your written confirmation. If you are interesting in volunteering with this wonderful organization or any questions please contact Sintayehu Mengistu at sintayehu2k5@yahoo.com or David Schein at dafschein@gmail.com.

Nanital – Summer’s Winter Wonderland

Even with today’s high-tech fabrics, isotonic sports drinks, and ready supply of ice, India is hot. This year regularly saw record-breaking temperatures close schools and bring towns to a sweaty standstill. Is it any surprise then that India’s cool hill stations have long since been a favourite weekend getaway? Lake Nanital is Delhi’s closest hill station. Surrounded by the towns of Nanital, Talital and Manital, the hill station eclectically merges its local village roots with the colonist charms. Nestled amongst the Kumaron Hills, Lake Nanital remains popular with locals, but the once-steady stream of foreigner visitors has dwindled. When Delhi’s crowded streets get too much, hop on a train, and chill out, both mentally and physically. After all, when in Rome…


Lake Nanital is surrounded by a pretty promenade, which is popular with tourists and hawkers. With your back turned to the market, it’s easy to pretend the place hasn’t changed since its turn of the century heyday- women still drift by in silk saris and hand knitted sweaters, lazy boats drift on the water, and the opposite river bank is mercifully undeveloped. Of course, the market can’t be ignored and is a wonderful place to pick up souvenirs. In particular, look for the Kashmiri embroidery and handmade knitwear, most of which are reasonably priced and exquisitely made. The hand knitted wooly slippers sold on the roadside make lovely presents for friends back in freezing England! Leaving the market, the ramshackle town is picture perfect with brightly coloured buildings that seem to defy gravity, chai stalls, shops selling the gnarly roots and leaves that comprise the local medicines, glittering jewelry shops and more.  If you plan to stay local, the temples, colonial church and high altitude zoo are a popular tourists attraction. This is a city aimed at the leisure-seeker:  shops won’t open until mid-morning and city comes to life at dusk, as the markets lights up and the large square at the far side of the lake is taken over by sportsmen of every game. Enjoy a spiced chai or a colonially inspired G&T as you cheer your chosen team.

Sports at sundown

Once your wallet is exhausted, its time to bring the rest of you up to speed.  A sedate paddle around the lake is a perennial favourite. Ancient swan boats and brightly painted rowboats are available for hire. Further away from the lake are a series of caves named after various animals. The place is quite the tourist hotspot, with long-queues and tourist buses. The gondola ride to the top of Snow View is always popular, both for its views and for its novelty.  Rock-climbing courses are available for the adventurous. If you prefer a more tranquil approach to nature, stay at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram about 5km out of town. Meals are provided and short trails snake the hills surrounding the ashram. This is the perfect place to refresh after life on the road: daily mediation, healthy food and fresh, cool air. For those interested in longer walks or horse riding, tour operators and hotels will happily provide a guide to one of the many surrounding mountains, lakes or streams.  Nania Peak is the area’s highest mountain and is a pleasant walk dotted with wild flowers and ferns. While the summit is not impressive, the views as you ascend are breathtakingly beautiful. On clear days, the Himalayas are visible in the distance. Both the ashram and peak can be reached by walking or by taxi.

Parade in Nanital

The famous Corbett National Park is located close to Nanital. With regular tiger and elephant sightings, this park is immensely popular and the entrance fee correspondingly extortionate. Travelers concerned about ethical/responsible travel will need to take into account the criticism Corbett has faced in recent years. Many environmentalist fear Corbett’s unabashedly capitalist approach has put an unnecessary strain on the environment and the parks inhabitant. Daily queues of jeeps chasing after tigers have had a direct and negative impact on the tiger’s breeding habits. Others argue that the income and taxes generated from the entrance fee has ensured Corbett’s future. The decision is yours. Minimize your impact on the environment by following the ‘leave only footprints, take only photographs’ adage and asking your driver to restrain from ‘tiger chasing.’

In winter, Nanital’s peaks are snow-capped and temperatures drop below freezing. Even in summer, it rarely reaches above 22°C and can be uncomfortably cold in the evenings. Bring plenty of warm clothes or take advantage of the market. If you are planning to enjoy Nanital’s natural surroundings, walking shoes and layered clothing are highly recommended. But with the rest of the country sweltering in the high 40’s°, suddenly those cozy slippers, cup of tea and a nice selection of biscuits all sound rather tempting.

Nania Peak

Burmese New Year: Happy Thingyan 2556!

