Category Archives: health

What To Do When You’re Too Poor To Travel

When people talk about taking a holiday, does it leave you feeling somewhat jealous? Inadequate? That you should be travelling and having amazing experiences in order to live a meaningful life?


Earlier this year I read an article on Wired.com where our obsession to escape into ‘authentic’ experience and travel aesthetic was highlighted through a fake Instagram account featuring Barbie as its protagonist. Wired called it ‘an endless barrage of pensive selfies in exotic locales, arty snapshots of coffee, and just the right filter on everything.’

But why, why, why? Who’s looking at this stuff? And who cares?

Many of us, apparently.

I want me some of that. Oh hang, on. Really? Now I feel silly. 

We gobble up ‘breathtaking photos of mountains and beaches,’ and long for ‘a day when we can just get away from it all,’ say Wired. We all want to escape our lives, it would seem.

Like 20% of UK families, according to children’s charity Barnados who say that the poorest families have a disposable weekly income of £39 (US$59/$AU80) where even a trip to the beach is considered a luxury.

Or like one of my blog’s readers who left the following comment on my 5 Benefits of Family Holidays post:

i cant afford holidays because im poor as fuck……

Clear and direct, it jolted me into researching and writing this post.

The privilege of budget travel

Here’s the thing: many of the world’s travel bloggers, myself included, might talk about budget travel and how if you work really hard and cut back on daily luxuries (think coffees, lunches out, drinks with friends) you will be able to see the world. How short term pain (think working long hours, skipping coffees and losing friends because you’re obsessed with saving) will only lead to long-term travel gain if you want it enough.

Ahem. Writing this down feels awkward and embarrassing because I know I have told myself, and probably others, this same script. It is, in part, how I managed to make it happen, but there’s more to it, of course.

The reality is that most the people spouting this rhetoric, myself included, have a set of privileges that need to be acknowledged: A solid education. Access to jobs and career paths. Sound health and mind, for the most part. Supportive social and professional networks who encourage us to be ambitious, search out our dreams and explore our talents.

In terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we’re talking highest-level stuff here. Self-actualisation. To not have to worry about all the basics like shelter and security, we are lucky. Very lucky.

In a recent article for xoJane.com, Keziyah Lewis supports the idea that luck plays a big factor and concludes by saying: ‘Budget travel writers may have worked hard to get where they are, but just like me, they’re also lucky. Ignoring this, and the financial circumstances that prevent people from seeing the world, is simply classist.’

‘Budget travel’ as a term is fairly problematic, in any case. It’s all so relative. The ‘budget travel’ discussed online is predominantly relative to ‘mostly white, middle class travel writers’, according to Lewis.

But let’s get back to the core issue: you can’t afford to holiday this year (or ever). Maybe you’ve never been abroad. Put plain and simply, you can’t afford to travel.

Is there really a choice?

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Change your mindset, says Nomadic Matt (Image from nomadic matt.com)

Nomadic Matt, a prolific travel blogger and budget travel advocate writes in his article How To Change The “I’m Too Poor To Travel” Mindset And Say Yes To Travel: ‘I’m too poor to travel” is a belief that causes many to lack the confidence to believe travel is possible.’ He effectively argues that – for a good handful of people – there is the choice.

And it’s a common argument: we all have the power to make choices in our lives that impact on our experience of life.

Whatever our income (or lack of) our lifestyle choices do determine to some extent our potential to travel. For example I’ve got friends on the dole who spend their income on internet, tobacco and weed. I’ve got friends in high-income roles who do exactly the same. Both could save money to travel if they truly desired.

Can desire, then, play a role in us reaching our goals to travel? Somewhat. It might kick start a process, but there’s no guarantee. Effectively, without money (and time), desire can be quashed as we are pushed into survival mode, which makes it impossible to imagine any other way of being. Travel appears to be something that other people do. Richer people.

So is there a way to become richer that can apply to all? Unlikely. Maybe there are things you can sell, things you can do in your spare time to earn extra cash rather than watch TV. Hell, sell your TV and cancel your cable plan. Cancel your internet service and go to the library instead. Switch your phone to pay-as-you-go. Prepare food at home. Find amazing deals and coupons and vouchers. Every little bit counts; it all adds up.

But maybe you work so damn hard ten hours a day that by the time you get home you’re too flogged to do anything but flake out in front of the TV.

The comment left on my blog made me realise that it’s too simple (and even insulting) to say that travel is just a mindset and that anyone can travel. Clearly not everyone can, at least not in the way that the media talks travel. (To be fair to Matt, he does acknowledge this in his blog post).

So maybe there’s a different way we can think about and approach travel?

Seeing things differently

One person who realised this was a retired aircraft engineer called Bahadur Chand Gupta who bought a decommissioned Airbus A300 and transformed it into a travel experience, The Flight to Nowhere. Charging up to a dollar for entry, Stuff.co.nz explains that it ‘offers people who might never be able to afford to get on a real flight the experience of being on a plane.’

Coming from a place of wanting to share the experience, this flips the whole travel thing on its head. Not only are people getting to enjoy a ‘flight experience’, they’re possibly getting a better – or at least more holistic and fun – flight experience than those people who actually use planes to get from A to B. It’s not the real thing, but it a real thing in its own right, an experience nonetheless.

And it shows the world we live in where a ‘travel experience’ is interchangeable with a ‘new experience’. Thanks also to the internet, we can now ‘see’ and ‘experience’ the world more readily than ever before, without ever leaving our sofa/home/country. Google Earth takes this a step further, in that we can virtually navigate through the streets of a totally new place, pull up at the driveway of a foreign friend and check out their neighbourhood.

But in amongst this mass of information is a whole lot of content curation. The photo you see is unlikely to be the only photo from that collection. It’s just the best one of many. Who’s going to post their worst photo(s)? Who wants to look at them?

