Friday, July 22, 2016

Chitwan National Park

Everyone thinks of Nepalese countryside as being dominated by the Himalayas but there is a surprisingly large portion of the country that is covered in wetlands - or should I say sweatlands. Chitwan National Park is one of these wetlands which is a bit like the Asian Serengeti as it's famed for it's elephants, rhinos and even tigers.

The drive from Lumbini to Chitwan took us over a small mountain range where we had a scenic toilet stop at the top and a bite to eat at a roadside shack that seemed to specialise in whisky and whole cooked chickens. Back on flat ground the houses were surprisingly grand and painted in bright colours and surrounded by verandas. The explanation for this was clear as there was a lot of advertisements for companies that supply locals with visas and work abroad. While in India there was a great focus on advertising for education and work within India, it seems in Nepal more young people travel abroad for work and send money home. This is reflected in not only the housing but the more relaxed attitude around westerners.

We arrived at our hotel for the next few days called Sapna Lodge which means "Dream Lodge" which was quite apt. Other than the fact we were sweating from places we'd forgotten existed, the area was beautiful. There were several wooden buildings that looked somewhere between the grand houses we'd driven past and a thatched mud hut. In the distance you could see the Himalayas peak over the clouds and the piece de resistance had to be the fact there was a mum and baby elephant at the bottom of the garden. 

We were given an hour to explore that was easily taken up by rekindling my inner Eliza Thornberry with the tame elephants. The way the baby reacted to attention and it's playful nature and the mother's watchful gaze gave me no doubt these creatures have a bigger emotional capacity than we give them credit for. Chitwan is home to the Thuru people who are indigenous to the foothills of the Himalayas and we went on a visit to one of their villages. On appearance it wasn't that different to other rural villages in the country and considering they are known as people of the forest there was a lack of trees around this one.  We were shown numerous local dances and told about their way of life but it seemed that without visits from tourists these unique aspects of their life could quickly be lost. We ended the day with a lovely dinner at the lodge watching our elephants bathing in the river with a sole keeper rubbing their belly before chatting away under the majestic stage of mountains and stars. 

The next day we woke up before the sun as we were heading on an early morning safari to see what we could spot. We didn't have the best sleep as we were woken up not from the noise of the fan turning on but from drowning in sweat when the fan turned off. We drove out on a jungle beach buggy and headed along the highways "into the jungle" - although with our timescale we didn't have time to delve deep into the jungle! As we were cruising along the Nepalese roads I felt something fly out of my walking trousers and to my horror I saw my phone getting all some close contact with a lorries wheel. After stopping our buggy myself and our guide ran back to the incident site and were surprised to find only the screen was smashed. Well, and it didn't turn on. Regardless, I was impressed it didn't smash to pieces. 

After the excitement of my phone's death the safari didn't conjure up any extremely rare creatures and only a monkey or crocodile or two. I always find jeep safaris a lot less exciting and rewarding than walking safaris. The animals get pretty switched on to running away from the loud regular grumble of the safari trails, the suspense of a walking safari is miles better as anything could be around the corner. We returned to the hotel for breakfast before hopefully getting the chance to wash our hotel's elephants. 

We were disappointed to find out that our elephants were otherwise engaged (the life of a Chitwan elephant is comparable to a London stockbroker). Instead we drove to the nearest village which was the notoriously touristy village in Chitwan and turned into a busy river filled with tourists and two elephants. These elephants weren't looking as happy as ours did yesterday getting his belly rubbed. It felt like a bit of a production line as life jackets were passed from tourist to tourist before an elephant was commanded to lie down in the water by a man with a stick balancing on it's back while another two tourists climbed on it's back. The stick man then "encourages" the elephant to spray tourists with water before they are quickly booted off so they could get another pair on. Although this set up was horrible, it was amazing to sit a top and feel the power of this creature and feel it's tough skin alongside the smooth and refreshing splash of water. However, I'd recommend anyone who wants to do something like this in the future does more research than I did and find a more authentic and genuine experience (which unfortunately is hard to find in these parts of the world especially on a budget).

