Manila; A Baptism of Fire

Manila is a hypocritical baptism of fire to the Philippines. Hypocritical because momentarily I feared that the next month of my travels would be spent in places which mirrored this reckless, harrowing capital city; it was not. A baptism of fire as there is no respite in Manila – mocking gazes clung to our skin wherever we walked and sneering faces appeared around the corners of mysterious lanes.

As we wandered the filthy streets, a 3 year old child attached himself to my loose trousers, chasing my gaze while holding his tiny hand out in front of me. My mind fought against itself, silently questioning my morals as I held my gaze straight ahead, focused on some imaginary attraction in the distance, all the while praying the boy who was clung to my leg would lose interest and search for another victim. I despised myself for being so heartless; so detached.

The concept of detachment is something which I really mulled over during our months in South East Asia. I think that Western society makes it so incredibly easy for us to be detached; detached from issues of poverty – because I personally have never had a young child cling to my leg and beg me for money at home, detached from issues of meat consumption – because the majority of our population buy our meat packaged and ready for consumption, rather than choosing the chicken/duck/pig straight from our gardens and butchering it ourselves, and detached from third world development because we are already too comfy curled up on our cosy sofas with a glass of wine in hand. It becomes increasingly difficult to be detached when these people, these animals, these issues are standing right in front of you…screaming at you to listen, to pay attention, to take action. The issue with this is that the moment I stepped back into the comfort and ease of Western society, I started to feel that detachment creep back in and cloud the corners of my mind – to cloud my decisions once more and I have to fight everyday to disentangle what is right from what is simply easy.

Back in the dark streets of Manila, mothers with newborn babies nestled in their arms hovered next to our table with hands outstretched towards us as we absentmindedly munched through another meal. Mothers lie at the side of busy roads, inhaling the nicotine rush from their cigarettes with blanket scraps surrounding them as their daughters run between cars banging violently on the windows, pleading yet another far away gaze to be caught by their empty one. It broke my heart. Their faces haunt me now as I become immersed once again in the consumerist nature of Western society. In a culture which is constantly plaguing us with adverts insisting we buy more materialist items, convincing us daily that we won’t look, feel or be right without the latest item. Meaningless consumerism is something I feel pretty strongly about – especially after spending so much time with those who live such a minimalist lifestyle. It’s an issue which is deeply rooted in Western society and something that I want to write a full blog post on so I will leave it there for now.

Manila is a dark city, infested with crooks who take solace in your naivety of the winding lanes of the city and lurk in shadowy corners. Beggars meet your gaze at every turn, every shop corner and a breath stifling level of pollution attacks your lungs as vehicles jam together trickling along roads at a snails pace. We spent a few days in Manila on both our arrival and our departure from the Philippines and I can say with certainty that I would try to avoid it at all costs if I ever ventured back to the Philippines. As is with all travel destinations, this was simply my experience of Manila and I have no doubt there are many individuals who revel in its manic streets and have the ability to confront the suspicious, sneering faces.

 

Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. – Howard Thurman

Be weird. Be wonderful.:)

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West Timor: Unchartered Territory

After Flores, we had planned to go to sumba – a small, traditional island to the south – however, the time and route to take us there was too complex. Looking at a map of Indonesia, we played with the thought of going to west Timor. Timor is the most easternly point of Indonesia – East Timor is now independent of Indonesia and thus we looked into researching west Timor. Finding little to no information about West Timor on the Internet, naturally, we decided to book a flight. On our arrival in Kupang, we shared knowing glances which spoke of concern and possible regret to our decision to come to this unchartered, non-touristy island. Time spent reading blog after blog in hopes of finding some information about this place was mostly in vain – we found snippets on blogs about tours to traditional villages but these were short extracts and seemed more to be thrown in for added value rather than the main attraction.