Real travel vs. real travel?

A 'travel' photo that I took yesterday in my backyard in Australia. It was 1 of 13 photos that I took (and I didn't even see the bee until when I reviewed this picture).

A ‘travel’ photo that I took yesterday in my backyard in Australia. It was 1 of 13 photos that I took (and I didn’t even see the bee until afterwards until when I reviewed the pictures).

Does this then mean that the travel we think exists is actually a myth and we’re doomed to be disappointed by reality? In his book, The Art of Travel, philosopher Alain de Botton indicates that this may be too pessimistic, and that it ‘might be truer and more rewarding to suggest that it is primarily different’.

Advice across the board seems to be: Keep things in perspective when reading everyone’s amazing travel accounts, mine included. I have barely written about the nastier, grosser and sadder moments of my travels because most people won’t be interested. It doesn’t offer the same escapism as stories with glossy, beautiful backdrops. Keep the view that those pictures and videos too are but one account of that place, one glimpse of much more complex reality. We live in a real world, after all. It’s complex and multifaceted (and surely all the more beautiful for that?).

Darby Cisneros, the artist who created the satirical Barbie Instagram account (mentioned earlier in this post) has now pulled the plug on her experiment. She told Wired ‘I get it, it’s pretty to look at. But it’s so dishonest. Nobody actually lives like this.’

How can this help us? Whenever you feel like everyone else is doing all these incredible things and seeing all these special places because of all the fun, zen, wide angled pictures they’ve posted, realise it’s possibly a load of BS. Or at least a very constructed moment in time.

(The likelihood, anyway, is that during the BEST experiences of your life you will be too absorbed IN the moment to take a photo that does it justice. And it really doesn’t matter. What really matters is that YOU JUST HAD THE BEST EXPERIENCE, right?)

But there’s also the flipside that if you do want to go out and take some amazing photos of the world and your experience in it, do it. Why not? The world clearly craves well-constructed scenes of beauty, scenes that hint at a life of ‘what could be’, whether that’s through city excitement or the serenity of nature or whatever you damn well please. Someone will consume it.

And maybe if you spend some time and care taking photos of where you live and of elements that constitute your life, you’ll look back and realise that your life is beautiful in it’s own right. Landscapes, cityscapes, concrete graffitiscapes, they all have beauty and associated stories. Share them.

Take time out

Sometimes to see that beauty, though, you need to step back and take some time out.

I recall my ex’s mum telling me that ‘change is as good as a holiday’. It’s only really now, after what’s been a slog of a challenging year, that I’ve realised that maybe a holiday is as good as a change, and that some time out might actually mean you don’t have to change, whether that be your job, your life, whatever.

I’ve realised that a lot of the time all I really need is a break. I don’t need to do anything high-adrenaline like jumping out of an airplane, I don’t need to fly anywhere foreign or sit in a car for hours to get to a town up the coast, I don’t need to be hyper stimulated by new sights and sounds or handfuls of new people.

Travel doesn’t have to be about perfect beaches, neon city streaked frenzy or screaming markets stuffed with dried llama foetuses or dyed pink chicks for sale. It can be, but it certainly doesn’t have to be.

Could the answer be to think of travel as something a little more internal? Of giving your mind the space to appreciate where you’re at by taking a break from your busy life?

Travel local and staycate

If you’re craving more than just a break but a bus ticket to the next town is out of the question, maybe consider a full-blown staycation. At certain times of the year there’s an increased expectation to go away, but why?

Image borrowed from thewire.com

Image borrowed from thewire.com

In the last few weeks I have had four people ask me whether I’m going away for Christmas. I didn’t realise it was such ‘a thing’. Feeling slightly inadequate listening to other people’s plans to travel to Brazil, Europe and South East Asia, I’ve since decided to embrace the staycation. If other people come to this area for their holidays, why can’t I holiday here too? I’ll cut back my work hours, pull out my walking shoes and wander where I live. Yes, it helps that my current base is beautiful and exotic but my yearning right now is to (re)connect with this area and (re)discover why I settled here in the first place.

When people travel to your part of the world, what are the touristy things that they do? Where do they go? What are they capturing in their holiday photos? According to life coach Charlene Tops, all too often we forget about what’s on our own doorstep. Her suggestion is to ‘observe the area you are living in with fresh eyes just like an outsider would do. It’s amazing how different we view our surroundings when we look at them as though we have never seen them before.’

Is there a way that you can afford a few days off work to do what you love to do in your locality? Or try out a few touristy things? Walks, waterfalls, museums and art galleries, among other things, are often free.

Volunteer travel

If it still doesn’t feel different enough from your normal life, there’s one further recommendation I have for when times are tight but where you still yearn for that jolt to your routine that travel so beautifully provides. Volunteering.

I remember looking for volunteering options before travelling to South America and being shocked that many of companies I came across were asking me to pay!

Without going into any longwinded detail about why these companies ask you to pay to volunteer your time and expertise, I do now have a basic understanding of the funding that’s needed to run some voluntary organisations, and also how these particular organisations can offer a ‘safe’ first volunteering experience. But, still. Coming from a family where my parents have spent their entire working lives volunteering full time, I’ve seen first hand the value and impact of people being generous with their time and energy. Money doesn’t always have to come into the equation.

So I’m not talking about the type of volunteering where you have to pay for the privilege. I’m talking about opportunities that allow you to exchange your time for meaningful service and experience. In terms of travel this means connecting with new people, places and ways of life.

Two organisations that I’ve tried and tested and would recommend exploring are HelpX and World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF).

Both organisations have worldwide presence. Wherever you’re based, there’s a good opportunity to get involved.