Our next event took us back to the water as we were canoeing down the river Rapti alongside some crocodiles. The canoes were hollowed out of a single tree and managed to fit six of us even though we did end up a little too close to the water considering the purpose of the trip was to spot crocodiles. Considering our past week the ride was ridiculously peaceful. It was quiet enough to hear the clap of a passing butterflies wings yet in the distance we could hear the roar of thunder. 

Back on dry land we went on a safari on foot and it reminded me how experience should always be regarded miles above qualifications. I have a fancy bit of paper and letters after my name that mean I should know a good bit about the natural world around me but compared to our guide who had left school at 16 to train with guides in the jungle; I knew nothing. We were on the trail of a rhino but only got as far as it's toilet - as rhinos use the same toilet sites for around a fortnight before moving on we could have spotted one had we waited long enough but not this time. It did get me imagining the situation in reverse and rhinos sitting around public toilets waiting to spot us. 

That evening we were treated to a Thuru culture extravaganza beginning with a traditional meal. The starter was an ambiguous soup that tasted like something you don't normally eat, a bit like leather. The rest of the meal was much more palatable and the waiters crowded around asking us about life back home. That evening we were heading to watch some traditional dances and so I thought now was a perfect opportunity to wear my new sari. Big mistake. I was suddenly every male member of staff's favourite guest. We were all expecting to be sitting in a circle watching eccentric dances by the light of a campfire, however we arrived at a purpose built hall that rapidly filled up with Japanese tourists. The show was quite impressive, if bizarre, with lovely costume and rhythmic dancing to make me feel so uncoordinated, especially when they invite you up to join. One of the highlights was when someone came on dressed as a peacock, danced and then handed out individual roses.

We left Chitwan the following morning and paid our bills before bundling back into our air-conned bus and enjoying the sensation of feeling every bead of sweat evapourate. Next stop: The Himalayas.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Lumbini - Entering Nepal

I woke up more groggy than ever as we were up again before the sun. We bundled ourselves into a tourist vehicle for the last time and mentally prepared ourselves for the 12 hour drive ahead. No amount of mental preparation could have prepared us for that drive. The driver seem to use the the brake and accelerator as if he was tapping along to songs on the radio. It didn't help that the road is notoriously full of potholes and I was sitting in the boot essentially. Thankfully, for my inner ear, we got a flat type which none of us were surprised about, in fact we were surprised it hadn't happened earlier. However, this did mean that we had to get out of the car in that stereotypical village where it seems like nobody had seen a tourist before. I couldn't look around without being greeted by the stares of men from a country that hasn't mastered the art of subtlety.

The driver seemed to take the flat tire incident as a means to take things easy but when offered to chance to walk over the border we were all quick to accept the challenge. The bumpy drive was a fitting send off as we said goodbye to the chaos of India and made out way into Nepal. There was little to differentiate Nepal and India at the time other than the stamps in our passports and the uniforms on officials. This changed as we drove on; the roads had lines painted on them, houses were grander and locals were less interested in you as tourists. The fact we were in a mini-bus with air-con and space to spread out on may have accentuated this bias view.

Lumbini is the birthplace of Buddha and therefore a pilgrimage sight to many Buddhists. Our stop here was to visit the shrine  and temple over the exact spot Buddha was born. We stayed overnight in a very lavish hotel called Buddha Mya Gardens and joined the crowds of pilgrims heading into Lumbini. Getting to this birthplace was no simple feat as we had to get a bus to a market place dedicated to selling tickets to local landmarks and then get another bus to the landmark, well a point that was a 10 minute walk from the site.