In Kupang, we stumbled across a bar near the shoreline where we stopped to hide from the clammy heat and found some solace in an ice cold beer. The locals sat on bar stools adjacent to ours, whispering loudly in Indonesian while their bulging eyes clung to our skin. Before long, one of the locals – who we later learned worked in Australia for a few years – spoke the words on everyone’s mind – and ones we would come to hear numerous times in the next week and come to smile at – ‘why do you come here? To west Timor? Why not in Bali?’ Over a few more beers, we chatted with the locals, explaining our extremely rough plan we had attained from the few blog snippets and looking at a map – to travel to Kefa, from where we could venture to a few traditional villages. At first wary – more so confused maybe – of us, their furrowed brows soon relaxed into broad smiles as they flung questions at us, all the while plying us with more beer. The young children lingered around us, watching us intently but giggling and turning away as soon as we returned their gaze. Passersby’s nodded questioningly to the locals in our direction, their mouths gaping open unselfconsciously, their heads turning as far as their necks would allow once they were past. Armed with the information the locals provided on when and where to get the local bus to Kefa, we started to feel a little more at ease in West Timor.

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Little did we know then, that Kefa – a small town in the midst of a, predominantly, unexplored island – would provide us with an unforgettable experience and memories we will cherish for years to come.

At 6am the next morning, we got on a bemo – traditional Indonesian public transport – to Kefa. The small bus was spray painted in bright colours and patterns, void of any windows, and seated 30 people, crammed into small crevices of the bus whilst nursing children, holding poultry in cages and securing boxes and bags between their knees. We squeezed into two seats at the front of the bemo, our long gangly legs immediately shouting angrily at our bodies as our knees became indented into the seat in front – turns out Indonesian transport isn’t made for tall people! Half an hour later, the small bus moaned as the driver – cigarette religiously in place – pulled onto the main road. Squashed against each other, we gazed sleepily out of the window just as the large speaker above our heads began jumping and blared excruciatingly loud, traditional Indonesian music into our ears. My first instinct – driven by my sleepy, grumpy brain – insisted I do something to make it stop, but as the bus driver turned around and grinned at us – whistling to the tune while bearing his teeth to stop his cigarette from falling out – and as I watched the other passengers – their laps crushed by small children, poultry, large bags – chuckle and hum along to the music, I could feel the sleepiness wear off and a small smirk begin to appear on my face. The bemo stopped at the sign of every individual on the side of the road – a young boy hanging out of the bus hollered in Indonesian, attempting to coax them onto the bus. About half way through the 5 hour journey, we stopped for lunch. During the stop, locals at the bus stop stared unapologetically at us – pausing their previous conversations, some hollered, some shouted ‘hello mam, hello sir’, while one man came onto the bus and – without any notion that it may make me feel uncomfortable – started taking photos of me with his phone without saying anything. I smiled and took my phone out in pretence of taking photos of him, he roared in laughter, thanked me and scurried off the bus to show his friends. While I sat awaiting the bus’ departure, a young family in front of me took out tupperware boxes, delving into a pre-made lunch of noodles and rice. Catching my eye and smiling, the woman proceeded to serve up a portion of their food on a plastic plate and hand it back to me over the seat. Of course – bound by my own cultural norms – I tried to kindly refuse, but she insisted and smiled back at me intermittently asking ‘Bisa, Bisa?’ which means ‘OK, OK?’ I felt humbled by this small act of kindness so inherent in the Indonesian culture and slowly came to think West Timor might just be amazing after all.

After finding a hotel in Kefa, we wandered around the small town, being followed wherever we walked by sets of questioning eyes. On that first day, we had the good fortune to meet Denny. Having come too far from our hotel, we were searching for the way back and Denny offered to give us a lift. Sipping on beers on that first night, Denny too asked, slightly baffled, ‘why are you in Kefa? Why aren’t you in Bali?’ – we laughed, and explained that we wanted to explore some areas which weren’t crowded with tourists. We had certainly found that – the whole time we were in West Timor, we didn’t see another foreigner. We explained to Denny that we wanted to go to the traditional villages, but refused to take a tour guide as they were too expensive. He pulled his mobile from his pocket and spoke fast paced Indonesian for a few minutes into his phone, and then hanging up, he turned to us and explained that he and his friends would take us. ‘Not as tour guide, as friend. We are friends’ he assured us with a smile and another slug of his beer. Even then, with the prospect of spending the next day immersed in local traditions with individuals – friends – from Kefa, we had no idea that the week to come would go well beyond that.