Do it your way

The more I explore this topic, the more it seems to come back to the following: Forget feeling like you should be doing anything, or that amazing experiences and personal growth are only gained by long distance travel. Don’t buy into the belief that you have to see the world in order to live a meaningful life.

Travel, like everything else, comes in all shapes and sizes. Don’t go judging on it this holiday season.


Wishing you all some amazing adventures this festive season, whether they be abroad, in your backyard or in your brain. I’d love to connect, hear your stories and see some holiday season photos in the comments below. That way we can all travel without leaving our homes after all. 

And if you’ve found some value in this post, please share. I’d love to reach out to people who might find this of benefit. Thanks! 😃

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What Changes While You’re Away? The Inevitability of Missing Out When Travelling or Living Abroad

‘Never heard of Fomo?’ asked a Guardian newspaper headline of its readers, ‘You’re so missing out.’ So common is this Gen-Y social condition that the acronym FOMO – fear of missing out – was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013. Their definition states:

Anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website

The latter part bothers me less. I accept that social media can help travellers and expats to stay connected with friends and family back home. But the first bit? Yes. I admit, I have occasionally felt guilt, sadness, frustration and longing for events that I have been unable to witness or attend due to travelling and living overseas.

Logo stating FOMO in red and definition below, which is fear of missing out

©thesilverpen.com

And yet it’s not to do with me not having a fun/special/interesting/englightening time, or even worrying that others are doing funner, cooler, more ambitious things than me. Nope. It’s more along the lines of I am not there to share those special moments with them. I am away.

Having first left the UK in 2011 to travel through South America and the Pacific, I had just left it all behind, again. As I flew back to Australia, I digested all the many meet-ups of a six-week whirlwind catch up tour.

Some things really had changed beyond recognition. Some things I had truly missed out on. But all those things, I realised, had common threads weaving through them.

  • The first thing apparent was changes in relationships. Weddings, break-ups and new loves. A lot can happen in a two-year cycle, apparently. Friends who were separated when I left were now married, singletons were engaged, and those who were solid and steady were ramping up for parenthood, life’s next adventure. Having already missed the wedding of one of my dearest friends in Devon, I planned my UK trip to coincide with a university friend’s marriage to a woman who neither my swot crew nor I had previously met. She was fortunately quite the kind bride, and I saw that her husband – my friend – had grown and adapted his outlook from me to us. As we sat around a music themed table, I looked at my group and realised that we were all moving on, in our relationships and life.
  • The next thing that struck me was the talk of birth and the arrival of babies. Lots of them. Everywhere. My trip back to the UK had been planned to coincide with my nephew’s first smiles, but once back on British soil I realised it was not just my sister who had flung herself into the all things motherhood. Some friends had become fluent in baby talk, others waddled around with uncomfortable lumps protruding, and others questioned my future baby plans. Not many seemed keen for all night partying. It was a strange yet somewhat expected shift.
  • Ageing, in all of its facets, was another area where changes were apparent. Sure, the relationship and baby changes are to be expected within friendship groups once you hit your 30s, but there were moments when I looked around and saw the sensibilities and concerns of adulthood creeping up on my friends, where I noticed the shrinking of my elders, where I chatted as an equal with those whom I had babysat when I was barely a teenager. And yet, despite some changes being glaringly obvious, when it came to my mum’s newly embraced grey, I only saw my mum. Some changes are just surface.
  • Other changes, however, were more shocking, as with ageing comes illness and stress. Stress was trying its hardest to become my father’s new best friend as everything he’d worked for – volunteered his life for – had become a battleground between human sensibilities and institutional red tape, and he was a frontline warrior, searching for ways to make the truth prevail. Same family, different generation and my grandmother – oma –suffered a heart attack that she and I assumed would mean we’d never meet again. With the oomph that I’ve come to expect of my oma, she did pull through those moments, a little shook up but recogniseable underneath the change.
  • Unfortunately, though, the same cannot be said for my other grandmother who died ten days before my flight home to the UK. The prospect of a death amongst our nearest and dearest is one of those events that has the potential to paralyse us from travelling or living abroad. I was unable to make it to the funeral. I would have wished to have been there to say goodbye to my grandmother, or at least to listen to relatives telling stories of her happier days. Instead I visited her grave and planted forget-me-nots a few feet above where her head lay. I grieved for the sadness in her life, and for my mother who had now lost her mother.

Some things were still the same, some familiarity, some recognition. I care massively about my friends and their lives, and I drew comfort from knowing that our connections are still intact, despite separate life paths.

Now, leaving again, I wonder what will change between now and the next time I’m again in the UK. Life happens, whether you’re there to see it or not. I get that.

My FOMO suffering is far less influenced by Facebook than by knowing I’m missing key moments in the lives of those who have helped to shape my life, but maybe it’s time to let go of the missing out stuff and appreciate the bits I do get to be part of instead?

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Art, consciousness and a whole lot of doof at Eclipse 2012 festival

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Recycling the eclipse

In my sheltered world, hippies and trancers don’t live harmoniously side by side. In my stereotyped view, people who dance to trance are off their heads on party drugs that sustain them through hours and days of dancing to a repetitive beat. In my head hippies are natural and flowing and mix with creative crowds, preferring didgeridoos to synthesizers. In my world, hippies don’t attend trance parties, or doofs (if you’re an Australian partyer). At least, this is what I used to believe.

The Eclipse 2012 festival would show me otherwise.

The event will host a huge music lineup of the world’s leading musicians and DJ’s, outstanding artists and decor crews, a dedicated workshops and intentional healing space, extensive food and market stalls and a perfect viewing platform only a short distance away from the eclipse centre line of totality path. Link

My world started to expand and any preconceived ideas about 24/7 beats and dancing, about everyone being cocktailed to the highest high, about being disconnected from the world in order to appreciate the world started to shift. I knew it would happen. Why else was I here?