The temple itself stuck to Buddhist principles and was quite modest for a temple being a white building with a small door but at the same time it was guarded by armed police and body scanners. Outside the temple there were monks hiding from the heat under trees and the compulsory westerner who'd decided to leave home and dedicate their life to meditation. Inside there was what looked like an excavation site and a glass box over the marker stone showing exactly where Buddha was born. To this day I still have no idea if I was looking at the right stone or not...

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Because I've always been a Hippy at heart.

I'm as shocked and saddened by the events in Paris yesterday . We always find ourselves asking "why?" and I started to think about it. It's also important to open our perspectives on the situations in the rest of the world; unfortunately this is not a singular occurrence - even for this week-  look at America let alone Beirut. Badness can seem to be everywhere. We are often all to quick to blame something we fear or don't understand - religion is the classic example, Islam even more so. We blame Islam for ISIS yet we don't even know what the Qur'an states the Caliphate is meant to be let alone knowing what a Caliphate actually is. Now we blame religion on things we don't understand whereas religion used to be the reason behind everything we didn't understand. Ultimately, religion - or the lack of it- is not what makes a person good or bad.

We must use these feelings of anger, pain and frustration conjured from the attacks on Paris, Beirut and Baghdad (and the countless before them) and remember these are the same feelings that have been felt by families around the world every day when undue harm has been brought down on their lives whether we hear about it or not. Due to human nature, it is these same emotions which will have instinctively caused a fellow human being to fire hate and blame towards another human being, or nation, whom they believe is responsible. I know that even if there were just two people left on Earth it would still probably result in a war but lets start with trying to not get to the point where there is just two people left! People are doing terrible things but we must find their exact motives; be it revenge, disagreement or heightened beliefs. We can't say the problem is religion and then ask everyone to pray. We need to understand.

Not everybody in an occupied territory is there because they want to be, some are there because it was once, and still is, their home. They will either leave to find safety from what has been brought to their life or stay and defend their right to shelter. Say they decide to stay but a defensive air-strike comes and destroys everything they own? Surely this will make them not intolerant to who kept them there, but to what took that final blow to everything they loved. Now say they leave to a promised safe haven only to have the door shut in their face. It's acceptable to say that the one billion plus ordinary Muslims around the world have suffered the most from ISIS, be it directly or indirectly.

The West can't play the full victim today as our panicked attacks in the Middle East could be seen to mirror those of the past week by ISIS where the victims are decided by where they live regardless of their opinion and arguably fueled the whole thing. As we learned as children, it's important to clean up the mess you've made. However, as ISIS' victims are desperately to try to get our help, we are turning them away - both on their doorstep and on ours.

The attackers may have been misguided from the start but many have been recruited somewhere along the way through fear or anger. War breeds war and we have to make sure our pain and frustration does not turn into fear and anger. We can offer the only empathy we can by saying that we now understand your pain and want to help it heal.

We are all humans.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

10 Things to do During Your First Year in Oxford

Moving to Oxford as a "young professional" and not as a student, the place feels a bit like a big party but you're walking past outside wondering where your invite could have ended up. Being part of the university feels like you are part of Oxford- you get the special treatment and the gaping mouths on impressed faces when you tell them what you do rather than the feeling of dying a little bit inside every time you say " Do you need a bag?" Luckily there are still plenty of ways to enjoy Oxford without actually going to the University.

This covers a lot of bases on your Oxford tour with 38 colleges that make up the majority of Oxford's fancy buildings so you've already got your work cut out at No.1. However, people stay here for years and never see them all. Each one will make you think you're in Harry Potter but if you want the creme de la creme then Magdalen(To my fellow scots, this is Maw-dlin rather than Mag-dalen) and Christchurch are probably the most grand and extravagant - Magdalen College even has a deer park with actual deer. Oxford's other university, Oxford Brookes' Headington Hill Campus is also gorgeous and worth a look. If you have proof of residency in Oxford you can get into a lot of colleges for free - just remember to bring it with you!