At the traditional village the next day, I felt at once uncomfortable and privileged; uncomfortable, for I have never been so immersed in another’s strict traditions and way of life – unlike a different country – where generally there is some room for compromise, for an understanding of your position as a foreigner and thus not accustomed to their culture – the village appeared so sacred to me, almost like a secret, and so different from anything I had ever immersed myself within. I was wary of disrespecting the villagers, especially the elder, in any way. Privileged, for being given the opportunity to witness such a culturally different way of life – one without a dependence on electricity, a dependence on government, one void of the multitude of objects and obsessions modern society depends on, fights about and dies over everyday.

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Our newly found friends – Denny, Ricky and Harry – liaised with the villagers in Indonesian and translated back to us in English, informing us about their way of life and answering any questions we posed to them.

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On route back from the village, Ricky invited us to dinner that night with his family.
Kefa’s climate reached its peak temperature first thing in the morning, creating a hot and stifling start to the day, which then gradually cooled throughout the day, easing to a comfortably cool temperature by the evening. Basking in the soft breeze of the evening, we sat outside of Ricky’s house meeting the many family members – it was reminiscent to me of large family gatherings, and yet this was a daily occurrence for them. Sipping on ice cold Bintang beers, the conversation grew between the group, intermittently changing from English to Indonesian and back again. Ricky’s mum and dad presented appetisers on the table, gesturing towards them with their hands and keen, excited eyes glowing in our direction. The fried banana with melted cheese and oat cookie appetisers had only just settled in our bellies before it was announced that dinner was ready. Moving inside, the round table was set with 8 places and a fast paced conversation in Indonesian took place as Ricky insisted for us to sit down and immediately passed us the rice.

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The table was set with a wooden, circular, spinning device where a variety of dishes were placed and thus each individual simply spun it towards them when they wanted more. We could not put our cutlery down for a second before one family member, quickly followed by a chorus of voices, insisted we have more rice, more curry, more soup, more duck. Over mountains of delicious food, the conversation flowed from exchanging histories of our respective countries, to musing over the differences in our cultural traditions, to opinions on movie stars. On that first evening at Ricky’s house, we flowed in and out of conversation, our laughter never far from the surface, and all of our eyes sparkling with a delight of learning of new cultures and ways of life – their constant bemusement that we had ended up in Kefa and our knowing smiles as the beginning of a friendship made its way into our views.

Over the next few days we were spoilt in every way possible – we were accepted firstly as their guests, and later as their family – and as we came to learn in the next few days, there was nothing we could do, nor nothing they would allow us to do to repay them for the unfaltering kindness which they showed us, and for welcoming us into a culture which we grew to love even more than we already did. Each day Ricky, Denny, Mel and Ivon took us to some hidden gem on the outskirts of Kefa; a beautiful beach, Ricky’s farms where we sipped on fresh coconuts, a river where the locals went to bathe and wash their clothes, and each night we dined at Ricky’s, served with a plethora of Indonesian dishes, rich in flavour and always varied.

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At first I felt uncomfortable with the lack of boundaries and the lack of personal space – in Indonesian culture no questions go unasked, no particular etiquette serves as an excuse to be “polite”. Over time I grew to love this policy and laugh at it. From freshly baked cakes brought to our hotel room, to homemade popcorn, to hours spent munching on delicious (and some suspicious) home baked delicacies, to days and nights spent chatting and laughing, we felt incredibly lucky to have met such kind hearted people.

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Unfortunately, I’m afraid that my words fall short in their ability to describe our experiences in Kefa, the kindness of these people and our undeniable love for Indonesia – a culture which stripped me to my core, challenged my beliefs and values and built me back up again to view the world in a different light.

 

Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. – Howard Thurman

Be weird. Be wonderful.:)

Flores: Komodo and Rinca Islands

The few days spent in the vicinity of Komodo island on Labuanbajo passed in a flurry of constant excitement and amazement at the immense beauty stored in this small pocket of the world. We hired a small boat for two days which took us to prime snorkelling spots in Komodo national park where we snorkelled in crystal clear waters, just a few feet away from a plethora of sea life and beautiful corals.