Apart from the total solar eclipse itself. Oh yeah. That was the real reason.

But if it was just about being present at the total solar eclipse then I could have instead nestled in amongst astronomers from around the world on purpose built viewing platforms somewhere else, somewhere close.

No, from the moment I’d heard about the festival I’d been determined to go. I wanted to fling out my arms and dance uninhibited at whatever time of the day I pleased, I wanted to be filled with thoughts and ideas about the future direction of the world, I wanted to immerse myself in a new experience and surround myself with beauty in all its forms. What an indulgence.

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DJ set backdrop on the Sun Stage

The Eclipse 2012 festival ticket and website were the first giveaways to something beyond a primitive party, making reference to a ‘spiritual’ festival, to ‘healing spaces’, to consciousness raising, to an array of workshops and speakers and films designed to inspire change and open the mind.

And why else do we travel?

The music itself was not the catalyst for me to part with AU$350. Despite there being six stages, I barely recognised any names in the line-up, other than the likes of Fat Freddy’s Drop and Tijuana Cartel, both on the Earth Stage, the only truly live stage at the festival. If I’d ever been into the trance scene or had stood longer on Australian ground, I’d probably have been aware of the reputation of some of the other acts, but it was all new to me. No bad thing.

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Inspiration

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Flowertime

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Food and relax stops

Getting involved in yoga and craft classes, lounging out listening to learned folk discuss current thinking in relation to the upcoming cosmic and spiritual shift (including the impending end of the Mayan calendar), dancing under the sweet kiss of sprinkling water, of being surrounded by sculptures and murals and living art, that is what convinced me to join thousands of people for a week of celebrations rather than huddle quietly with the odd cluster of scientists and astronomers for one night only.

And so the days went by and people stomped and bounced day in, day out, taking moments to refresh themselves with fruit juices and wholesome, fair priced curries, to solar shower away a thick caking of dust, to chat and catch-up with friends, new and familiar.

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Daytime Sun Stage raving

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Sprinkler dancing @ the Sky Stage

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Doofer in training

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Beach feel flake out

Polka dot dresses and exaggerated face paints, tutus and lederhosen, basking on the branches of living art, taking dips in crocodile cleared waters, window shopping the work of artisans more concerned with their craft than making a sale, catching a ride on a motorised sofa, relaxing in the women’s shelter, watching fire art, learning to hula-hoop, re-gathering at camp for water refills and sustaining snacks.

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Daytime lazing

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Sun, shade and crocodile warnings

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Tutus and wobbles

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Doctor dress-up

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Parasols, fishnets and boat sails

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Brace dancing

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Sofa riding

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Art branch moments

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Face painting

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Base camp catch-ups

And sleeping. It’s amazing how one learns to sleep through a constant beat.

Through life and travelling I have had the good luck to meet and share time with a real range of people – a spectrum so broad that my mind should find no space for stereotypes. Yet I still have my assumptions, my preconceived ideas based on everyone I’ve previously met and everything I know. And of course it’s limited.

Stereotypes have some basis and function, maybe to act as a compass to enable us to find ‘our type’ and fellow ‘types’, maybe to guide the un-established personality and set them off in a specific direction. Maybe they offer some tribal comfort? I guess the only real danger is not being able to see beyond them.

At Eclipse 2012, stereotypes loomed large, on an ocular level. If you wanted to see society’s versions of a dreadlocked, grungy hippy, a dancing nymph dressed in floaty tie-dyed skirt, a yogi in lotus meditation, they appeared. If you looked for the sweaty, gurning raver clutching a water bottle and repeating moves in their own little world or sporting Day-Glo, hot panted outfits, they too existed. The Japanese wedding in a fusion flurry of traditional-clubbing kitsch, the self-important eco-speaker, the meticulously costumed regular festival goer, the wise old earth mother. They were all at Eclipse 2012.

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Temples (and makeshift church)

But sometimes hippies chewed their faces up. And sometimes pig-tailed raver chicks needed no more than the music to get high.

Stereotypes flipped, were stretched and distorted. Earth mother surprised me with her mushroom journeys. Famous drummer intrigued me with his gentle nature. Dreamy types brought considerate, well-behaved children to basket weaving classes. And the raver sat with a stranger during a bad trip, talking them through some crazy moments until a place of relative calm was reached.

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Morning at the Moon Stage

More often than not, the festival was a whole lot more wholesome than one might expect. Good food. Good company. Good support. Good dancing. Beyond good.

Of course the craziness existed. As with many a party, a continuum of personalities coloured and enriched the event. But it’s what most those people did that made the event; they spoke, they performed, they danced, they painted, they played; they – an army of artisans and thought-leaders and revelers – created a beautiful visual and sensual feast of celebration.

If you believe this random mix of humanity, of intention, of consciousness, cannot exist side by side, then Eclipse 2012 was a great example that we can.

Let’s dance.

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Chill out and kick back stage

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Live creativity

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Light, sound and DJs

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Accessorising

 

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When travel and terror collide

www.travelola.orgBack in October 2002, two bombs went off in the midst of Kuta nightlife, killing 202 people, many of whome were travellers enjoying a bit of social time in Bali. Ten years on, survivors have returned to Indonesia to remember those who died in the blast.

I’ve met a few people on my travels who document their journeys, but often, like me, their writing focuses on foreign intrigue, on misunderstandings, on the quirks of being out of your comfort zone. Some travel writing goes deep and addresses the big ones, but so much stuff out there seems to only skim the surface of cultures and countries that would more than likely require a lifetime to properly understand.