Christchurch College

Bodleian. Sheldonian and Radcliffe Camera
While you are wandering the streets dodging tourists and bikes you will probably stumble across a round looking building encircled by yet more bikes and tourists. This is rather ambiguously named the Radcliffe Camera and most people comment on how it looks nothing like a camera - this is because (as any latin scholar knows...) 'camera' means 'room'. "The Bod" is also nice to look at and is home to every publication from the United Kingdom as well as the filming sites for the infirmary and library in Harry Potter. Walk all the way to the top of the Sheldonian to get a panorama of Oxford.

The Sheldonian

Two of the biggest museums in Oxford are bundled into the same building at the Natural History Museum and Pitt Rivers. The later is a hoarders memorial as well as an anthropological nirvana and I am sure if Mr Rivers lived in this day and age his name would have popped up on the Interpol Watch List if the third floor is anything to go by. The Ashmoleon is also one of the most prominent museums in Oxford but there are also some nice little museums including the History of Science and Story Museum.

Oxford probably has more green spaces than housing (well that makes sense considering the rent prices) and the parks are the perfect place to sit and think. Infact they might be the secret behind why Oxford scholars have been so influential as there is so much space in this town to just sit and think. The university park is probably the biggest but South Park cannot be ignored for its wonderful views of the dreaming spires. Port Meadow is a bit different as it's full of horses, cows, untouched archeology, a swimmable lake in the summer and an ice rink in the Winter.
Port Meadow

Iffley Village
If Oxford isn't twee enough for you, head down Iffley Road or along the Thames until you hit Iffley Village where you will be surrounded by stone brick houses, flowering gardens and the sound of silence. Iffley Lock is where the village meets the canal and as well as being mega pretty, it is home to a pub and a gaggle of lively geese.
Iffley Lock

Cowley Road
Most peoples idea of Oxford is of a bit of a snooty fancy atmosphere with fancy old buildings and they are right for some parts. South of the Magdalen Bridge is a different story. Walking down Cowley Road you are bombarded with the smell of incense and coriander, the warm glow of coffee shops and shouts of drunk students and crack addicts. It's the road to the "real" Oxford and is home to some of the best cafés, restaurants and shops in Oxford and you could spend your life trying each one. Most importantly though it is home to the best atmosphere in Oxford (Probably a debatable point but I'm biased).
Cowley Road Carnival

Speaking of Cowley Road, one of it's treasures is an ice cream parlour known fondly as G&D's. It;s a home-grown Oxford gem and one of four dessert parlours on Cowley Road alone but has lasted through the competition. They have two other shops elsewhere in Oxford but they all serve their own ice cream which suit both safe and experimental palettes. Order a cookie monster and thank me later.

When it comes round to "warm winter" the ducks of the River Cherwell and Thames have to share their home with a fleet of tourists, hen parties and loved up couples. Don't let that put you off though, punting is a must while you're in Oxford and you can either show off your muscles (the poles are deceptively heavy) or enjoy being punted around while you sip on prosecco. Just remember to make sure your phone is stowed safely out of your pockets, ya know, just incase.

Punting with Prosecco!
Get Drunk
Oxford is a haven for niche little pubs. There is the famous Eagle and Child which was graced by Oxford's literary greats including Toilken and C.S. Lewis. The Isis Tavern is only accessible by foot, bike or boat and maintains the country pub image with infamous folk nights and obscure opening times. Then there is The Mad Hatter where you can only enter after answering a riddle and drinks are ordered via a phone on your table.

Leave Oxford
Ultimately Oxford can get a bit suffocating but it is close to cities to get lost in or the fresh air of the countryside is only minutes away. If Oxford gets too small then London is only an hour and a half away by bus and from there you can easily get to Edinburgh or Paris in around 5 hours. On the other side you could cycle to Boars Hill for some hill top view of Oxford or to Radley to see traditional English countryside. Or if Oxford isn't grand enough then Blenheim Palace should do the trick.