The New Year is often seen as a time for new beginnings, gathering of friends, merriment and good tidings. In England, of course, it’s a night to shiver in sparkly dresses and watch the sky come to life with fireworks. Life grounds to a standstill as revellers take to the streets, pubs and parties. Families come together and celebrate. Resolutions are made, and sometimes, maybe, kept. In England, we’re mid-way through 2012. In Myanmar/Burma, however, the New Year has only just begun. It’s the year 2556 and for Myanmar/Burma, it’s hopefully a year of growth and change. With the world looking anxiously on, the government appears to be making steps towards a much brighter future. It’s far too little, and far too late, but it’s a start. Thingyan, the Burmese New Year, means ‘transit’ and experiencing it seems the perfect reflection of the country’s political changes.

Flooded streets in front of the

Flooded streets in front of the palace

Thingyan dates back millennia to a Buddhist version of a Hindi myth. After losing a wager to the King of Devas, the King of Brahmas was decapitated. His body, with the addition of an elephant’s head, became Ganesha. His own head was too powerful to be allowed to fall or rise. Six or seven devi princesses were charged with protecting the head, with the head changing guardian annually, at Thingyan. The first day, now set to April 13, is a religious day of prayer and offering. The first drops of water come down gently; sprinkled on idols in a purifying ritual. Monks and nuns offer blessings and young monks begin their tutelage.

For the next four days, however, the peace is abruptly shattered. Water is suddenly everywhere. For the previous week, racks of waterproof casings for phones and cameras have sprung up like the traditional padauk flowers. Many years ago, water was gently sprinkled on the heads of elders on the final day, cleansing and blessing them for the coming year. Now, it’s soaking wet carnage. The entire country, it seems, arms themselves with buckets, hoses, saucepans, cups, water guns…. It’s impossible to walk down the street without getting ‘cleansed’ repeatedly. In Mandalay, the main stages line the palace walls, and fire-hoses suck water from the moats to spray the crowds. In the blazing heat, tipping ice water on someone seems almost kind, but more mischievous sorts keep it on late into the night. Surprisingly, it all stays in good spirits. Thingyan is known for its practical jokes. From hiding chillies in the traditional mont lone yeibaw to rubbing soot on the faces of pranksters, everyone is fair game. And, for once, so is the government! Keep an eye out for elaborately decorated floats hosting politically and socially inspired rappers. Taking on everything from HIV/AIDS to corruption, it’s the public’s chance to take to the microphone and poetically vent.

Thingyan in Myanmar/Burma

Staying dry is a nearly impossible (and quite frankly, pointless!) challenge. All it takes is one soaking and you may as well throw up your soggy hands and accept you’re in for another wet day. Dress appropriately in fast drying clothes and avoid anything white or clinging. While Thailand’s Songkram may have a reputation for tourists in bikinis and boardies, Myanmar is far far more conservative. Cover up! Women in particular will only be more if a target if they don’t. Carry only what you need with you and keep it in a waterproof container, particularly your camera. That water in the buckets? If it’s icy, you’re in luck! Otherwise, it’s probably not purified and filled to the brim with the grimy reasons you’re told not to drink the water. Make sure you check regularly for any open cuts and keep them disinfected. If you do want to stay dry…. Forget it! While most people are prepared to accept ‘no’, the streets are flooded, hoses are spraying at random, and there’s always the one special person who just won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Join in, have fun and, remember, you’ll soon dry!

All of the country, concerts are held. Whether watching traditional dancing or partying to the ubiquitous Myanmar cover bands (everything from ACDC to Justin Bieber), the entire population comes out to celebrate! The crush of humanity can become dangerous as people block thoroughfares with motorbikes and cars. Given what’s known of their human rights record, it’s a pleasant surprise to see the Myanmar army make a conscious effort to protect women and children. Pulling them out of the crush, they are greeted by a kindly army medic, water, and a steady supply of home-made smelling salts. If you are braving some of the more crowded areas, be prepared for it to get dangerously crowded. Stick together and have a designated meeting space. Ironically, given the amount of water, it’s easy to get dehydrated. An elderly man wishing to discuss ABBA and David Cameron advised me to ‘drink beer. The carbohydrates will keep you hydrated.’ But rehydration salts, readily available in Myanmar’s pharmacies, are the more standard means.