And now as my own written journey looks to leave South America once again, I can’t help but think how fortunate I was during my travels throughout Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. No muggings, no violence, no hold-ups. South America, many people warned me, was still a highly dangerous place to visit, particularly as a solo female traveller. For some reason, I was undeterred, and I refused to buy into the scaremongering.

And South America showed me her beautiful sides, her warmth, generosity and a little dash of chaos. People opened their doors to me, invited me to socials, looked after me when I was sick and alone. And they encouraged me to keep an open mind and heart. I did at times feel uneasy, there were a few moments of military interrogation that shook me up, and in some places there were guys in the street shadows bearing batons. But no dramas for me, thankfully.

But of course not everyone is so lucky, I appreciate that. When I heard about the recent kidnapping of two tourists on the Ecuador-Colombia border, I stopped in my tracks. One of the captured women was my age. The girls were doing the same Cuyabeno jungle tour that I had done back in October 2011. And they described wading through the same mud that I vividly recall.

It could easily have been me. Not that that’s the point, but rather it made me reflect on travelling and timing, on coincidence and luck. These girls did nothing different to what I would have done. It’s not as though they could have been more savvy about the situation, unless you suggest that they should never have visited Ecuador in the first place (and the idea of never leaving ones home comforts out of fear would surely only serve to narrow our views on the world, to close off to different cultures and people? No, please don’t go there.). The girls were released, evidently traumatised, but alive.

Ecuador with its varied terrain and climate and wildlife remains my favourite South American country to travel in. This news won’t discourage me from going back, but it might make me more aware, more alert. Not that that would necessarily make a difference, though. The girls, having been through such an ordeal, may well feel very differently. I’d be curious to know whether it has affected their entire perception of the country.

Because how can such an event not impact on your entire psyche? On your attitude? Different people, I guess, will find different coping mechanisms for traumatic travel stories, ones that hopefully won’t quash their zest for adventure.

Returning to Bali in 2012, one girl who has worked towards finding some solace in the aftermath of the bombings is Hanabeth Luke.

In January 2012 I temporarily put down my backpack in New South Wales, Australia where I met Hanabeth, – a surf chick tomboy mixed with a good dash of feminine quirk and a twist of British. During chats I discovered that she was writing a book, something to do with the upcoming ten year anniversary of the Bali attacks, but I didn’t pry. It seemed too sensitive a subject for strangers.

As time has passed I’ve learnt more, although I’ve undoubtedly learnt more about the spirit of Hanabeth than the event itself. Being in the now is where we’ve been at, in some way as important as remembering. But I will read her book, and I will try to understand what surviving the Bali bomb feels like, what losing a love actually means. Right now it is beyond my comprehension.

The people returning to the place of the 2002 Bali bombings have had ten years now to try to make sense of what happened, ten years to grieve and reach some level of acceptance. I can’t imagine the process ever stops, and that for different people there will be different ways of working through the pain. Writing one’s journey, for example.

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Filed under activity & sport, culture, dancing, ecuador, health, indonesia, random, solo travel, south america, south east asia, surf

Weird wonders at the Witches’ Market

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Occupying a small section on the corner of Santa Cruz and Linares is El Mercado de las Brujas– The Witches’ Market – a market for all things herbal, natural and superstitious. Do you have your shopping list to hand? Might it include tea for a bad belly? They’ve got it here. Llama foetus for a ritual offering? Tick. San Pedro cactus or ready to take powder? Time to get seriously spaced out.

Intrigued but slightly unsettled, I had a peek around a few shops and stalls. On seeing the llama foetuses I asked the shop owner how they were used.

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Llama foetuses

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For offerings’, she said, ‘to Pacha Mama’. ‘How?’ I asked. ‘Do they burn them?’ ‘Yes, they burn them during ceremonies’, she told me. Later I heard that the llama foetuses are also buried in the foundations of a new house to protect the inhabitants from evil spirits. I’ve no idea which account is correct. Maybe both.

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San Pedro

Strangeness aside, La Paz is said to be a great place to stock up on clothing and gifts before moving on or heading home. Bargaining isn’t always easy but when bulk buying in a shop, owners may swing you a deal.

Close to the Witches’ Market are a host of music retailers. In between places selling inferior quality instruments (such as travel guitars for 300Bs.) are some more legit dealers whose prices are pretty much double.

Still further along Linares is the more expected artisanal market where colour spurts out onto the street in the form of blankets and throws, cushion covers, woollen dresses, hats, scarves and obligatory gringo jumpers. Here I stocked up on presents and warm knits and then posted some of this Bolivian love on to my family. Around this area are also tailors who will stitch you together an outfit for a reasonable price (such as custom rain trousers for 80Bs.).

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Linares markets, La Paz

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Linares markets, La Paz

Close by and in the other direction – a little off Jimenez and on a constant incline – is the ‘American’ market, the place to buy your more everyday clothes and shoes.

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The American Market

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Shoes at the American Market

Trainers cost around the 220Bs. (£20.27 / US$31.60) mark, jeans 100Bs. (£9.21 / US$14.37 and rucksacks between 90Bs. (£8.98 / US$12.93) and 180Bs. (£16.59 / US$25.86) . I found bargaining here near on impossible but still managed to snap up a nice pair of Converse All Stars (having only just avoided the cheaper All Stan alternatives). I knew I would be heading back to Australia where shoes and clothing cost a small fortune so buying in some basics was a sensible move, even if it meant that my prided little backpack now started to spill over into another bag.

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Getting told off at San Pedro Prison

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Hanging out in the plaza directly opposite the prison

Some guys at my hostel told me they’ll probably let us in if we slip them a twenty’, said Blair, my Kiwi travelling friend. I’d met up with him in the sunshine flooded San Pedro plaza where people sat around and socialised, seemingly oblivious to the criminals contained behind the gates of San Pedro prison just across the road.

