Tomato Soup and its Healing Properties

Tomato Soup and its Healing Properties

I would like to premise this particular post with 2 statements:

  1. No I haven’t lost my mind and started writing a food blog in the midst of my Indian travel experience.
  2. I’m FINE (this one is mainly for all my family and friends who’ve not yet heard about what happened and might read this post.)

Our next stop on our trip was Jodhpur, the Blue City, to be followed by Udaipur, the White City. We had thought about a small detour to Ranthambhore National Park to try our luck at tiger spotting but decided this might need a little more planning. Thank God we did or things could have turned much worse than they did.

Arriving in Jodhpur at 5am followed by a heated haggling session with the rickshaw driver meant we were exhausted by the time we arrived at the hostel and fully passed out on the sofas until the lovely (if slightly crazy) Baddu arrived to check us in. We were back in a Madpackers because they are lovely, understanding people, if a little unconventional, who appreciate the importance of sleep and so let us check into our rooms early where I passed out until 11:00. Still feeling pretty exhausted we had a fairly relaxed, if lucrative afternoon. We decided to hop in a rickshaw and pay a visit to the Umaid Bhawan Palace, which is still home to the royal incumbent Gaj Singh II. As a result the area of the palace you can actually visit is rather small, although the grounds are very impressive. The best part of this trip was the fact we earned ourselves 250 rupees. How? By charging creepy men who wanted photos with us. It’s a great trick as most of them just laugh until they realise we’re serious then they just walk off. Two men however, were game. One paid us 50 rupees for one photo and the other 200 for a few. Obviously you have to be very careful they don’t get the wrong idea but we were at a busy attraction surrounded by plenty of other people and were getting seriously bored of the constant photo requests so decided to get something out of it. It pretty much meant our entire trip to the palace, including there and back was paid for. Result!

From talking to people in Pushkar we had heard the blue parts of the city of Jodhpur were pretty hard to find if you didn’t know where to look so we signed up for the hostel tour for our second day. This left at 7am, which was a struggle considering we’d had a late night and a few drinks the night before. I woke up feeling like absolute s!@* but I put it down to lack of sleep and powered through. Despite feeling really rather rough the tour itself was great and a good laugh as Baddu was leading it. We started off in the traditional Indian way with the best Chai I’ve had yet, although the location outside a prison was slightly questionable. We then spent a good couple of hours winding our way through the narrow streets of the blue area of town. Supposedly it was the Brahmans who painted their homes blue to indicate their religious preference but apparently it’s a great way of keeping the homes cool so plenty of people joined in despite their different religious affiliations.

By the time we left the maze that was the Blue City we were all pretty hungry, so Baddu took us for some spicy street food and a delicious lassi. Unfortunately my stomach had added itself to the list of parts of my body which were not playing ball and so I didn’t enjoy the spice as much as usual, although I can appreciate that on any other day it would have been amazing. Thankfully it did give me some much needed energy to get round the remainder of the tour and up to the Mehrangarh Fort. We have been to many a fort in the short time we arrived in India and this is defiantly one that should not be missed. They offer a student discount which still included the audio guide, immediately a winner, and the whole place is stunning. It’s on an epic scale so does take a good hour to go around but it’s totally worth it. The displays explain all about the history of the royal family and the different aspects of their daily lives, plus the battlements provide amazing views of the rest of the city, especially the blue area.

By the time we’d finished at the fort it was almost 2pm and those of us who’d stayed were all in need of sustenance. We made our way back into town following trustee MapsMe to a cafe which was lovely but did not do food. It did however do very nice coffee which I hoped would help with my energy levels and lack of appetite. It gave me a small boost but I still did not feel up to an afternoon of sights so headed back to the hostel with poor Milly tagging along. By the time we got out of the rickshaw at the hostel, the outside temperature was probably around 30/35 degrees and yet I was shivering and covered in goosebumps. Back in the hostel I took up residence on the sofa under a blanket which is where I stayed for the rest of the afternoon. Not only did I feel extremely rough, I was also really annoyed that I probably wouldn’t be able to enjoy the Halloween party with everyone- the last thing I wanted was a drink let alone vodka jelly! It turned out the hostel had a thermometer so they took my temperature which at this stage was apparently 38.2. It wasn’t until a few days later I realised what this meant and how serious a fever I actually had…

I participated in Halloween as much as I could, although I really should have just gone to bed. Everyone was having such a good time I tried so hard to join in but I was fighting a losing battle. I did get some face paint although Baddu did such a terrible job I wish I had just gone to bed! Still it was hilarious to watch everyone in their face paint getting slowly merrier.

Halloween was the final night in Jodhpur for most of the people we’d kept bumping into throughout our time in Rajasthan so it was a sad day saying all our goodbyes in the morning. From Jodhpur we got a clapped out mini bus with broken seats to Udaipur, sat next to 2 guys getting drunk on rum while I tried to get the taste of metallic coke and digestives out of my mouth. It goes without saying it was a horrible journey, culminating in a rickshaw driver who didn’t even drop us at our hostel because he had no idea where he was going and so made us walk the remainder of the way in the dark with all our stuff. Not OK.

Over the next couple of days my health did not improve and no matter how many times I said I’d be better after a nap or an early night I could not get myself back to feeling normal. Getting up 3 flights of stairs to the roof top for breakfast totally exhausted me and I was incapable of holding myself upright for more than a few minutes. In the end I admitted defeat and went to hospital. I don’t know what either of us were expecting but the words “you need to be admitted’ definitely wasn’t it. I have never in my life spent more than a few hours in a hospital back in the UK so to be told I needed to be admitted for at least 48 hours in India was terrifying. It was a private hospital but still I was scared and I’m not afraid to say it did bring me to tears. At this point I still didn’t know what was wrong so I decided to get all my tests done first just in case the Drs were being over dramatic. They weren’t. Although my ultrasounds were fine my blood and other samples showed my white blood cell count was dangerously low and I knew I was insanely dehydrated. Every time I sat I fell asleep and was incapable of standing for more than a few minutes without feeling as though I was about to pass out. I have never been so glad to have a friend like Milly. She had been by my side since we entered the hospital at 11am, asking questions I was too out of it to ask, finding out when my results would be ready and reading over all the forms I had to sign when I was finally admitted at 4:30. Everyone needs a Milly in their life!

I ended up spending the next 4 and half days rather than 48 hours in that hospital, attached to a drip and regularly injected with antibiotics. I have NEVER in my life been on so much medication or watched so many crap films. When I was admitted they told me I had a ‘mild viral infection’ affecting my white blood cell count. This turned out to be Dr Code for ‘you have Dengue Fever’ which they didn’t tell me until I was feeling much better on my third day. For those of you who are blissfully unaware of this delightful disease Dengue Fever is caused by the bite of a female mosquito which hangs around during the day. It is mostly found in cities where there is a lot of stagnant water and one of the worst places to catch it is Delhi. It can take 3-10 days for symptoms to reveal themselves and so I had most likely caught it as soon as I arrived. There are various strains of Dengue but no way of preventing it other than wearing insect repellent and hoping for the best. I already knew all the symptoms having Googled them as soon as I felt ill in Jodhpur but we laughed it off, explained them away as other things because Dengue is something that happens to other people and never someone you know…

As it was a private hospital I was in my own room with en suite bathroom and a TV with multiple film channels in English. I spent most of my time flicking through these channels trying to find films that didn’t just involved people killing each other – who came up with the Transformer films?! They’re awful! I watched a LOT of films including some of the greats such as Bridget Jones, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Inside Out, The Mummy and on our last morning we even found Harry Potter. We’d gone a bit loopy by this stage waiting for my release and had just been singing the Potter Puppet Pals song so it felt like a sign that things were looking up

Despite the TV entertainment and Milly’s visits which always had me in fits of laughter, it was super boring in hospital and I felt bad for Milly being on her own. After 3 days the Drs still wanted me in for one more night so they could test my blood in the morning and then decide if I could leave. The main reason for my will to leave (other than joining Mills of course) was that my appetite had started to return and hospital food is, unfortunately, the same the world over: disgusting. On my final night however I was finally presented with the tomato soup they had been mentioning for the past 2 days and let me tell you I’m pretty sure that’s what actually cured my Dengue. Finally the metal taste had gone, I no longer felt sick and I had the energy to tidy my belongings ready to leave. It didn’t matter that they served it with a very odd grilled tomato and cucumber sandwich, the soup itself was enough to restore my energy levels, not quite to full health but closer than they’d been for days.