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Each time we heaved ourselves back onboard, Supa (our captain) and his wife had prepared yet another meal or range of snacks. From fried banana with chocolate sauce to fish cakes, fried noodles and rice, we were never kept hungry.

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After our first day of snorkelling, we spent the night in a home stay in Komodo village. The magical village, where houses are built on stilts – in case the Komodo dragons come down – is reminiscent of a village belonging to a fantasy world. Arriving after sunset, we clambered up the rickety ladder and followed the local kids along the peer, sidestepping in time to their warning shouts – the large, gaping holes in the wooden structure were memorised to them but unbeknown to us. The shadows of the houses towered over us as they led us through narrow lanes to our home stay.
At sunrise we wandered back through the village to the pier. In the dusty morning, small children shrieked from beneath the houses, playing in the shadows of the early morning heat.

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Villagers waved kindly through windows as others busied themselves dressing young children for the day ahead. A peaceful village – rarely disturbed by visitors – seemed to me as somewhat majestic; an undiscovered treasure, a secret harnessed, a calm ripple on an ocean of uncontrollable waves.

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Leaving an idealistic Komodo village behind, we travelled round to the other side of the island in search of the infamous Komodo dragons. We were lucky in our search of the Komodo dragons. Typically, the dragons venture into the sun in the early morning to soak the heat into their scaly skins. The Komodo dragon is an amazing creature – somewhat otherworldly. On both Komodo and Rinca islands we witnessed the dragons in their natural environments. On one occasion we spotted two dragons sapping up the heat next to a water hole – their bodies lazily spread across the rough ground.

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Accustomed to being in the presence of people, they do not threaten, yet constantly remain aware of you – pretending to be asleep, they occasionally open one eye to monitor your movements.
The sun set over the rippling undercurrents of the ocean as we sat atop the deck of the rickety boat sipping on ice cold beers and munching on yet more fried banana, whilst quietly pondering the natural wonders from the day.
After snorkelling in such beautiful waters, we were determined to do some diving. Although at first we were shocked by the price (£60 for three dives), we convinced ourselves it would be worth it to dive at Komodo. We were not wrong. Uber scuba have a beautiful boat with buffet breakfast, snacks, lunch in between dives and awesome dive masters who care about the conservation of this amazing place. But most importantly, the dives were incredible. Diving in these oceans made me feel so privileged that I got to witness these amazing creatures in their natural habitat, just metres away from me. Turtles, baby turtles (2 years old), baby white tip reef sharks, manta rays and a ridiculous amount of smaller fish. We kneeled at the bottom of the ocean, digging our hands into the sands, gazing through the blue in amazement as large manta rays glided above our heads. Johnny and I double high fived, grinned behind out regulators and silently thanked the world for creating such graceful creatures.

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From Labuanbajo we travelled inland through the forests to Moni. A peaceful, quaint town hidden amongst the mountainous roads consists of a few guesthouses, waterfalls and Mount Kelimutu – a volcano with multicoloured lakes at its summit. Moni is also home to friendly residents who want to help in any way they can. In the streets, the kids run half dressed – an oversized, faded t-shirt pulled down over themselves – as they hide amongst the rich greenery playing with friends. The rain of the wet season offered a cool respite from the midday heat we had grown accustomed to. Mount Kelimutu itself is not a strenuous hike – most of the way can be passed by vehicle, followed by a fifteen minute hike to the summit. By 5am, we were huddled together at the summit, using a towel we had brought as a blanket. Much to our dismay – and that of the other 20 travellers who had caved to their 4am alarm to be there – the skies did not look promising for a beautiful sunrise. They looked grey. A thick, endless, intertwining mass of grey clouds took over the sky as we jumped up and down to keep warm and devoured cereal bars and pop mie’s in an attempt to energise our bodies. When the dark clouds finally subsided at 8am, the lakes came into view one by one; the first a deep turquoise, the second a thick, unforgiving black and the third a dark green.

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A spectacle to behold nestled on the outskirts of a quaint, charming village.

 

Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. – Howard Thurman

Be weird. Be wonderful.:)

An Epic Journey: From Lombok to Komodo by bus

From Gili, we started our epic journey to Komodo island. Researching online, naturally, the most popular option was to fly. However, with the flights costing seventy pounds each, this wasn’t an option we could consider. After hours trolling the web, we formed a route plan from snippets of others’ blogs and online sources. The following day we started our journey from Mataram on Lombok to Labuanbajo on Flores.