Since Thomas McFadden, a Brit banged up for cocaine trafficking, decided back in in the late 1990s to start up prison tours and Lonely Planet jumped on board with unintentional promotion, backpackers have found ways to enter Bolivia’s notorious prison for a bit of a nosy. Bribing poorly paid guards, for example, seems to have worked for a fair few people.

But what are visitors actually hoping to gain from getting inside San Pedro’s belly? The legendary, cheap cocaine? Insight into a lawless society? The thrill of being so close to criminals and the taste of danger? Did anyone really care where their money was going? Or the underhand methods at play? Or, as with so many travelling experiences, was it just to see something different?

It was April 2012 and research told me that the San Pedro prison tours, despite being openly discussed amongst travellers, were banned once again. Brad Pitt’s upcoming film adaptation of the book Marching Powder is suggested to have panicked the government and triggered a clampdown on prison tourism. Bolivia is, after all, trying to build-up its reputation beyond that of cocaine and criminality. For the super keen, however, I knew that there was always a way around these rules. Whilst I’m no goody-two-shoes, did I really want to break these rules? And if so, why?

BoliviaBella.com makes a clear case for not supporting these illegal tours, asking instead for a more responsible, ethical approach. She adds that ‘there is nothing benevolent or altruistic about taking this tour’ and that, asides from the voyeuristic nature, it is also ‘a risk to you and your liberty’.

Like many other travellers before me, I stood outside of the prison and pondered: did I want to find a way to get inside? I wandered around looking up at the great grey mass of concrete, questions and butterflies flitting around inside me. Placed centrally within La Paz, it took five minutes to stroll the perimeters.

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San Pedro prison perimeters

What struck me about this infamous place was the size and location. I’d just started to read Marching Powder and as a result I expected these heavy, windowless walls to contain a massive village of activity, yet here, in reality, I couldn’t imagine it was actually that big inside. I guess that looks can be deceiving… but still… it seemed surprisingly small.

A glamorous girl in her late twenties balanced a young child on her hip whilst she rang the bell of a discreet side door. The door opened and a woman let her in. ‘Is this the entrance?’ we asked. ‘Are you here to visit someone?’ she quietly asked back. We weren’t. Time to move on.

A bustle of people clustered outside the main gate opposite the plaza. I walked over to get a closer look and saw a single iron gate leading into a courtyard crammed with men. Some waved. Dangerous criminals? High security? It all felt very close and accessible.

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Main gate at San Pedro prison, La Paz

I crossed back over to the plaza and watched from a bit of a distance as a prisoner exchange took place. Above the archway into the jail, prisoners gathered at the window and watched the outside world and their new inmate arrivals. It surprised me how relaxed the whole operation was, how security was kept to a minimum.

And then suddenly two guards were in my face. They grabbed my camera from Blair. ‘Where is your camera?’ they barked at me. I told them that what they had was actually my camera. They refused to give it back to me. It was forbidden to photograph the jail, they told me, didn’t I know?

I thought quickly about everything I’d read and heard about San Pedro prison and wondered whether a bribe was in order, whether it was expected. Instead I persuaded them that I was sorry and would delete the photos.

They held on to the lead whilst I showed them the photo of the prisoner exchange. They weren’t happy. I got a lecture and a telling off in Spanish. And then I deleted the best photo of my trip to the prison. They seemed appeased and sent us off into a La Paz midday.

I feel like we’re not having the full experience’, said Blair as we skulked away from the prison. I understood what he meant yet, at the same time, prison tours have been banned (again) for good reason. All it took was a small photography altercation and my mind had been made up. I didn’t want to mess with these guys. Why had I even considered it?

So I dodged the con artists trying to sell tours that wouldn’t materialise and I avoided bribery of any sort at the gate. I left with mostly a clean conscience and only a few photos of the outside of the prison.

An eye-opening experience or a sensationalist enticement that ultimately allows the wrong people to profit? Without having done the prison tour proper, it’s difficult for me to fairly comment.

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Lining up at Route 36

The Guardian calls it ‘the world’s first cocaine bar’ and others have dubbed it ‘one of the greatest travel experiences in South America‘. Route 36, a late night lounge bar in La Paz aimed solely at a tourist clientele, has established itself firmly as a must-stop-off on the gringo trail by offering a relaxed club environment where you can buy cocaine and chop up lines in relative comfort.

Labelled ‘cocaine tourism’, other bars in La Paz are now starting to copy Route 36’s lead and tap into travellers’ spending power and intrigue. But how are these places actually able to exist?

The legality of such a place is of course at the forefront of conversations surrounding Route 36’s existence, an existence that sees the bar switching location every month or two in order to beat the authorities and avoid pissing off too many neighbours as a regular trickle of tourists make their way in and out of the venue.

Who knows how long it will be before the Bolivian government start a proper clampdown on corruption associated with the cocaine trade, and in turn this trend for coke bars?

Bolivia is currently ‘the world’s third biggest cocaine producer‘ and it’s going to be a struggle convincing the world that it’s actively battling the drug trade whilst they’re still pushing for global acceptance of the traditional use of coca leaves. There are clearly some cultural considerations that the wider world needs to be aware of and the country is taking steps to raise awareness whilst also making some significant changes. A recent increase in cocaine production, for example, has resulted in Bolivia putting to bed a previous public disagreement with the US Drug Enforcement Administration and accepting offers of help from the US and Brazil to fight this ‘war’.

But in terms of Route 36, cocaine with its low cost and easy availability forms the crux of its attraction, and the place itself is undoubtedly designed to appeal to the sensation seeking tourist and provide them with a story for when they return home. You went where? A cocaine bar? Really? No way! Imagine if we had…! The police would… blah blah blah. You get the drift.