I was finally freed on Tuesday afternoon (having gone in on the Friday) with a bag full of medication and under strict instructions to return within 3 days to have more tests. I nodded to everything, grimaced as they pulled out my drip and pretty much skipped out the front door into the sunshine and air that didn’t smell of disinfectant. I was supposed to be on bed rest for 5 days but we decided that was a little bit extreme so came up with our own version of bed rest: cafe hopping. We did venture into multiple cafes, mainly the ones Milly had frequented while she was exploring the town solo, however we spent most of our time in one particular place: Cafe Satori. One day in fact we spent 5 hours in one corner and then went back in the evening for our final pre-bed coffee. This place had it all: delicious food (after not eating properly for almost a week my appetite was back in full force); great smoothies (I highly recommend the peanut butter shake); incredible vegan chocolate cake and a super chilled atmosphere and friendly owner. We played marathon games of UNO, snap and cheat while Milly and Raahi (the owner) had a full on s!@*head battle (the card game), which I stayed well out of. There are of course other great cafes in Udaipur- if you’re looking for good beans on toast try the Greek place, just beware of the rowing owner and her staff- but nothing quite came close to Cafe Satori. Not to be missed on a visit to Udaipur. (Photos courtesy of Google as we were having too much fun to take photos)

In terms of sightseeing there isn’t that much to actually visit in Udaipur. The town is centred around the lake in which sit two extremely expensive hotels. There are plenty of rooftop bars and restaurants to watch the sunrise and sunset- did I mention this is supposed to be the most romantic place in India? There are couples EVERYWHERE! The two main sights are the Monsoon Palace and the City Palace which we did get round to seeing…eventually.

The Monsoon Palace sits on top of a hill at the edge of the city and while the views at sunset are great I’m not sure how they get away with charging quite so much or why you would want to go up there at any other time of day. You have to pay for entry and also for the 4×4 which takes you up the winding mountain road to the top. The palace itself is pretty much a ruin with not a lot inside but it does offer impressive views over the city on one side and the surrounding mountains on the other. Despite being surrounded by monkeys which always put me slightly on edge as they are highly unpredictable, we spent a lovely hour watching the blood red sun descend behind the clouds. We were slightly outnumbered by couples but for once very few people wanted their photos taken with us so it actually worked out quite well. The best part about our trip to the Monsoon Palace though was the rickshaw ride there where we saw our first elephant just chilling in the middle of a roundabout munching on his dinner. It was so random neither or us quite believed we’d seen it.

On our last day in Udaipur I had to go back to the hospital for my some final tests- we’d booked a bus out of there anyway so we were leaving no matter what they said. After a morning visit we (predictably) spent most of the day in Cafe Satori but I did force myself to go and see the City Palace as this was my last chance. I left Milly behind eating cake as she’d been while I was in hospital and set out solo. It was well worth the visit although I was grateful for my technically in date student card as it provided a substantial discount. I was also glad I’d waited a few days because there were a LOT of stairs which were a bit of a struggle even after a few days of “resting”. The building itself was stunning, with so many decorative wall coverings and ornate carvings it’s a miracle these buildings ever get finished. There was also a wedding rehearsal taking place, which totally distracted me from the building for a good half an hour. I’m not really sure what part of the wedding they were practicing for but there were 3 main dancers surrounded by about 20 others all working it to a great song and a killer routine- can you tell I wanted to join in? As a setting for a wedding I can’t imagine they come much better than the City Palace and the whole place was going to look beautiful covered in royal blue and bouquets of flowers.

We returned to the hospital that afternoon slightly nervous about what the Drs would say but after their little joke about re-admittance they gave me the all clear on the condition I did not eat street food or dairy for 2 weeks…I had paneer (cheese) for my dinner, but it was only a little bit! This meant that after 10 days we could finally leave Udaipur. Don’t get me wrong there are definitely worse places we could have been stuck in and at least a few positives came out of it: I’d managed to replace my black trousers someone stole of the washing line in Jodhpur; treated myself to a release ring and most definitely put back on all the weight I’d lost while not eating. A chocolate cake a day keeps Dengue Fever away is the saying right?!

On our last night in Udaipur we got ourselves some stunning Rajasthani henna before attempting to see the dance show which Milly had been wanting to see all week. Sadly we didn’t realise how many other people wanted to see it too and there were no tickets left. There may have been standing room but we thought that might not have been the best idea so instead we found ourselves a roof top restaurant where we perched ourselves in a stilted canopy for our feast of a dinner- I was finally back on Indian food. Despite the fact we had a crazy early bus the next morning we (of course) went back to Cafe Satori for a final drink. Milly and Raahi were on rum I was on lime soda given the fact I was taking so many different types of medication for my liver I practically rattled as I walked. It was the only way we could really have ended our unexpectedly long stay in the White City but it was finally time to move on. Fresh air and hiking awaited us.

TOP TIP FOR THE BLUE AND WHITE CITIES: Wear insect repellant from day 1 to avoid unexpectedly and unnecessarily long stays in these delightful towns.

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Crazy for Camels

Crazy for Camels

Have you ever wondered what a place would look like if it were descended upon by say around 50,000 camels, horses and cows? Well Milly was very keen to see it and I have to admit I was slightly intrigued to see so many camels in one place, so off to Pushkar we went. The Puskkar Camel Fair takes place every year around the end of October/beginning of November, when traders come together to buy and sell their live stock and people come from all over to witness the craziness once the mela (fair) actually starts. Never in my life have I seen so many camels and I’m not sure I ever will again but it was certainly an experience.

As it was the camel fair all of the hostel prices had gone up because they knew they could get away with it but as the Madpackers was so beautiful and we did get a discount we decided to treat ourselves. The building used to be a hotel and is absolutely beautiful with colourful paintings on all the walls and an amazing rooftop. So what that it cost us quadruple what we paid in Jaipur, we could save money in other ways…

Our bus from Jaipur only went as far as Ajmer so we got a public bus from there to Pushkar as is only took half an hour and cost 12 rupees (see money saving). The taxi drivers at Ajmer bus station would have you believe it takes 2 hours on the bus and their 600 rupee taxi is much better. Do NOT believe them. They lie about the length of the journey, the frequency of the buses and our particular new friend tried to translate what the ticket man was saying despite the fact his English wasn’t as understandable! We finally shook off Mr Taxi Driver and boarded the bus where predictably everyone stared. It was pretty busy and we had our big bags so it was a bit of a struggle, made even worse by the fact no one would move even a couple of centimetres to help us manoeuvre our stuff. In the end I think I hit several people round the head and knocked one woman out the way completely. What was I supposed to do?! She didn’t respond to excuse me and with a backpack the size of a small child I take up rather a lot of room. It’s not like I did it on purpose or anything…

Despite the less than helpful locals we made it to our stunning hostel where we realised we were slightly early for the main camel fair which didn’t start for a couple of days. Still there was plenty to do and the town was certainly not short of camels. By now we had been in India for 2 weeks and as delicious as the food had been we were craving something that felt a little healthier and fresher. Pushkar provided this in the form of Nature’s Blessing cafe, conveniently (and dangerously) located right next door to the hotel. Highly recommended for anyone who is visiting Pushkar as the food is AMAZING and the guy who runs it is so sweet. His brother also owns a cafe in town called Honey and Spice which apparently has a similar vibe. We ended up going to Nature’s Blessing every day we were in Pushkar and spent about 3 hours in there every time. They do incredible salads, unreal bowls of pasta and the most amazing chocolate-orange pie with ice cream. Honestly it’s one of the best things I have ever tasted and is actually good for you (according to owner anyway).

We ate a lot of great food in Pushkar; there is a massive Israeli influence so there’s plenty of Middle Eastern food to be found which I’l have to admit comes as a welcome break when you have been eating curry every day at least twice a day. Don’t get me wrong I’m loving the local food but it is nice to have some variety. I make it sound as though all we did in Pushkar was eat, which isn’t that far from the truth, but we were mainly there for the camel experience. And what an experience it was!

I have been on a camel 4 times in my life before this trip (although the last time in Dubai was so short it barely counts- see previous blog posts). Still we were in Pushkar for Mills and her camel dreams, so who was I to deny her a camel ride. Somehow we managed to get it for a massive discount, which was impressive as it was peak season. Peak season, however, meant that the camel did not come to us. We had to go to it and that involved a terrifying 10 minute journey with 2 of us on the back of a motorbike driven by a boy probably not older than 17, not wearing a helmet and weaving through the hectic backstreets of Pushkar. Considering my last experience of a motorbike was in Cambodia where I was shoved onto the back of one to be taken to hospital after crashing a quad bike, they tend to make me rather nervous. By the time we arrived at our camel stand my palms were sweating and I was feeling a little bit sick. Other than the dodgy teeth my expression somewhat resembled that of this rather attractive specimen of camel!