As we arrived at Mataram bus station, a dozen figures dancing in the shadows of the early morning sunshine flocked to our taxi; jostling with one another for our attention and, most importantly, our money. Opening the door into the, already scorching, heat, we were met with a chorus of voices – ‘where you go sir, where you go mam? Cheap travel, very good deal for you sir.’ Sleepiness still clouding our heads and our empty stomachs rumbling, we pushed our way through the masses of men.
After some bartering, we settled for a deal of 450,000 rupiahs for two of us for a 15 hour bus journey, including a two hour ferry (about ten pounds each).
Taking out seats on the bus, the aisle was soon flooded with numerous ladies and men balancing large baskets on their heads containing a plethora of foods from fried banana to fruit to rice.

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Among these merchants were also young street children who proceeded to play a short song and collect money. There were also numerous beggars – one man remains at the forefront of my mind and I am unable to shift him from latching on to my memory, even months later. Lacking of any limbs – neither arms nor legs – he scrambled along the bus floor. Dressed in scraps of material coated in layers of filth and clenching a hat between his teeth, he stared at passengers with eyes void of any emotion, emulating a frightening emptiness.
The bus journey passed painlessly – aside from being thrown into each other at every sharp bend as the bus swerved round blind corners on the other side of the road, squeaking and moaning as the suspension strained from the demands of the driver.
Only two hours into our journey, we boarded the ferry from Lombok to Sumbawa. Trailing off the bus, we followed the locals upstairs into a small room. The heat was stifling, dozens of pairs of eyes bore into our skin watching our every move. A loud, crass man laughed coarsely and told a tale in Indonesian before hitting us on the back and holding his sweaty palm in front of us requesting money. I slumped uncomfortably in the metal chair, manoeuvring in between it’s cold juts and points, attempting to cower away from the questioning eyes.
My gaze rested on an elderly woman slumped on the dirt ridden floor of the ferry. Large creases crowded her face, paired with dark shadows caressing her deep green eyes. Her right hand aggressively picked at the infected callouses on her foot and her left hand remained stationary – palm up in the air – her eyes searching the passengers, attempting to lock them into an unforgiving gaze.

A ten hour bus journey followed our ferry crossing, after which we caught a quick four hours sleep in Bisa (2 hours drive from the East coast of Sumbawa). In the early morning, we squeezed into the front seat of a bemo to take us to the ferry port where the ferry to Labuanbajo on Flores Island was scheduled to leave at 8am. After two hours of mountainous roads and a constant stream of cigarette smoke – courtesy of our driver – we arrived at the ferry port. On arrival, we were approached by a Russian man who informed us that the ferry was not running that day. This was immediately reaffirmed by a pack of Indonesian men –  dressed in attire which reminded me of pirates. Both the Russian and one of the Indonesians tried to convince us to hire a private boat for 4 million rupiah (240 quid) instead – the first so his personal costs would be reduced, and the second as he was the captain of the boat. Being pretty familiar with Asian travel delays, we decided to sit tight and wait it out with the locals (and save £230!) much to the dismay of both individuals.

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The large, tiled floor, room where we waited was scattered with locals doing the same. They, however, unlike us, had come prepared. They proceeded to lay out blankets and floor mats, curled into one another and snoozed most of the day away – only awakening from their slumber to indulge in home cooked meals of rice, noodles and meat to be enjoyed cold. The children, instead of growing impatient – as they might in our society – shrieked with delight as they chased new friends around the room and danced happily in the afternoon downpour. We passed the day exchanging life and travel stories with a father and son from Canada whom we then went on to explore Komodo island with.
Throughout the day, we gained an attachment, of sorts. An elderly man shuffled towards our corner of the room, gathering his knees towards his chest and muttering to himself in Indonesian. He wore baggy trousers stained with a mixture of fluids and covered in holes, his t-shirt hung off his skeletal bones, his skin was tarnished with pussy, infected bites and scars where flies, which didn’t seem to bother him, took solace in. His scrawny ankles gave way to long toes with yellow, sharp toenails flaking and rotting – forever markedly by years of shoeless wandering. His eyes settled on us and rarely wandered, every now and then he let out a loud cackle. During the moments he was silent, he remained sucking the gaps between his few teeth, shuffling his position on the floor ever so slightly.