So the novelty factor, maybe, plays a role in attracting in the punters. Nowhere else have I heard of a public bar where you can happily sit down, order up a few lines and snort them openly. It’s essentially the normalisation of drug taking; a place where you can indulge and party away from any critical judgement of non-drug taking friends and family. ‘It’s a pretty regular bar’ said one of my friends who found himself there on a few early mornings when he wasn’t yet ready for bed. The only difference between a ‘regular’ club and Route 36? Ask about the coke on offer, spend out 150Bs. (£13.69 / US$21.55) and you’ll get yourself a gram in the latter. No questions asked. No problems.

Why avoid the place? Other than the obvious health and legality issues, for what you pay, there is a far purer product out there at a cheaper or similar price. Friends and cocaine connoisseurs tell me that the quality of Route 36’s offerings is pretty pitiful, suspected to be cut with amphetamines that keep you uncomfortably awake way beyond the end of the party in a way that purer powder won’t.

Overall though, I can’t comment with any real conviction. I’m no expert and for various reasons I didn’t get around to visiting the place. Missed opportunity? Maybe.

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Attempted murder on the dance floor

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Party people in La Paz (photo: Carl Maybry©)

It was gone 03:30am, I was totally sober and one of a few people in the Azul nightclub in La Paz not revved up on alcohol or cocaine. Tiredness was giving me that dazed, drunken effect but I felt pretty damn good that I was still holding up.

I became an artist, decorating friends’ faces with UV paint. In turn, my face was painted in yellows and pinks, covering some of the black stamps from another creative burst earlier in the evening. I chatted and laughed, I swigged water and I danced shamelessly to bad music on the teeny dance floor.

And then I saw it: pools of bright red blood covering the ground by my feet, fainter towards the bar where people had unknowingly stumbled through, streaking and smearing the place in the colour of danger. Splodges of UV paint shone out in between.

And the crowd continued to dance.

I’d somehow missed the disturbance on the dance floor. A stabbing, some local guy told me, two Bolivians. I couldn’t see how someone could have survived that much blood loss. But was it really blood? It was so bright.

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Starting to notice the blood

Bar staff eventually started to mop up and the revellers were encouraged to leave. And there again, trails of blood, coagulating on the stairs and on the pavement.

We waited for a taxi. A few of us were hushed in disbelief. People continued to spill out of the club. Some stood in the pools of blood, oblivious. I stopped a few. If they didn’t care about the stabbing, maybe they’d care about their shoes? And would the blood not need to remain as it was for police evidence?

A man came out of the Azul nightclub and started to pour a clear liquid over the blood on the pavement. He scrubbed away with a stiff brush, pushing a watery, bloody mix onto the road. Before long, little remained. No police showed up.

A few days later I discovered that the man had survived. This was the same time that some of the partiers who had been there that night finally realised that someone had actually been stabbed.

Three times, I told them, did you not see all the blood? Too off their heads. But for me, sober, I saw it and I felt it raw and it stuck like something from a movie still. And I wished it were just all a movie or a figment of my imagination but no, this was real life touching on the only certainty of death.

The papers didn’t report it, from what I managed to gather, and the police seemed to ignore it. I discovered that a tourist had also been involved in a minor way.  But that about the main guy? Despite the double stabbing, he got lucky and was recuperating in hospital. Life wasn’t done with him just yet.

People told me that La Paz, like many a city, has a dangerous, crazy side, but to see it up close on my first night? What a reality check.

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How do you know that you’re altitude sick?

Whilst doing the Uyuni tour, Dan, 18 from Scotland puked every day of the four day trip. His head pounded, he struggled to see straight and he missed some pretty special moments on the journey from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile over to Uyuni in Bolivia whilst he lay in the dark wishing that his breathing was less panicky so that he could sleep.

It is pretty much the worst I’ve ever felt’, he said, ‘back home I’m never unwell really, but this was killer’.

Of course it wasn’t a killer, although altitude and its effects shouldn’t be taken too lightly. People can and do die from acute mountain sickness but for most of us who get a good shooing by high altitudes, we just feel nauseous and may actually vomit, the pressure in our heads builds to unbearable levels, our breathing gets shallow and we can struggle to focus.

On Day 2 of my Uyuni tour I started to feel rough. The visit to the Train Graveyard and the salar on Day 1 had been fine, but today we were visiting some geysers and gurgling mud pools.  And it wasn’t the smell that sent me into a spin, it was the 5,200m altitude that did it.

We drove over to a little place for food and I just about managed to force some down my gullet. The rest of my group lounged around in hot pools, laughing, flirting, toasting the landscape with a bit of beer or wine or whatever they had. I, quite frankly, couldn’t muster up the energy to care what they were drinking or doing. I wished that I was well enough to be with them but instead I was curled up in the back of our jeep. Any movement was a bad idea. My head pounded and my lunch threatened to throw up.

The rest of my crew hang out in the hot pool whilst I curl up across the backseat of the jeep

By the evening I was even less sociable and in quite a mess. Sick and tears and what felt like a fever were confining me to my bed or the bathroom. Every last bit of goodness exited my body, leaving me a miserable, retching wreck. A friend held my hair whilst I chucked. Oh, the small blessings in life.

You’re meant to care for me, not kill me! (in all seriousness, thanks so much Nathalie and Carl)

You must tell me if you have chest pain’, said my guide Gonzalo after he’d brought a bucket and a mug of hot, sugary chacuma and coca leaf tea to my bedside. He wasn’t worried about my perpetual puking, and he didn’t seem particularly sympathetic to the cold concrete toilet floor that had become a close up familiarity as I paid my dues to the altitude demons. But chest pains? Different story.