The actual safari itself was hilarious, mainly because the boys leading our camels were such characters. Apparently my camel was called Jimmy and Milly’s was called Romeo. Both of them were champion racers and had won multiple races at the Camel Fair over the years. We did go for the occasional trot but I have seen camels make a run for it, usually with my mum on their back and I know how fast they go. I was not down for experiencing that even if the guys were in control. We watched the sunset out in the desert along with plenty of other camels, camel taxis and 4X4s. It wasn’t exactly peaceful but the sunset was pretty and Romeo had himself a delightful sand bath. We set off back to the fairground with the guys riding on the camels with us and I was lucky enough for mine to play me Hindi love songs along the way. It really was a memorable experience. My enjoyment of it however, was nothing compared to Milly’s. She was loving life and her camel!

Other than the thousands of camels hanging out on the edge of the desert waiting to be traded and the taxis and safaris which are offered, there are plenty of other activities which occur throughout the festival. Things apparently get crazier the later you go; from concerts and performances to moustache growing competitions (I urge you to google this as it’s hilarious). We were there to watch the opening ceremony which went on FOREVER and I was too busy watching the weird drumming to notice they’d actually raised the Indian flag to signal the start of the festival. Among other things there was a camel decorating competition, which we could have participated in but we got up too late. We did go and have a look at the other competitors though and the amount of stuff they adorn these poor camels with I don’t think we would have stood a chance. The camels didn’t look very impressed with their new get ups, but then they never seem to look impressed with anything much. One of them was obviously in a really bad mood because he spat on his owners head leaving a lovely blob of white gloop. The funniest part was the owner was so busy trying to persuade another tourist take a ride on his camel he didn’t even notice. What a lovely surprise for him when he got home!

While there were plenty of amazing and fun activities taking place, including the fairground and plenty of street food there was one particular event we went to see that neither of us enjoyed. When I saw Camel Dancing on the programme I was excited and intrigued. I mean who wouldn’t want to see a camel dance?! I was under the impression it would be a bit like dressage, just involving the camels moving their feet int time to the music to the bells decorating their ankles would jingle. Well it started off like this but then, as humans often have a habit of doing, they took it too far. They started using the ropes to manipulate the necks of the camels into positions which clearly weren’t natural and one even got his camel to go down on it’s back legs while it trotted its front legs up and down. We didn’t stay long after this started happening as it made us both feel very uncomfortable. It was a shame to end our camel fair experience in this way, as up until then it had been great. Despite this, I think it was good for us to see the other side of this celebration of our four legged friends, just to be aware that not all festival are quite what they seem.

But what happens in Pushkar the other 50 weeks of the year when there are no camels I hear you cry?! Well let me tell you. Pushkar is an extremely holy city, the place where good Hindus should make a pilgrimage to at least once in their lives. There is a large lake in the centre of town surrounded by Ghats. These are sacred spaces and it is forbidden to wear or even carry shoes when walking along them (beware the cow poo). All around the lake are people washing themselves and their clothes in the supposedly holy water. The city is also home to what I previously thought was the world’s only Brahman Temple (because that is what I had been told). I was therefore very keen to visit it but we had to make sure we were wearing the appropriate footwear- no Birkenstocks were going to be left outside a temple for fear they would never be seen again. Clad in flip flops we joined the throngs of people entering the temple and I have to say we were more than a little disappointed. You can’t take photos so there is no evidence to substantiate my disappointment but it was nothing like the well kept, shiny temples I’d seen before. It was crumbling and peeling with not much character and despite being advertised as such it’s not even the only one!

There is another temple in Pushkar (not a Brahman one) that sits on top of a rather large hill providing spectacular views over the town, surrounding desert and mountains. Every morning from the day we arrived we said we were going to get up at 5am and make it up there for sunrise…we failed every time. We eventually made it up there our final evening before our overnight bus to Jodhpur. Our backpacker budget meant we decided to take the stairs rather than the cable car and while I will never admit this to Milly out loud I’m secretly glad we never made it up at 5am. The stairs were insanely steep and uneven so I doubt I would have managed it that early in the morning with no food in my stomach to propel me up. As it was we were fully charged with Nature’s Blessing goodness and the sunset was more than a substitute for sunrise. We also got to see Pushkar and the fairground light up as it got dark and the twinkling around the Ghat was beautiful. If anyone knows why it still stays light once the sun has gone down, rather than immediately getting dark like it does in the UK we would be very grateful to know as it is a question we have been puzzling over for a few weeks. Of course while we were watching the sun slowly descend we had our photos taken but for one they were actually decent so we did get them sent to us. Might as well make the most of it!

Coming down the poorly lit hill in the dark was another adventure as half of the lamps weren’t on so navigating the steps in flip flops was quite a challenge. For someone like me with extreme centre of gravity issues I had to take it very slowly so but the time we reached the bottom it was almost time for our midnight bus! (That may be a slight exaggeration but it did take me a while). Thankfully we still had time for food though because otherwise the bus journey would have been even more miserable than it already was. I got motion sick from the winding mountain roads to Ajmer, which our taxi drove while showing us photos of his family! All we wanted was sleep but the roads were so bumpy any proper sleep was totally out of the question. Still we were on our way to the Blue City and our next big adventure.

TOP TIP FOR PUSHKAR: For a culinary delight that is slightly lighter but just as tasty as all the traditional Indian food, definitely check out Nature’s Blessing. It’s worth the slightly higher price tag just for the adorable owner and the interesting array of books on the shelf which are sure to start a conversation.

The Golden Triangle

The Golden Triangle

We finally put on our big girl pants and left the safety of Madpackers Delhi, ready to embark on the next stage of our adventure: the final 2 points of the Golden Triangle. This is the main tourist route between Delhi, Agra and Jaipur so we were easing ourselves into the craziness that is travelling India on public transport.

Delhi train station was far less hectic and busy than I expected, although we did need help from the security guard as we hadn’t quite honed our India pushing- in skills and we were swarmed by men jumping the queue when we were asking for platform information. Other than the terrifying ripping sound my bag made as I put it on my back after security the journey went fairly smoothly. The train was of course an hour and a half late arriving in Agra and we had no clue where the stop was but thankfully Milly made friends with the people in our carriage who were more than happy to help out and also taught us a little bit of Hindu. I think we’ll struggle to be fluent by the time we leave but at least we know our pleases and thank yous.

There really is only one reason to come to Agra: the Taj Mahal. Voted one of the 7 New Wonders of the World back in 2007, it is the fourth one I have seen of this list and is 100% up there with the most impressive. We were slightly worried that with all the hype surrounding it and the amount of photos we have seen that it would be a disappointment. How wrong could we be!? All the getting up early; fighting people to get on the shuttle bus (literally I think I pushed several Japanese tourists out of my way) and queuing for almost an hour was completely worth it for the awe we felt at seeing this beautiful building.

Built as a monument to love for the wife of Shah Jahan, his third and favourite wife is buried here. The outside is far more spectacular than the inside tomb but that is still worth the fairly brisk walk through. Outside however is where the magic really is. The intricate details on the buildings and the perfect symmetry is absolutely everything, especially to someone like me with minor OCD tendencies. We spent around 2 hours just staring at this beautiful building from every angle that we could and generally marvelling at it’s construction. That was until people started asking for photos and I had a photo shoot with an entire Indian family, all of whom barely reached my shoulders. At this point we decided to listen to our growling stomachs and head back to our Zostel for breakfast.

I think we saw a little bit more of Agra that most people do as instead of the nap we so desperately wanted we went off with a guy from the hostel in search of someone to fix the very broken strap on my backpack. We were taken down little side streets where I don’t think many tourists venture given the amount of staring that was going on. We stopped at a sewing machine shop where the old man at the machine looked at my bag for a good 10 minutes and tried to figure out how he could get the plastic back underneath his needle. He decided he couldn’t so sent us up the road to another man with a sewing machine- or I assume that’s what he said as we don’t speak Hindi we were just following the guy from the hostel. The next man offered to sew it but his thread wasn’t strong enough so back we went to the main road and hopped in a 30 RUPEE rickshaw (this is what happens when you travel with locals) which dropped us at a roundabout and a shoe mender. He took one look at my bag and looked as us as if to say “of course I can fix this, what is all the fuss about”. Not only did he fix it but he only charged me 40 rupees (50p) and it actually feels stronger than the other side.

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the rest of the sights of Agra. The Red Fort in Delhi is a copy of the one in Agra, although the one here is much better. It feels bigger and in better condition, plus there are great views of the Taj Mahal from the top. We thought we were lost but actually we’d unknowingly been following a well thought out route which led us back to the entrance and into the waiting foray of rickshaw drivers. We knew where we wanted to go and what we wanted to see and we did manage to haggle him down from 500 to 300 rupees for the rest of the afternoon. We crossed the river to see ‘the Baby Taj’- very pretty if not quite as impressive as it’s larger brother. By now it was sunset time so we followed to droves of tourists to the park but because we’re tight and on a backpacker budget we watched it from a park a little further up he road. The sun doesn’t even set behind the Taj and it’s so hazy with all the pollution that we didn’t really miss much anyway.