After a day of people watching, chatting and adopting a certain patience – which the locals seem to have down to a tee – our ferry to Labuanbajo finally arrived at 5pm.

 

Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. – Howard Thurman

Be weird. Be wonderful.:)

Indonesia: A country of innate, traditional and harnessed beauty

Indonesia is a deep inhale of fresh air – the kind of air you breath deep into your lungs on a crisp winter morning. Indonesia is an intertwining of cultures and traditions, a country where the language differs depending on the island; a country of innate, traditional and harnessed beauty.
It is a country of contrasts; from tropical forests inland to white sanded beaches lining the shores and coaxing you into an ocean clustered with beautiful, healthy corals providing a habitat for an array of sea life and startling creatures.
Back on land, whether it is Bali, Flores, Timor or Lombok, people dress themselves with pride, with elegance. Men and women alike walk down the roads donning hand crafted, ikat woven material wrapped around their bodies, creating clusters of delight for your eyes with patterns curling intimately around one another in vibrant colours. Young girls and women wear bright, hand picked flowers in their neatly kept hair. I am startled as I watch them – in Bali, in Flores, in Lombok, in Timor – at their exotic and undeniable beauty.
The blinding sun licks their skin as if it were an old lover, used to their presence – a lifetime spent outdoors, entangled with nature, has blessed their skin.
And they smile. A bright white smile – they smile as they carry a large woven basket on their heads full of goods, they smile as they cradle a tiny baby on their hip whilst chattering away to you at full speed, and they smile through their weary eyes after another long day.
I developed a strong love for Indonesian people during my time there; their kindness, their traditions, their family values, and of course…their smiles.

The first stop on our Indonesian adventures was Ubud. Hidden amongst the hanging vines of central Bali’s forests, Ubud emits a spark of mysterious magic from its core. Famous from the 2006 novel ‘Eat. Pray. Love’, this hippy haven has seen an influx of tourists over the past few years. However, don’t be put off by this. Ubud is clustered with markets intertwining with one another, leading you up and down rickety concrete steps and squeezing through intricate lanes gazing at the many patterned, aztec, colourful garments overflowing on the street stalls. With a plethora of yoga studios offering classes which stray from the norm and eateries geared towards veganism and superfoods, Ubud is indeed a hippy heaven.
A sucker for aimlessly wandering, I spent afternoons strolling through the enchanting streets of Ubud, gazing into windows of shops selling intricate jewellery, or round market stalls laden with hippy pants which I had to tear myself away from otherwise I wouldn’t be able to close my rucksack for overflowing amounts of patterned clothing!

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Otherwise, our time was spent revelling in the many amazing eateries – after 2 months of eating rice and noodles as our staples, I resembled a child on Christmas morning as my eyes jumped excitedly about the menu of Earth Cafe. Salads, humous, pitta bread, veggie burgers/wraps and a plethora of health juices and smoothies.

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I would highly recommend this Eco warrior cafe for anyone looking for a wide selection of vegan and veggie munchies!
My excitement and our health cafe adventures didn’t stop there. One afternoon we found ourselves in Soma cafe. Finding ourselves a seat on some floor cushions, we settled in for a good few hours of relaxed vibes as a jam session of local musicians playing traditional tunes unfolded before us.

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Awesome vibes, yummy food and delicious raw desserts!
Ubud’s chilled, hippy vibe is infectious – many people spend their days doing yoga followed by sipping on health juices and getting lost in its entangled lanes selling yoga pants, incense and hippy crafts. It’s charm is not connected to a particular age or sex and here’s hoping it is also a charm immune to ever increasing tourism.