Drink this. All of it’, he instructed. I sipped at it. It was sickly sweet. My stomach cramped. I wondered what if I’ve just been trying to ignore the signs and I’m actually one of the few people that gets seriously ill and dies from high altitude? I wonder if my travel insurance covers me to this altitude? I hope my family and friends know how much I love them.

Okay, I’m overdramatising somewhat, but I was zoning out into a world of temperature and delirium. Gonzalo seemed pretty unfazed by what felt like my bodies last attempt to demonstrate to me how crap it could be. He’d seen this so many times before, I guess. But why me? Why Dan?

I’d spent three weeks in Sucre at 2,750m, and then one night in Uyuni, which sits at 3,669m. Surely it was time enough to acclimatise? I even passed through Potosi – the highest city in the world at 4,070m – and felt nothing other than a slight daze. But because I was finishing yet another dose of antibiotics and codeine and whatever else, there is a small chance the medication enhanced my natural sensitivity to the altitude. Or maybe, altitude and me just aren’t a good partnership.

And Dan? I’ve heard from guides and other travellers that the route from San Pedro to Uyuni is tougher on the body, accelerating in altitude much quicker meaning there is little chance to adjust and higher chance of suffering the negative effects. In Dan’s group of ten people, three people felt terrible and went down the puking route. On my tour, I was the only one out of twelve of us that really had a bad time. Another girl struggled on and off with a bad head but seemed able to shake it off in between.

Statistics show that its highly unlikely you’ll actually die from altitude sickness but many backpackers I’ve talked to in Bolivia at least feel the effect of the lack of oxygen. Climbing stairs in Bolivia’s capital of La Paz, for example, leaves even the young fitties huffing and wheezing like ex-smoker OAPs.

But there is something undeniably cruel about being in such a beautiful place in the world and not being able to feel alive enough to run around and kiss the earth and shout at the sky. Or get in the hot springs with new friends.

That second night where we stayed at 4,200m, Gonzalo let me get on with emptying my stomach whilst being nursed by two wonderful beings. I finally fell into a drug induced sleep and awoke the following day to a calmer response; less intense symptoms. I could continue. No dramas.

Luxury accommodation in the guise of a simple stone building

The stuff I gave you works’, said Gonzalo, ‘every time’. Local knowledge and local herbs rule. Who knows what I really took. I’ve stopped asking when travelling. Take it and shut up and hope you get better. When you’re feverish and shaking and hurt to hell, you just want out. Quickly.

So you’re pretty used to dealing with this stuff then?’ I asked Gonzalo as I hungrily ate a pancake breakfast. ‘Yep. I knew you’d be okay. People are often ill.’  ‘Every trip?’ I asked him. ‘Pretty much’, he said.

So enjoy Uyuni, enjoy Bolivia but beware the altitude demons are waiting for someone. And maybe, for the first time in your life, you probably don’t want it could be you* to ring true.

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*It could be you is the UK National Lottery’s tagline

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An out-of-love letter (or a one-sided love story)

English: Broken Love Heart bandage

English: Broken Love Heart bandage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not a secret that I have had a bit of a thing for South America. But this story isn’t about that, either. Or maybe it is a little, because this love story is about the attempted destruction of my love affair with South America.

I have always intended to keep romantic relationships out of my blog, but on this occasion I’ll break my own rules. And in any case, it’s not a particularly romantic story, just a slightly frustrating, sickening and one-sided love affair that could remain private but won’t do anyone any harm by revealing its sordid details.

Dear E,

We’ve been travelling companions now for how long now? On and off, for the last nine months? Something like that. You know I can’t say that they’ve been good times, don’t you? Yet still you keep coming back for more. Why? Why me?

To be fair, I’ve felt the twinges in my stomach many times over. In that respect this isn’t one-sided. But we’re not talking butterflies here, not that wonderful, crazy feeling when you fall in love. Nope, we are talking about twinges, and cramps, and gurgling and all things uncomfortable.

I tried the ignoring technique but your presence is undeniable. I tried to drink and dance to forget, but it was only a momentary distraction and once the hangover subsided you were well and truly back in my life. And I wish you weren’t.

I went to see someone. I needed professional help; it had got to that stage. Again. I tried to explain the impact that you’ve had on my life. I felt understood. It’s not just me that thinks you’re annoying, that enough is enough, you know?

And whilst the professionals figured out how to deal with you, friends told me to build myself up, to stay healthy. I drank carrot and orange juice at the market, despite one of the vendors telling me it’s an ugly drink. I took probiotic supplements. I cooked healthy food. I went to bed early.

But the fighting worsened. It was unbearable. Your final attempts doubled me over in coughing pain; misery accompanied by crying eyes and a running nose and a battle raging in my belly. You did a good job of making me hate you.

Then I heard the news. You’d changed; you were not who I thought you were. No longer parasitical, you tried on a new outfit. Does e-coli suit you? No, quite honestly, no. Maybe if it was only e-coli then I could have fought you better but you were in vicious mode, taking on board acute bronchitis and sickness and fever as your allies. I was outnumbered.

I didn’t want to do it, but I had to. I needed rid of you. Down went the Flucoxin 200g. You laughed at my attempts.

I tried again. Stronger this time. Cefixima 400g. And I didn’t stop there, oh no! Down my throat trickled the rank mix of codeine fosfato and pseudoephedrine chlor. and clorfenamina maleate. Desperate times. You think I’m being nasty? I had to be. No choice. It was on the advice of the professionals. It’s out of my hands now.

So this is where we’re at. I don’t want to see you again. Shouldn’t each partner in a relationship feel strengthened by their connection? All you ever did was weaken me, make me tired.

Time to get out of my life. I’m not in love with you, I’m in love with South America. Please give our relationship a chance. And I’m sure, much as I hate to say it, that you’ll quickly find someone else.

Not yours (and never wanted to be),
Finola

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