Feeling we had seen as much as we needed to of Agra we left at a fairly agreeable hour the next morning for our bus to Jaipur. This was a private bus so supposed to be fairly luxurious, which is suppose it was if you don’t count the terrible suspensions which saw Milly fly about 2 feet in the air and nearly knock herself out on the luggage rack. Still what did we care, we had music, MapsMe and plenty of chocolate biscuits for the journey. MapsMe, a truly spectacular app I highly recommend to anyone visiting a city with limited internet access, was actually a hinderance in this instance as Mills was following it on her phone so we decided to get off a couple of stops before the main bus station as it was closer to the hostel. It turned out that a guy from the hostel was waiting for us at the bus station with a free ride…nightmare. Still our haggling skills were improving so the rickshaw wasn’t too pricey and we spent the rest of the afternoon in the hostel only spending money on a takeaway. Milly did lose a little of her pride when she suffered a crushing defeat at chess after a 2 hour intense game with the woman running the hostel. I stayed out of it and read my book.

We only had one full day in Jaipur so we intended to see as much as possible. Following another Lonely Planet recommendation we had breakfast at Indian Coffee House which serves omelettes almost as good as my dad makes. It turns out we had been a little keen with our visit to the actual Pink City and nothing was open yet so instead we paid a visit to the Albert Hall Museum (I only paid half a visit as my stomach was still not happy with me and I had to make a swift exit), the part I did see was very interesting though. This was also the place we decided to stop having photos with random men because one guy got a little too handsy and then started following us: from now on we charge 100 rupees per photo!

Finally the Pink City had woken up and we spent the rest of the day following the Lonely Planet (other guides are of course available) walking tour around the bazaars. I had to exercise some serious self control and there were so many pretty rings and earrings begging to be bought. I reminded myself that we are here for 6 months and I do not have to spend all of my money right away. We deviated from the route several times to explore the slightly less touristy shops and hidden streets selling beautifully coloured saaris and interesting smelling spices. We were attempting to find what turned out to be the Town Hall when a guy came up and started talking to us: cue creepy guy of Jaipur number 2. We thought at first he was just being friendly and agreed to go for chai with him as he said it was just down the road. It wasn’t just down the road at all. It was off the main street, into a crumbling square with only men and he looked like he was heading down a dingy alleyway. It was at this point we suddenly remember we needed to meet our friend at the City Palace and scampered off.

We did end up paying to go into the City Palace because I thought that’s where my Town Hall building was. It’s not in there at all. It’s actually up the road and totally free to look at from the other side of the road.

Still the City Palace was stunning, as most stately buildings over here are, and I even got a bit of a history lesson on India from Mills, which I desperately needed as I’m painfully ignorant. We completed our walking tour without any further interactions with creepy men, unless you count our friend from Delhi, Nigel, who made me jump out my skin when he tapped my shoulder in the middle of the street.

After a small amount of retail therapy (Mills not me) we got in what has to be the world’s slowest rickshaw to take us out to see the Fort and the floating palace. I’m not exaggerating when I say even horses were overtaking us and it was uphill. Still I think it was electric so at least we were doing our bit for the environment. We felt slightly fort-ed out after our exploits in Delhi and Agra so didn’t actually go inside just admired from the exterior. It was very impressive and part of a huge city wall but still not worth walking up all those steps for. The floating temple is worth a photo stop; it’s a temple half submerged in the lake but makes a pretty stunning sight especially as the sun is getting lower in the sky.

After a full day of sightseeing we were knackered but still on a budget so attempted to walk back to our hostel. We got about 15 minutes in and decided we were being overly ambitious so hopped in a rickshaw. For some reason I was craving a banana lassi that evening so Khan, one of the hostel drivers, took us out to the best lassi shop in town. Sadly it was closed so we had to go to the one next door. It wasn’t banana but it was still delicious and served in a huge clay cup (we stupidly asked for large ones) which just get thrown away. If we weren’t at the beginning of our trip I definitely would have kept it.

We didn’t spend that long in Jaipur but I feel we utilised our time well and packed in a fair amount. I’m not sure how I feel about its title as the Pink City as the pink buildings are few and far between and only in one particular area. I’m still glad we went but it was now time to leave behind the cities and head into the desert in search of some camels.

TOP TIP FOR THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE: Stop saying yes to photographs, especially with men. It slows you down and you don’t want to be the profile picture and fake girlfirend of them all.

Delhi and Diwali

Delhi and Diwali

India. Population: 1.3 billion. Size: 3, 287, 263 square km. Time set aside to see as much as possible: 6 1/2 months…let the challenge begin.

India is the first trip I’ve been on where I arrive knowing a friendly face is waiting to meet me. Although getting through airport security was a tad slow I wasn’t at all stressed because it was a lot calmer than I expected; I knew I had an airport transfer booked and I had a Milly ready to greet me at the hostel. The journey from the airport was also pretty quiet- I don’t think we really experienced the stereotypical Delhi traffic until we ventured into Old Delhi. Pulling up outside the hostel in the dark was slightly daunting however, as there was no sign there was actually a hostel there at all. So many scenarios started running through my head: I’d been conned; I was about to be kidnapped; someone would jump me before I made it up the stairs. These were the ridiculous ramblings of a person very much in need of sleep. Of course everything was absolutely fine and once I’d struggled up all the stairs and got my breath back I was greeted by the loving arms of my best friend Milly who is to be my travel companion for the next few months. Excitement doesn’t do justice to what I was feeling that first night.

A lot of people we’ve met or spoken to have fairly negative things to say about New Delhi and only stay there a couple of nights before heading off in various directions around the rest of the country. We ended up staying 5 days in the Madpackers, (highly recommend to anyone travelling India- great chain of hostels), and thoroughly enjoyed it. Milly and I realised on our first reunion we hadn’t actually seen each other since March and the ‘planning meetings’ we’d had prior to this had mainly involved looking through the Lonely Planet book saying “yes we want to go there too”, eating curry and watching Bride and Prejudice– a great film! We needed a bit of time to come up with a rough plan for the first week at least, which we did although it was the opposite to our original idea as Mills wanted to go to Pushkar to see the camels. It was also Diwali while we were there so on the day of the festival we decided not to bother going to any monuments as there was no guarantee they would be open. Instead we accidentally crashed a Diwali party at a local bakery, but they still let us buy cake and it was the BEST chocolate cake I think I may ever have eaten. We then took part in the hostel rangoli competition. Rangolis are designs made from coloured salt which are drawn on the floor during Diwali. They are extremely satisfying to make and we had a great time getting creative with our imaginative patterns.

We also helped decorate the hostel with hundreds of tiny tee lights (clay pots filled with oil) that were lit on both floors of the hostel and up all the stairs. It looked so pretty when they were lit, especially on the roof where they were integrated into the rangoli design. Myself, Milly and our new friend Marni had bought traditional outfits the day before so wore them as we participated in the actual ceremony of Diwali. We weren’t 100% sure what was going on but it was cool to see all the boys from the hostel dressed up and so lovely to be able to participate in such an important festival. We finished up on the roof, attempting to set off lanterns. These are much more hard work than they look in the films and most of the hostel got bored after the first few failed attempts. The 3 of us stuck at it with the hostel guys, taping up holes and not giving up. We were rewarded with the majority of the lanterns floating off into the night sky- one looked as though it was plummeting to the earth then all of a sudden reappeared over the edge of the balcony and floated away. It was a Diwali miracle!

The rest of our time in Delhi we were a lot more active and adventurous. We did a tour round New Delhi with the hostel which took us to a step well (exactly what it sounds like) and a Sikh temple. This was very beautiful and had a large pond with a very cute baby turtle in it but the best part was the kitchen. Every day this temple feeds 20, 000 people regardless of their race, religion or economic status. You can just go and get a free meal, cooked in the kitchen which houses some of the biggest woks I have ever seen. We got to help out with rolling the dough for the chapatis and although we only did a little bit it felt really good to be doing something, even a little something, which would contribute to helping so many people.

There is a lot to see and do in Delhi, so even in 5 days we barely scratched the surface. We did however, get to a number of the sights and generally wandered around the different parts of the city marvelling at how different they are. One day we were walking from India Gate to the Lodi Gardens passed fancy houses and embassies; the next we were picking our way through cow pats and trying not be run over by rickshaws in Old Delhi. This is the Delhi that everyone knows: the sounds of car horns everywhere; cows wandering along the street; people shouting at each other and motorbikes weaving between the mayhem. Mills and I loved it as this was the India of our imaginations but one of the guys we were with said he thought the whole place should be nuked and they should start again.