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Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. – Howard Thurman

Be weird. Be wonderful.:)

 

Life on the Road: Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh by Motorbike

The Logistics 

Starting in Hanoi we spent a couple of days monitoring Craigslist – similar to gumtree and the main hub which travellers use to buy and sell motorbikes in Vietnam – and traipsing around dealers in search of the noble steed which would carry both of us (we ain’t small) and 25kg of luggage 2,500km to Ho Chi Minh. If you fancy making this journey – which you definitely should because it’s awesome!! – I would recommend doing a good chunk of research before you go in search of your bike. Although I know little to nothing about bikes, luckily I had Johnny who knows a damn sight more than me! Ideally, you are looking for a Honda Win 100 which you won’t have a problem finding..however preferably you want to look for a Sufat. Sufat’s are generally much more reliable than the Hondas made in China and although it may be a bigger investment at the time, it really is worth it. Our bike travelled all the way to Ho Chi Minh with no major issues, the only repairs we had done were simple maintenance. I would recommend buying the bike off of a fellow backpacker if you can – there will be less bullshit involved in the buying process as the Vietnamese can be pretty sneaky. If you take care of your bike on the way you will be able to make your money back or even make a profit!

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Thanks to a few travellers’ advice, we headed inland and travelled down close to the Laos border until we got to Khe San where we crossed over to the coastal road at Hue. Highway 1 is definitely the quickest route from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh but I would advise staying off of it as much as possible – it is a mass free for all with lorries overtaking buses overtaking cars with you pushed into the side. It is super dangerous and also not the most exciting road to drive so avoid when you can.

Week 1 – Chasing The Sunshine

From Hanoi we travelled south west to Mai Chau and from there we travelled south inland over the most beautiful roads. Keen to make steady progress south and chase that sunshine – which had evaded us since our arrival in Vietnam – our first week saw us riding 200-300km each day (8-10 hours on a bike). Throughout this first week of riding, every night we collapsed at the first guesthouse we could find, shivering despite wearing 7 items of clothing, falling onto the beds which, at best, were marginally softer than you would imagine sleeping on a pool table to be. Every night we got better at communicating through hand gestures and repeating the word for rice in Vietnamese to gain some semblance of a meal. Every night we surrendered to the under side of our eyelids, giving way to a deep sleep in an attempt to rest our bodies from the days riding whilst simultaneously preparing our aching bums for the next days ahead.

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Life on the Road

Life on the road passed in a flurry – one of laughter as we drove through magnificent mountainous villages whilst children sprinted alongside the bike, waving their arms frantically, screaming ‘HELLO’ whilst delight sparkled in their eyes. This delight was reflected in my own eyes as I smiled back at them, my heart swelling with warmth at their welcoming nature.
This laughter continued into moments of exhaustion as our bike chugged through the mountainous roads, 300km already behind us, and 100km since we had seen another soul, with darkness quickly consuming us as the sunlight faded over our shoulders. Laughter came to us then, as we danced with the shadows on the road, attempting to stretch the numbness and the cold out of our limbs.

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Laughter came with our lunch stops – ‘cafes’ constructed out of someone’s house, consisting of a few plastic tables and chairs (all child sized of course). Bemused looks creeping onto the Vietnameses’ faces as we attempted to act out rice and vegetables, repeating our, probably, awfully pronounced Vietnamese – hopelessly attempting to communicate in the narrow overlap of our minimal Vietnamese and their little English. The lines on our faces slightly creased in disappointment as we were served beef noodle soup, but quickly sharing a knowing look, our smiles returned as we picked our way through the steaming noodles.

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The bike gave us the opportunity to experience the stark contrast of Vietnam as a country. From the bustling streets and manic roads of the cities – where ‘rules of the road’, as we have in Britain, simply don’t exist – to the serene mountainous paths, where we travelled hundreds of kilometres deep amongst the forest, with the promises of creatures behind the rustling trees as our only companion.

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The cities are cluttered with rickety stalls selling banh mi and noodles with Vietnamese ladies, whose wrinkles are intensified by the scorching sun, wearing brightly patterned clothing – the material of pyjamas. They lounge behind their stalls, taking comfort in the shadows whilst shouts and corse, harsh laughter forces it’s way from their mouths aimed at their companions across the street. Dark, thick clouds of smoke pollute the, already too thick, air – pumped out of vehicles ever performing a deathly dance with one another.