Getting blessed on the road at Thingyan

By mid-morning, some have reached a level of nearly unbelievable drunkenness. Every year, drunkenness causes death and injury, earning water festivals around South East Asia the sobering epithet ‘week of death’. Drunk and dangerous driving is the cause of most of the deaths. Most buses, trains and boats won’t run during Thingyan (something to bear in mind if you are planning to travel). But if you are on the roads, be careful. Young people race around the city on bikes and standing in truck beds, getting soaked by their eager roadside companions. Unless you are a competent driver, now is not the time to learn to negotiate a foot of water with another barrage from above! Just going for a walk is perhaps one of the best ways to watch the festivities; from the ancient and sacred to rock music and madness!

From the young to the old, everyone enjoys a good wet dance!

Children are in a state of near delirious happiness for a week. Free sugary sweets and normally sensible parents encouraging them to spray complete strangers with hoses must be a dream come true! Families come together to hand out traditional food and, like in England, make New Year’s resolutions. The country is filled with laughter and goodwill. It’s remarkable how involved everyone is. In this day and age, how often do we all stop, take time to wish well to complete strangers, dance in the street, and make steps towards a brighter future? Not often enough, I say. So roll on, Thingyan. We all need more buckets of water and joy in our lives.

Gili Meno – Paradise Found

Located off the coast of Bali, Lombok and the Gili Islands are an entirely different experience. Lombok is renowned for its trekking and diving and to access the Gilis, you drive across the island, taking in breathtaking views, lush forests and scores of monkeys. It’s tempting to stay, but I chose to continue on towards my destination, the Gili Islands.  Gili Air and Gili T. cater to the backpacker crowds, hordes of young tourists descend for cheap arak cocktails and cheap, but spectacular, diving. Save yourself the exhausting ten-hour bus-ferry-bus-boat journey and stay in Kuta if this is what you are after.

Sunrise on Gili Meno

Gili Meno, however, is different. Two kilometers in length, and a kilometer across, it’s a tiny haven of peace and tranquility. There are no roads on the island, just sandy paths for the picturesque horse and carts decorated with brightly coloured tassels and bells. Its quiet sandy beaches look out over crystal clear waters. There are virtually no waves and you can easily spend days floating in the water, staring at the mountains of Bali and Lombok in the distance. Even if you forgo the fishing, snorkeling and diving trips on offer, its possible to see fish teeming around your feet. Or visit the Turtle Conservation Sanctuary of Gili Meno. Here, the impossibly tiny turtles born on the island grow in small pools, waiting until they are big enough to released into the oceans. It’s refreshingly un-touristy, just a small sign asking you not to feed or touch the turtles, and a display explaining the organization’s work. It’s wonderful to see these amazing creatures so close. Explore the coconut groves or the salt lake, where locals harvest salt in the dry season. Bring a good supply of books, sunscreen and a flashlight. Wake up early and enjoy the sunrise and slowly make your way across the island to enjoy the sunset over the mountains

Known as the “Honeymoon Island,” Gili Meno is dotted with intimate reed huts, concealing net-swathed beds and an abundance of seashells. There’s a youth hostel aimed at party-weary backpackers set in a lush green hideaway (worrying when the island is experiencing such a dangerous drought).  Being neither recently wed nor eighteen, I opt to stay in the bird sanctuary. Like much of the island, it’s either closed for restoration or falling into disrepair. It’s very large and surreal, and supposedly the alligator is missing. But it’s pink, quiet, reasonably priced and has a remarkably well-stocked book exchange. The abandoned resorts and collapsing huts make for stunning photographs, and heighten the feeling that you truly are ‘away from it all.’

The seafront restaurants offer an abundance of fresh fish, sublime fruit juices and the usual variety of western and Balinese dishes. Most interesting is the local Sasak cuisine, reliant on fish, coconut and chili. It is delicious and unusual, and sometimes tear-jerkingly spicy. Persuading yourself to try something other than the fresh fruit juices is a challenge, but it’s worth trying the arak once. It’s best to have some water on hand as the homebrewed rice liquor tastes as strong as it smells. There’s no cash point on the island and the exchange rate is not in your favour, so bring a good supply of cash so you can sample everything, and be prepared to spend more than in most South East Asian countries.

Sending out regular calls to prayer, the bright blue mosque dominates the centre of the island. The Sasak inhabitants of the Gilis are Muslim and it’s important to be modestly dressed when in the villages. Many Westerners ignore the fact that they are causing offence and it’s a source of some tension. Turning a blind eye to bikinis on the beach has become an economic necessity, but respect the local inhabitants and save your swimsuit for the sea.

Gili Meno is a beautiful place to relax and feel the worries of day-to-day life drift away. It’s easy to see why so many couples choose to spend their honeymoons here. It is a place of no worries, love and turtles. What more can you want?

Image reproduced from Verity Danbold