Blenheim Palace

Others/Highly Commended: Hinksey Outdoor Pool, Walton Street, Magdalen Street (Rusty Bicycle, Oli's Thai, Oxfork), Boswells Book Shop, Botanic Gardens, Thames Path, Magpie Lane, Shops and cafés on High Street, The Library (pub), Scriptum, The Varsity Club's roof top bar for a "free" (you should probably buy a drink at least to enjoy in the sunshine) panorama of the city, Kashbah/Cafe Tarifa/Cafe Coco.

You should also be aware of Daily Info where you can find everything Oxford related from things for sale, whats on and accomodation.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Varanasi - Gawkers, Ganges and Gowns.

Varanasi was the last stop in India before moving onto Nepal and to get there we had to sample the 12 hour sleeper train. The drive there was lined with cows and full beams replacing the horns of the day time traffic. Jhansi station was still teeming with people, and cows, as we boarded our train despite it creeping close to midnight. The compartments were nicer than western perceptions had us believe they'd be (or at least our carriage was) but they were entirely mixed and my berth was in a compartment with 5 other men...I can only thank our guide Manu for negotiating with a fellow passenger to let me swap beds with him so I could sleep in the same compartment as one of my travelling companions. Our bedding was given to us in a paper bag which was a surprising piece of luxury and as we finished making our beds my female companion and I turned around to see a row of men sitting up on the bed across from us looking at us. It was almost as if they were waiting for us to do something and was a bit off putting considering we were less than an hour into the trip and I wasn't keen on sleeping with one eye open. However, as soon as I swung a scarf round my head their interest seemed to wane - an example that it pays to respect the traditions of the country you are in if you don't enjoy unwanted attention. I would learn though that in countries like India, my pale and ginger colouring results in not so much a holiday but the winner of a "live like royalty for a fortnight" experience - experiencing both the good and bad parts of the job.

I donned my ear plugs and eye mask and got a surprisingly restful sleep despite screaming babies and waking up to strange men sitting at the end of my bunk. As they say, it's all part of the experience. By 7am everyone had pretty much vacated the compartment and the rest of the journey was quite pleasant, even the squat toilets were somewhat nice, although train toilets are definitely for the advanced squatter. There was calm before the storm as I enjoyed reading on the train in peace before arriving in Varanasi where all of it's 5 billion Tuk Tuk drivers offered to take us the two minute walk to our hotel.

The afternoon was spent recovering from the train ride resting in the hotel re-charging our western selves before being let loose on the streets of Varanasi. Situated along the holy River Ganges, Varanasi is constantly full of crowds and the roads become too narrow for tuk-tuks at a point and that's where all the crowds seem to double. Varanasi was more manic and rough than the other places we'd visited in India, that was until you got onto the Ganges where things were busy, yet peaceful. Pilgrims were bathing, tourists sitting in boats on their Ganges cruise, families mourning and lost gap yah's learning how to meditate. We did our duty as tourists and got on a boat for a cruise.

Every evening locals and tourists alike take part in the Ganga Aarti ceremony where a small offering is made to the Goddess Ganga. Traditionally aarti is a ritual involving fire and candles are often lit within a case made of flowers and released into the river while making a wish. Although this ceremony happens every night and although for many it is their first time, I doubt the beauty of the constellation of candles along the river fades easily with time. Back on land we attended a more grand example of Aarti with choreographed dancing with fire and incense sticks. Our guide had some mates on a bar with a balcony so we got a good view and as the sun set the night was lit up by people in colourful fabrics who crowded around stages with the smell of burning cow dung battling with incense to fill the air and even in the distance there were flashes of lightening concluding the sensory cacophony of Varanasi at night.

As the choreographed ceremony started, India's most famous show began: the monsoon rain. Somebody's wish to Ganga for rain came true as we swam through the streets to find a tuk-tuk which was harder than expected since tuk-tuks aren't allowed near the river side. The weather was a great testament to my Rab jacket which kept my whole top half dry against the personal dunk-tank that was the monsoon weather. We got back to the hotel and attempted to dry off before falling asleep to the cascade of rain and the chirping horns of urban India's wildlife.