Madpackers is within walking distance of the metro, which is how a group of us planned to get to Humayan’s Tomb. There was a confusion over the line to take so we decided to split off and have a race to see who could get there first: rickshaw or metro. Well of course those of us that got the rickshaw were there about 45 minutes before the others. The only issue was Mills and I had split up so by the time I’d finished looking around the tomb with the rickshaw crew I still had no idea where she was. I then did the one thing my mother told me not to: I said goodbye to my friends and walked back into the tomb complex alone to find her. Within 5 minutes I’d located her and everyone she was with so it wasn’t a big deal at all…sorry Mum! The tomb building was a very impressive sight and huge considering it only housed a small number of actual coffins. Even these were intricately decorated with lots of detailing- they take their burials very seriously. The gardens surrounding the tomb are the best part as they provide a much welcome break from the hustle and bustle of the city.

There are certain things in Delhi that we felt were a must see and the Red Fort was one of them, although it turns out the one in Agra is actually better. Still we couldn’t go to Delhi without having a look, it’s just unfortunate they once again charge foreigners 3 times as much to get in as locals. The locals in question love a good selfie and in particular loved a good selfie with us. So much so that we started to make a competition out of it to see who got asked the most- it wasn’t me as I just give people sour looks when they come near me with a phone and this tends to put them off. This was why I enjoyed our visit to the Swaminarayan’s Akshardam Temple because you are not allowed to take anything in with you. No bags, no phones, no cameras. This was unfortunate as it meant one of the guys with us decided not to go in as he didn’t want to risk leaving his camera in the locker room. We left him with all our stuff and myself, Mills and 2 girls we’d met in the hostel went to investigate. It’s such a shame you can’t take photos as it really is a stunning complex of buildings and temples. The main temple sits on a three tiered plinth with elephants carved into the bottom layer in so much detail they have engraved the wrinkles in their skin. It’s incredible!

My favourite place we visited during our time in Delhi was actually on the morning we were due to leave. Despite the fact I had minor Delhi Belly I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the Lotus Temple because it’s a house of worship for all religions and beliefs. Instead of that slightly stuffy, sometimes awkward feeling I get going into Churches where I know I don’t really belong, the building managed to create a sense of peace and tranquility found very rarely in other parts of the city. It was a lovely relaxing way to spend the morning before we embarked on our first train journey to the second tip of the Golden Triangle: Agra.

TOP TIP FOR DIWALI: If a shop looks open it’s probably having a Diwali party so be careful you don’t just walk in and accidentally crash it…

What do you get if you throw money at a desert?

What do you get if you throw money at a desert?

The answer: Dubai. This metropolis sits on the coast and the creek completely surrounded by desert on 3 sides and is the perfect example of human ambition combined with excessive oil wealth. As Dubai is very far out of my backpacker price range and my Mum had a weird desire to fly solo we decided to combine forces and spend 5 days together before I headed off to India and she travelled home. Neither of us were particularly enthralled by the idea of Dubai; lots of glass, expensive shops and 50 degree heat isn’t really our idea of a good time but we were willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and I think we were actually pleasantly surprised.

There is a lot about Dubai that is totally not our cup of tea; countless malls; excessively extravagant hotels; no trees and did I mention the 50 degree heat?! But there was also a lot which we found we really enjoyed and ended up having a much better time than either of us anticipated. While the old quarter of Al Fahid has been restored so looks as though it was built yesterday, which in my opinion means it has lost a little of its charm, it is still refreshing to have a glimpse of what Dubai looked like back in its early days when the main source of income was pearls and the thought of luxury hotels was just a twinkle in the Sheikh’s eye. We also found a couple of hidden gems, such as the Mawaheb Art Studio, where people with disabilities are offered a space to create their own art work. One of the guys we met is having his projects put up in Terminal 3 of Dubai airport. It also offers and opportunity for people who live in Dubai to volunteer. We met a woman from Manchester who had begun volunteering there the year before and absolutely loved it- as she said there’s only so many coffees you can drink and malls you can visit before you need to find something slightly more fulfilling to do with your time.

For those of you yet to visit the city of Dubai, or those who visit on a regular basis but are yet to stray from the glitz and glass of the malls I highly recommend a visit to Dubai Fort. It’s in the centre of Al Fahid district, easily reached by the metro and a short walk to the waterfront souks of Dubai creek. It has been turned into a extremely interesting museum where Mum and I spent a good couple of hours examining all the exhibits and taking in the very recent history that makes up the Dubai of today. Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, travelled all over the world taking in the architecture of the places he visited, seeing what worked best before coming back to the UAE and constructing the city of Dubai using what he had learnt. Clever guy. This also explained why we had been recognising iconic buildings throughout the city. There are a few skyscrapers that bare a remarkable resemblance to the Empire State Building and a bridge which is the double of the Blinking Eye (Millennium Bridge) in Newcastle.

The souks themselves were a much more controlled and calm experience than those we had experienced in places such as Morocco and Jordan but the sales techniques used by the vendors are the same the world over. Constant harassment and comparison to random celebrities seems to be the way they hope to entice you into their shop which is selling exactly the same things as the ones next door. However, as most of what they were selling is imported and a lot of it from India there didn’t really seem to be any point in buying it when I could probably get it for half the price in India. I also wasn’t sure whether I should be flattered or offended that they kept calling me Shakira- I mean she’s fit but she’s also 40!

Our day exploring old Dubai was a long one as we wanted to beat the heat (impossible as it’s hot all the time) so we left early in the morning and returned to the hotel well after it had got dark. We decided to stop off at the Dubai Mall on our way home to see the fountain show. One of those things that is on the list of things to do while in Dubai but another aspect which really isn’t as spectacular as I was expecting. It takes longer to walk from the metro to the fountain than the length of the show, which is basically just jets of water spouting out of a pond in time to some music. The backdrop of the Burj Khalifa is pretty impressive but the fountain show itself was slightly disappointing- still at least it was free.

Everyone warns you about the cost when you go to Dubai so we were prepared for things to be insanely expensive. Again, we were were pleasantly surprised for the majority of the trip that a lot of what we did was fairly reasonable. The worst value for money trip we had was our visit to the Atlantis Aquarium on the Palm. The only reason we went was to see the hotel and you can’t even get in the main hotel (trust me we tried). Due to some weird fluke booking online we got a discount on our Aquarium visit but even so it was pretty small compared to the one we visited in Valencia and a lot more expensive. It was also a very odd experience to be looking into a tankful of fish, stingrays and sharks and then to see a diver. Diving in an aquarium in the middle of a hotel- only in Dubai. In any Aquarium my favourite tank is always the recreation of Finding Nemo which I make a point of finding, along with the jelly fish tank because they are just awesome. Visiting the palm is a must when in Dubai and I’m glad we got to see the Atlantis hotel, even if they do restrict you to the smallest areas, but I’m not sure it’s really our cup of tea even if we did have the thousands of pounds going spare to stay there.

My biggest achievement of our trip was getting my terrified of heights mother up the tallest building in the world. As with most of these tall buildings you can’t actually go all the way to the top so we contented ourselves with the 125th floor where the views over the city actually proved at how little it has actually been built up. The main metropolitan areas hug the coast and the creek but in the direction of the desert there’s very little development, which I suppose makes sense. Unfortunately the day we were up there was a little hazy but it did clear and we were able to see all the way out to the Palm and the Burj al Arab. We had looked at going there for afternoon tea but as it costs almost £150 per person we decided that it wasn’t for us. Instead we spent time at the top of the Burj Khalifa examining the city and deciding that the lack of green meant we would never be able to live there, no matter how much money you would earn. We then went and ate Tim Hortons in the Dubai Mall, doesn’t get much better right?!

Surrounded by so many global chains and designer labels it’s easy to forget that Dubai is a city in what is still a strongly Islamic country, and as such there are certain aspects of cultural behaviour that should be adhered to. In my (humble) opinion Islam is currently one of the most misunderstood religions in the world and as such the Open Doors Open Minds programme which operates in Dubai was something I was really keen to investigate. I vaguely remembered some of what was said as I had studied Islam at school but most people present, I think including my Mum, had most of their information about Islam from what they had read in the Western press. Considering the word Islam has the same root as the word peace it is easy to see why people from the Islamic community are keen to educate people more clearly about what Islam actually stands for in order to reduce the prejudice against a religion and a culture which has received a significant amount of negative press over the past few years.