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As darkness approaches; Vietnamese women are found forcing flyers into your hand, persistently throwing the word ‘massage’ at any foreigner who passes, men who earlier in the day sought you out – like a mammal to its prey – insisting you need a motorbike for wherever you may be headed, now sleep soundly with their limbs piled on top of each other on their bikes, miraculously never falling off! Others, plagued by their disabilities, drag their dysfunctional limbs across the filthy streets, coating their clothes in food waste, urine and litter from the day, desperate madness painted across their face, holding lottery tickets for sale in the air. The wafts of sewer stench drift along the streets and are inhaled into your nostrils, making you gasp for fresh air and momentarily pause with your words – in time we grew accustomed to these stinks, but still they never quite passed without our knowledge. The cities of Vietnam are a wild combination of travellers sipping beers and laughing at their companion’s comments, to dirty narrow lanes where women sit on childlike plastic stools gossiping to their neighbours whilst intermittently shouting to travellers what the downstairs of their house may have on offer – be it an assortment of snacks and drinks, a hairdressers, or a guesthouse. In these dark lanes we witnessed a small child locked behind bars at ground level, madness creeping into his innocent eyes, whilst ravenously chewing on a plastic bag – the cause of this, we determined, was the horrific lasting effects of Agent Orange, a result of chemical warfare, used in the Vietnamese war.

Rather than limiting ourselves to a few well known and already discovered places, we were free to stop and start as we pleased, exploring villages and towns where it was clear by the intrigue coupled with confusion on the locals’ faces that travellers were not a regular addition to their quiet village life.
Steep inclines give way to sharp bends where you are faced with cliff edges boasting startling views of the sea for miles. The quaint countryside villages are connected, often 50km from one another, by dirt paths laden with boulders scattered across the road and stray goats, cows or dogs wandering obliviously into your path.

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Villages only exist of a few houses – predominantly made of bamboo or wood – each overflowing with family members and kids. Some are surrounded on either side by deep forests, some by fields spanning as far as the eye can see, and some by rivers which widen and narrow as the murky water meanders through the valley. By daylight, women bend over in rice fields – their faces hidden from the sun behind tepee shaped hats – tending to their crops, whilst others lay in hammocks swinging the day away by sipping on ice tea in the shade. Children, momentarily excited by irregular visitors, go back to aiming stones at a tree trunk – whoever’s stone lands closest is the winner. Although unfaltering stares analyse every inch of you, their fascination with you as a foreigner rarely stretches to a fascination with your money. In the rural areas of Vietnam, you must search the deserted streets for an evening meal, constantly hoping the next light you can see in the distance is an eatery of some form. The simple life which they lead – detached from the manic city life – holds so much charm to me. Many of their tensed faces, at first cautious of our arrival, ease as we smile in their direction. Suddenly they grin back at us, ushering us into their homes, gibbering away in fast pace Vietnamese. As my mum says… ‘Smile and the world smiles back.’ – turns out that one is universal!

Our journey down Vietnam – 2,500km in 3 weeks – has been one of beauty, amazement, sheer adventure and sore bums! So…buy a bike, ride the length of Vietnam, live the dream – it’s worth every second of having a sore bum!

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Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. – Howard Thurman

Be weird. Be wonderful.:)

Enchanting streets of Hanoi

Vietnam is beautiful. The people are so kind, so welcoming to these strangers wandering – like lost children attempting to find their parents – searching around street corners anticipating the next couple of yards of mesmerising chaos. The car and bike horns are deafening as I dance inbetween the cars to squeeze through the chaotic traffic. The path ahead of me is constantly clouded with the charming gift of the unfamiliar.

Shops, like the streets, are crowded with items – exciting tourists’ vision with an array of colours and patterns. Unable to walk past, I am drawn into each shop to sift happily through the many items; hippy pants, patchwork fleeces, bags, bowls laden with engravings and intricate detail, the list goes on…

Day one in Hanoi, Vietnam and already I confess my love for this country. It has an enchanting charm I can’t quite put my finger on…and in the next thirty days I have no doubt I will be overwhelmed by its elegance and beauty numerous more times.

 

Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. – Howard Thurman

Be weird. Be wonderful.:)