The next morning we woke up in the dark and headed into Varanasi on a tuk-tuk through the unrecognisable dark and empty streets. In contrast, we were dropped off next to a parade of pilgrims who were chanting and at this time in the morning I couldn't help feeling somewhere between being caught in the middle of a rowdy stag-do still out from the night before, to being carted off to be sacrificed as we were being led alongside chants in an unfamiliar language and the beat of drums.

We paraded to the riverside and joined the motley crew of worshippers and bathers and rowed upstream to see the other ceremony that takes place on the Ganges. Cremation occurs on the Ganges as Hindus believe that this will break the cycle of rebirth and sets the soul free. Even before sunrise the cremation sites were active and it was quite a peaceful experience  and quite contrary to the tales that people have seen body parts float past them on the river. The sun peaked through as we headed back downstream and we pleaded with our guides to let us take them back down the river despite how feeble my rowing attempts were.

It was only 6:30am when we crawled back onto the streets of Varanasi where the idea that the smell of Indian streets can change from mouth watering-ly delicious to vomit inducing with every turn, is most apparent. We wound our way through alleyways where every second window was a shrine to a different deity and ended up on a manic main road in time for the school run. We completed another number on my Indian experience checklist by having a street chai in a clay cup alongside some fresh jalebi. After a short break back and the hotel we was whisked off to a silk emporium where we were met by a small, frail man with missing teeth but friendly eyes and a genuine smile who took us to see where the silk is woven. The factory was spread through several houses in the neighbourhood and employed over 700 people. It was less of a factory and more just like an exceptionally large production line because it was quite a relaxed environment and it seemed that every one of those 700 people had their own particular job from drawing a sleeve on graph paper to gluing a diamond on a wedding sari. At the end of the tour we were taken into Rozi Silk International were we said goodbye to our lovely little guide as he left us to sit on the gleaming white cushioned floor contrasting the rest of the factory sites.

There we were joined by Farooq Kahn who was the proprietor who wore a crisp white salwar kameez and had a perfectly preened moustache which curled as he saw two goriyaan in his silk shop. I was expecting to just get a sari and go but Mr Kahn had other ideas as he pulled out pillow cases, duvet covers and pashminas and waved them down on the ground with a flourish like a butterfly showing off it's wings. After falling in love with 6000 rupeeyay (£60)worth of duvet covers  he finally moved on to the saris. I fell in love with the first one he pulled out. It was a stunning turquoise silk with silver embroidery and also the most expensive one he had there. Love can make us do silly things and with that I justified the 16000 rupeeyay (£160) and didn't even try to bargain.

After some chai to help us recover from our purchases we were shuttled back out to a new tourist attraction at Sarnath which was the site of Buddha's first sermon. It was a nice area to walk around and a bit of a green oasis compared to the rest of the city. As an agnostic of sorts, I always enjoy learning about the stories behind the origin of religions but in the same way I enjoy reading Greek myths - I find them interesting but struggle to see their plausibility at times. We returned to the hotel after a exceptionally bumpy tuk-tuk ride which confirmed the fact that I still didn't quite know what side of the road they actually drive on. During dinner men from the Silk emporium came to deliver my tailored blouses for my saris and confirmed that the rest of our purchases had been packaged up to be sent home.

It had been a long day in Varanasi and our last full day in India but Varanasi had given everything characteristically Indian we could have wanted from monsoon rains, chai masala and chaos. Our next stop was across the boarder in Nepal and although I'd been charmed by India I was looking forward to the promise of a calmer country. Having returned to the UK since then I can only compare my first trip to India to a pregnancy - at the time you are experiencing a roller coaster of emotions and often more stressed than necessary but after it's all over you kind of forget that and before you know it you crave to do it all over again.