We spent a highly interesting morning at the Jumeriah Mosque, which happens to be the only Mosque in Dubai you can visit as a non Muslim. It’s a beautiful building near the sea in a residential area where we spent a few hours learning about the differences between Arabic culture and Islamic faith. In addition we were told about the 5 pillars of Islam, the calls to prayer and the holy pilgrimage to Mecca which every Muslim should attempt at least once in their life but ONLY if they are financially and physically able. We also found out why women wear black and men wear white; received more information on why certain women choose to wear a hijab and why women and men are separated during prayer. As a firm believer in equal rights and feminism there were a couple of aspects of the explanation that didn’t sit quite right with me but there were also parts that sort of made sense. Many women who make the choice to wear a hijab say they prefer it as it means they are judged on what they say and do rather than what they look like and what they wear. It’s sad that in this day and age women feel like they have to cover themselves from head to toe in order to be judged as a person rather than eye candy but if that works for them then I say go for it. Why shouldn’t women take a stand against being judged for the way they look in whatever way they can?

From an extremely interesting cultural experience to a highly overrated touristy one and our worst nightmare had to be our adventure out into the desert. On paper the whole thing sounded great: a 4X4 off road experience through the dunes; dates and sweets on arrival; unlimited soft drinks and water; a camel ride; shisha; henna; belly dancing and fire breathing and a meal. Well all of those things were included but: after Madagascar any 4X4 experience seems pretty tame; the camel ride was about 30 seconds; the henna was tiny so we paid extra for a bigger one; there was no sweets on arrival; the soft drinks weren’t served until the food and the food itself was a buffet of about 100 people and wasn’t even Middle Eastern. In other words it was Mum’s worst nightmare and possible the most touristy thing we’ve done in years. Still we had a good laugh about it and did manage to get ourselves a pretty nice view of the sunset once we’d walked away from the mini fort they’d constructed. There were too many people and so much rubbish it just made us a little bit sad that the city itself is so spotless and obviously well cared for but as soon as you are out in the dunes people just don’t seem to care.

Our final night in Dubai was when we finally saw the crazy expensive side people had warned us about. Other than our unsuccessful trip to the desert the only restaurant we’d eaten at in the evenings was called Turqwaz on the Waterways about a minute from our hotel. Highly recommended for anyone visiting Dubai who doesn’t want to spend a fortune on food and actually enjoys Middle Eastern cuisine. Anyway, our last night we decided to branch out and visit Madinat Jumeirah as it had been recommended in our guide book. Other than the fact it gave us a great view of the Burj al Arab hotel at night it was an expensive trip that yielded little else in return. We were thinking about getting dinner there but after looking at a couple of menus and realising one dish would set us back more than our entire bill the night before we decided against it. We did have our first and last cocktail on the steps of the amphitheatre, overlooking the man made creek with the Burj al Arab lit up in the background. It was a pretty setting but everything that we weren’t really keen on in Dubai: fake, over the top and over priced. We headed back to our trusty spot on the marina where we had an enormous fish feast and we back to the hotel feel fuller than we had in days.

Our 5 days were up. Luxury had come to an end and we spent our final morning trying to distract ourselves from the fact it was almost time for me to head to India and not see my Mum for 6 months. I know it’s not that long but I’m sad and very close to my parents so for me it’s still quite a big deal. Personally I think we handled it pretty well and although we shed a few tears as we said an emotional farewell outside the Boots in Dubai airport I was glad we’d spent the last few days together. The stress I’d felt leaving the UK was gone, replaced by a bubbling excitement at the prospect of seeing my best friend and exploring the incredible sub continent that is India. Dubai had been great but it was time to say goodbye to cleanliness and luxury and hello to chaos and grime.

TOP TIP FOR DUBAI: Take it for what it is: a lot of money concentrated in a small area. But also scratch a little bit below the surface as there is a lot that will surprise you.

I Like to Move It Move It…We Like to…Move It!

I Like to Move It Move It…We Like to…Move It!

More intense hiking is what I said…well they do say be careful what you wish for. It was impossible to post my last two and half weeks in Madagascar because we didn’t have access to wifi. In fact we barely had access to electricity or saw any tourists other than ourselves which was actually amazing.

We started our adventure in the northern town of Sambava which is the vanilla capital of Madagascar and therefore very wealthy. Despite its coastal location we seemed to be the only guests in our hotel which is probably a good thing as those in charge didn’t really seem to like guests! They also struggled to understand our requests or maybe Mum just lacks communication skills. Either way she went off to order a cup of tea and we were presented with 3 bananas…same thing right? The owner did take us to his coconut plantation which was really interesting and involved eating and drinking a lot of coconut. We were shown the whole process from germination to the crushing of the husks to produce oil. The dust is even sent off to make chicken feed- it’s so nice to see a production process where nothing is wasted. Our planned visit to the vanilla plantation was impossible due to the fact it was Sunday, so instead we spent an exorbitant amount of money on vanilla. The best news of the day was that our walk through the town yielded another stall selling IPod chargers and this one actually worked! Just in time for us not to have electricity for the next 4 nights.

These 4 nights without electricity were probably the best of the holiday. We spent them trekking though Morjeyjy National Park, sleeping in huts constructed of wood and sheet plastic; eating freshly prepared food by the cook and searching (very successfully) for lemurs. Although the distance we covered each day didn’t seem far and the locals could run them in about half an hour with no shoes, for us the terrain was pretty tough, especially as it was the rainforest and humidity is a killer.

The first day we hiked for 4 hours to the first camp, starting in more open scenery of the surrounding village and slowly getting into thicker rainforest as we entered the National Park. We stopped off at a waterfall where there was an option to swim but the water was freezing and it had started to rain so we passed on that and continued to camp. By the time we got there it was raining pretty hard and we had to postpone our walk to the waterfall. In the end we postponed it until the following day as the stepping stones across the river were extremely slippery and we are not as sure footed as the locals. Instead of waterfalls we were treated to an evening show from a group of Bamboo Lemurs feeding in the tree tops around our camp site- these guys are fast becoming my favourite species of lemur as their faces are just so cute!

After it rained all through the night we made our way to the waterfall the next morning and then on to camp two. As soon as we left the campsite we were walking directly uphill and carried on like that for most of the morning. We did have breaks along the way: we had to stop for a few minutes when Dad decided to take a flying leap off the side of the cliff. Actually he tripped over a tree route and the momentum of his backpack took him almost rolling down the hill. He grabbed a tree root, I grabbed him, Mum got out of the way and our two guides moved at the speed of light to pull him back up. He was a bit shaken but suffered no major injuries other than dented pride and thankfully we weren’t far away from the next camp and there were tea and biscuits waiting for us when we arrived along with a highly entertaining mongoose who kept trying to steal our lunch. The afternoon we went off in search of the Silky Sifaka lemurs, which we had to scramble through undergrowth to find. This was the start of our off piste adventures with our local guide who seemed to think once we’d fought our way through the undergrowth to see them the first time we were game for anything. We were of course but I don’t think anything prepared us for the walk we took the next day. He told us there was a “path” that led round the back of the campsite. I use the word path in the loosest sense of the word. I have no idea how our guide knew where we were going as we were fighting our way through undergrowth, scrambling up steep slopes with only tree roots for support and generally following him in blind faith that he would lead us back to camp. He did of course and it was an awesome adventure but we definitely earned our lunch that day!

Our time in the rainforest had come to an end with a super early wake up and a speedy hike back to the village for our long drive to Daraina. It had been an incredible 4 days, completely cut off from everything else. We’d seen 4 different species of lemur at close proximity and covered some fairly intense terrain- shout out to my parents for smashing it, even though they are both in their 60s. However, our adventures off the beaten track were far from over. The drive from Marojejy to Daraina was one of the most terrifying I have ever experienced. Not the whole way of course but the last half was ridiculous considering we were technically travelling along a national road. In fact it was a dirt track with divots and humps about 3 foot deep caused by the lorries which attempt to travel along the road during the rains. The distance between the two places is only about 80 miles but it takes around 8/9 hours because there is no way a car can do more than 20mph in those conditions- even a 4X4. There were moments where I think we were all calculating what would happen if this car flipped and the distance to the nearest hospital. That is until it was almost dark and we stopped at the side of the road; we all looked at Marcel (our driver) who simply said “chameleon”. This guy was driving one of the most difficult roads I have ever seen, not even using his four-wheel drive mechanism on the car, in almost darkness and he had spotted a chameleon at the side of the road. Well after that we never felt unsafe driving with this guy again and from then on we referred to him as “chameleon man”. Apparently he gets his special vision due to his Madagascan Ray bans.

The rest of the trip was spent in various National Parks and protected areas seeing as many variations of lemurs as we could. We were really lucky and saw over half the types of Sifakas which exist in Madagascar along with a number of nocturnal species both during the day and on the night walks. Daraina was an interesting place as it’s only classified as a protected area therefore people are still allowed to mine for gold as long as they do not cause long term environmental damage. Well the impact of the shanty town we saw on our walk seemed to imply long term environmental damage but then we also saw lemurs swinging through the trees around them, seemingly unperturbed by the presence of humans. I suppose it was a good example of people and animals working together as they are not disturbing the trees to pan for gold and while they are still allowed to make money from this they do no feel the need to hunt lemurs for food thus keeping them protected.

From Daraina we headed on to Ankanarana for the second tsingy. This place was much more on the tourist trail so there were a lot more people than we were used to. It also made us realise how much more interested we are in things like wildlife and nature than some people. On our walk to the tsingy we were overtake by a number of groups who simply did not seem interested in the fact there were families of lemurs jumping around in the trees above them. I mean how can you skip over this guy?!

The tsingy here is pretty similar to the one we’d seen earlier on in our trip but on a larger scale as we’d only done the petit one. Getting across for a more complete view involved a couple of rope bridges which are not my favourite thing but I managed them with Dad, although Mum didn’t fancy it so stayed behind with Olivier (our guide). The view across was impressive although no lemurs were hopping across which was a shame. There are also several enormous caves, pitch black and filled with bats which Dad and I braved. At one point we turned off all the torches and I could feel the bats swooping past my head.

If I thought this was a close encounter it was nothing to the proximity of the next caves. We were taken on a walk by the staff from Black Lemur Camp (Andrafiamena) to a network of tunnels which Dad and I barely squeezed through. No exaggeration we were bending our bodies in ways that they should really not be bent to fit through some of the gaps and at a lot of points there were bats perched less than an inch away from my nose. All I could think was ” please do not wake up”.

The Black Lemur Camp is a brand new hotel that I doubt is finished yet and has been set up to allow people to visit the surrounding forest and get a glimpse of these elusive creatures that are only found in this area. In the past to see them you would have to camp but this new eco hotel is opening the area up to a wider audience. Finding these animals involved more fighting through undergrowth; getting stuck on vines and generally being attacked by nature. But it was all worth it to see the adorable black lemurs that look a little bit like black bears. I could have watched them all day but they were less used to human presence than some of the others we’ve seen so were constantly on the move hence all the fighting through the undergrowth.

Our last National Park was Amber Mountain; so much tamer than anywhere else we’ve been but no less interesting. We saw two breeds of lemur spending time in the same tree which is apparently extremely rare. We also saw the large group of tourists from our hotel the night before, accompanied by several armed men in khaki. We asked our local guide why they were armed and he told us it was to protect them from the animals. Well we know Madagascar doesn’t have any animals that would feel the need to attack humans and they certainly wouldn’t be aiming a gun at a Lemur in a national park. We asked Olivier what the real reason was because we knew he wouldn’t lie to us. Apparently large groups have to be accompanied because over the last few years they have become targets for local bandits. We were safe because there was only 3 of us and we weren’t worth the risk but a large group can be set upon. It’s strange to think that in a country with so many political and social issues; corruption that we witnessed first hand on a regular basis and so many of it’s population living in abject poverty not once did we meet someone who asked us for money. The kids asked for sweets and empty water bottles and the adults attempted to sell us things but there was very little begging. There was also never a moment where I felt unsafe but that was probably more down to Olivier than anything else.

I feel like no one should travel Madagascar without Olivier because without him I think we might still be sat at Diego airport waiting to get on a plane. It feels like we were trying to get home for about 72 hours- half of which were spent sat at Diego airport waiting to see if our first plane would leave. We spent a whole day at the airport in which time I read 2 books, ate a free sandwich and took a lap round the car park several times before we had our luggage returned. We were bundled into a taxi, which was so rusty you could see the road through the bottom. They put us up in a fairly grotty hotel and gave us free food but thankfully we didn’t have to spend much time there as we were rushed out at 6:45 in the morning, racing to the airport to fight our way onto the morning flight. We weren’t on the list but thanks to Olivier we got on the plane although our bags did not. We had to pick them up later in the day after an afternoon of shopping and relaxing in the Gassy Country House. It was sad saying goodbye to Olivier but I was glad he finally got some time off to go and see his family after his unexpected extra day and a half with us.

Despite all the issues, we made it to our international flight on time and it was still one of the best holidays we’ve ever been on- and we have been on some crackers. I have no idea what made Mum choose it as a location but I’m so grateful that she did because it’s such a beautifully sad country with so much to see and experience. 90% of the forest has been destroyed due to deforestation to make place for farming but I hope that in my life time that will start to reverse. The more emphasis is placed on tourism, as long as it is done in a sustainable way, will increase the people’s desire to protect their amazingly unique flora and fauna. Lemurs are too incredible to be lost forever.

We’re All Going on a Family Holiday

We’re All Going on a Family Holiday

That’s right. For the first time in two years the Hartmans have embarked on a proper family holiday. This time we all flew out together and will all be flying home together, as well as spending the entire 25 days in each other’s company. So far there have only been a few minor tiffs and we are all still alive…just. I suppose it helps that it’s not really what you’d call a normal family holiday; we’ve not trooped down to Cornwall or hopped on a plane to Spain (although we do that a lot). We have headed to the more random location of Madagascar in search of unique wildlife and trekking challenges. So far we have been pretty successful on the wildlife front and I’m sure the more intense hiking is yet to come.

Flying is my least favourite part of travelling (as anyone who has read this before will know) but I was hoping flying with Mum and Dad would make it less stressful. No budget airline for the grumpy flyer, not this time. It was Air France all they way…and what a disappointment that was. No leg room, too hot and not a lot food or Staff around. Also on a flight to Madagascar which has old animation films on its entertainment system I would really have hoped to see the film Madagascar on there but no such luck; I had to settle for the Aristocats instead. Having been up since 2:45am we spent most of the flight asleep and were obviously the slowest as we were the second last off the plane. At immigration the man checking our passports offered to give us our visa quicker but we declined as it was extra money and also I’m not quite sure how legit he was. We finally made it through after an hour of queues, stamps and baggage collection where we met our driver Christian who took us through the dark and slightly terrifying streets of the capital to our hotel. By this time it was 11pm and we were exhausted. So was the poor porter who ran up and down the stairs with our bags several times before any of us worked out which floor our rooms were on. All I wanted to do at this point was sleep but unfortunately my bag had been dropped in a puddle and my clothes were soaked so I spent half an hour finding places to hang my soggy clothes. By the time I got into bed it was almost 2am. Needless to say I sleep like a baby that first night.

We’ve been in Madagascar for 11 days now and have just arrived in the North after spending the first week and a bit exploring the West. We spent our first day in Antananarivo on a city tour with Christian. Driving round town in a 4X4 seemed a little extreme and was fairly hair raising at times- all practice for what was to come. He took us out to the suburbs so we could see the women doing their washing, which is something Mum always enjoys and then he showed us the old train station which has now been converted into a shopping centre and restaurant where the toilets are in an old railway carriage. It’s a shame that the trains no longer run as there are so many lorries on the road it would make more sense to transport those goods via the railway but then I’m not a politician so I’m assuming they have their reasons…maybe. From the station we headed up the Queen’s Palace, most of which burnt down several years ago but the views of the city are awesome. We had a really good guide who told us lots of stories about the site. I would not want to be a Grandfather to a boy in Madagascar; apparently as a sign of acceptance they have to eat the foreskin of the new child after it is circumcised. Sorry for the graphic detail but we had just had lunch when we heard this story. We also visited the King’s House which you have to walk in right foot first as a sign of respect and leave backwards as you are not allowed to turn your back on the king- clumsy Hannah struggled with this but nothing broken or bruised so far so we’re all good. This King had 12 wives, 11 of which he housed on the 11 hills surrounding the city and kept his favourite with him at the palace. What a busy man he must have been!

The next day was when our trip really started and although it was a great week with Christian and we saw a lot I do feel like we spent an awful lot of time in the car. This is probably due to the fact Madagascar is the 4th largest island in the world so the distances between places are pretty massive combined with the fact the roads aren’t great and there are lots of lorries. On the first day we broke up the journey to Andasibe with a visit to a reptile sanctuary where we saw loads of chameleons and I wore a centipede as a bracelet. It was great. That afternoon we arrived at the rainforests of Andasibe which was where our wildlife spotting started. On our night walk we were lucky enough to spot not only wild chameleons and tree frogs but also Pygmy Mouse Lemurs (Dad and I mistook their eyes for fire flies) and Wooly Lemurs swinging through the trees. We did have to leg it down the road to seem the Pygmy Mouse Lemur but it was worth it.

Lemurs are the main reason I came on this trip: I love watching them when we got to the zoo and they are even more hilarious in their natural habitat. The biggest species of lemur in Madagascar is called the Indri Indri which actually translates from Malagasy as “over there”. Apparently the French scientist which discovered it misunderstood his local guide and thought he was being told he scientific name when actually he was just pointing out where the animal was. This species of lemur is endemic to Madagascar and can only be seen by visiting the island as they aren’t able to live anywhere else. We were lucky to be in the company of another great guide called Everest who had been working the forests for 15 years so knew their habitat and routes well. They are so loud when they shout to each other I now understand why in the film they are constantly shown to be having a party- that’s what it sounds like. We had a really good morning walking through the forest, sometimes at breakneck speed when Everest was onto something. Not only did we see the Indri Indri but also the Common Brown and the Golden Sifaka. They are such funny animals and watching them jump is amazing! Watching the other tourists try to get photos is also hilarious and I was glad we had Everest as he often took us away from the crowds.

The afternoons was also lemur orientated although we had a visit to another reptile sanctuary first where we saw a large number of chubby crocodiles, some more geckos and a fossa. I was also made to go in a cage with some birds which was not an enjoyable experience at all. I HATE birds. Thankfully the visit to lemur island drove the birds clear out of my mind, although my parents and I did have a slight moral dilemma before we visited. We are not really into the whole getting up close and personal with wildlife; I flipped when it was suggested we go and visit the Tiger Temple when I was out in Chang Mai, however these Lemurs aren’t naturally aggressive animals. From the looks of them they have just got used to the presence of people and like the extra bananas but when they’ve had enough they head off to the forest for a nap. Pretty nice set up really. They are so light when they jump on you but they do take you rather by surprise. They also seemed to take a liking to Mum although one got a bit over excited and pooped on her which Dad and I found hilarious but she wasn’t as impressed.

The 2 days that followed our exciting adventures in the forest were a lot less eventful. We spent 2 days driving from Andasibe to Antsirabe and then on to Morondava. The scenery varies a lot as you drive through and the red soil does make it look like you are on another planet. The noise and the smells as you drive through the villages also keeps things interesting but being in a car for so many hours does take its toll. Luckily in Andiraisbe there was shopping to distract and in Morondava there was a beach to stroll along. Still it was a nice break the morning we left Morondava early and visited the Avenue of the Boababs. These are very odd trees which I think are also endemic to here and once covered most of the country but the forests have largely been destroyed due to deforestation for farming. They’re pretty impressive to see and at that time of day there weren’t a lot of people around.

Our next stop was Kirindy Forest on the hunt for more lemurs and the elusive fossa, although he turned out to be not so elusive. We’d been there less than 10 minutes when I turned round in the middle of where we were saying and said “oh look there’s a fossa’. He later reappeared looking for scraps from the kitchen and showed rather a lot of interest in the chicken coop. As it was around 10 when we went for our first walk the lemurs weren’t very active as they are sensible animals and don’t wast their energy running around in the heat. Despite the fact they were sleeping we still saw several species including a different brown to the one we’d seen in Andasibe and a White Sifaka. That evening we went out for another night walk and saw several more lemurs including the Grey Mouse lemur and the Red Tailed Sportive. We seem to have shaken our bad luck we had wildlife searching in Canada (fingers crossed and so may it continue).

Kirindy Forest was a great respite from the long drive but we only had one night there before we moved on again. This time our journey was made slightly more interesting by the presence of two ferry crossings we had to make as well as the fact I had a rather dodgy stomach which always makes long drives with no toilet stops that little bit more interesting. But lets focus on the ferries for now. I call them ferries because that is what they refer to them as but they are nothing like the ferries we have at home (of course). They consist of two long boats, each equipped with a tractor engine and covered in planks of wood which can carry up to 5 4x4s at one time. Unfortunately for those of us who arrived early they like to fill up the ferries before they leave so we had to hang around for a while to wait for a few more cars to show up. On both occasions when we were waiting for the ferries I made some new friends- being blonde, tall and female in most countries draws attention to you and here the kids seem to like me. At the first ferry it was a group of the most adorable boys we have met so far; they each kissed my had to say hello and asked for my water bottle which they shared out between them. There was a tiny one who was being looked after by his brother and it was so sweet it made my heart melt. The kids at the second ferry were slightly more daring in what they asked for; pretty much everything from our plastic water bottle to Dad’s watch. In the end they settled for play time where I spun them round in the air by their wrists. They seemed to enjoy it but I was knackered and rather dizzy by the time it came for us to get on the ferry. I often marvel at how much heavier kids are than they look!

This long drive from Kirindy had been for the sole purpose of visiting Bemaraha Nataional Park and the Tsingy which is a very odd but cool rock formation. There are two circuits which you can do to visit the Tsingy: the Grande or the Petit. As I was with Mum, who suffers from vertigo and the Grande Tsingy involves lots of sheer drops we opted for the Petit. At first I was a bit put out because I wanted to satisfy my inner adrenaline junkie which has been in hibernation for a while but it was actually a really good day. We started off on a canoe trip down the river to visit some caves. We had a local guide with us for this called Gilbert who was genuinely amazing! He hadn’t gone to school until he was 11 because he was looking after his Dad’s zebu (cattle) but one day he drank the fermented juice of a palm tree and got drunk so his parents sent him to school. He is now a guide for the National Park, a keen bird watcher, speaks 5 languages with the goal of speaking 10 by the time he dies and is obviously very politically active within his local community. He’s 25. Man did I feel like an under achiever. Gilbert was also a great story teller and told us all about how his ancestors used to use the caves.

From the canoe we headed into the Petit Tsingy where Gilbert had more stories about how he used to play in the rocks when he was a kid so knows them like the back of his hand. It came as no surprise when he told us he was the leader in all the games. There we several tight squeezes to get through the rocks and a fair few ladders to navigate but the view points overlooking this weird natural phenomena were worth it. Although I was sad we didn’t get to do the Grande I was happy we’d had Gilbert as our guide, especially after the stories he told us about marriage and death when we had our water break. Marriage seems to involve a lot of talking, money and the exchange of cows and by Malagasy standards I should be married now but only just.

Thankfully we’d had a day of walking and the hotel we were staying in did massages so by the time we got back in the car the next day I was less stiff than I had been. Christian told us we weren’t really in a rush as we had plenty of time to get back to the boabab trees before sunset. All seemed normal but then it was as though someone had taken over Christian’s mind and replace him with Lewis Hamilton. I know we were in a 4×4 but the speed he was going along some of the roads, which are more aptly described as dirt tracks, was completely ridiculous. He was the same driving through one of the small towns and I was so sure we were going to kill a dog and mildly concerned he might actually hit a person. It wasn’t until the evening he explained there is competition between the local drivers and drivers like him who come from the capital because the local drivers feel as though they are stealing their business. So basically we nearly killed a poor old man over petty rivalry and dust. Men.

We did arrive safely at the Avenue of Boababs which was a lot busier this time as everyone was arriving for sunset. The highlight of the evening was watching an intense football game between some of boys which was rudely interrupted by a bunch of tourists waking straight through the middle- grand prize to anyone who can guess their nationality. We were rooting for one of the kids to kick a ball in their direction but luckily for the clueless tourists these kids were a lot better at football than most of the England team. The sunset itself was pretty special, although nothing like a Namibian sunset. Still it was a beautiful setting and a great chance to see such an iconic snapshot of the island. Plus it meant we got to be out of the car which was always a bonus.

That night was our last night with Christian and so he finally had dinner with us. The conversation didn’t exactly flow because we don’t speak Malagasy or French which are his main languages but it was nice to have a chat to him and spend a bit of time with him before he left. He left at 6am because he had a long drive back to Tana which was going to take him 2 days. We had a later start and a suspiciously relaxing morning for a transfer day. It wasn’t until we were sat at reception waiting for our transfer that we realised something was a little wrong. One by one the other couples and their guides were disappearing off to their airport transfers but when we asked where ours was as it was 1pm we were told we hadn’t got one booked. Panic did start to set in slightly as we’d been told a few horror stories about internal flights in Madagascar and as we didn’t have a guide we were relying on our EXTREMELY limited knowledge of French to get us through any issues that might arise at the airport. Of course Dad started to kick off and even Mum got a bit stroppy as the time was ticking by and still nothing seemed to be happening. After what felt like and hour but was actually only about 15 minutes a ‘taxi’ pulled up and we arrived at the airport with plenty of time- we weren’t even the last people to check in. Our ‘taxi driver’ then walked through the airport pulling on a high via vest and proceeded to help load luggage onto the plane. This is Africa.

Our travels in the West have been fun but now we are in the North, a little more off the beaten track and ready to see what other wildlife and adventures await.

TOP TIP FOR THE FIRST WEEK OF MADAGASCAR: Take Imodium. Take control. (Other brands are of course available)