8 things we learnt from 1 month in India

There’s so much I want to say about India. After a month, it feels both like we just got here yesterday and also as if we’ve been here forever. Every day we become more familiar with the way of life here but equally there is still so much we don’t know and probably never will. You could read for a lifetime about India in the thousands of books and reports written on this beguiling land of rich history and contrasting states, but you will never truly know India until you have set foot in this dusty, colourful, non-stop country.

Here, I’ve laid out my musings about 10 things I/we have learnt from travelling India for 4 weeks. Please note, these are my own views and opinions and I’m well aware that a month is nowhere near enough time to see or experience everything. I do not wish to offend anybody in my writing and nothing I’ve written is meant as such.

 

  1. India was probably not the best choice of location for first-time backpackers.

Maybe traditional gap year destination, Thailand would have been a gentler breaking in to the life of a traveller. India is the sort of place where a few bad experiences can totally skew your perception of the country. Everything is so intense that one negative thing can be amplified completely out of proportion. Although not total novices to new places, this was the first time we’d been anywhere more than two weeks and not had a fixed plan of where to go and stay etc. As I explained in my post ‘Flying out of my comfort zone’, this was difficult for me at first and India is just so different from anything either of us had experienced before, it took some adjustment. At least we started in Goa which is slow-paced and peaceful compared to much of the rest of the country.

 

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  1. The country will not change for you

This might seem like a strange thing to say but what I mean by this is there are so many aspects of life here that are confusing for Westerners and it’s futile to get frustrated about them. The easiest example to give, is the traffic. This is one of those things that cannot be explained satisfactorily unless you have experienced it for yourself. But I will try. In most places we visited, traffic consists for the most part of tuk tuks, motorbikes/scooters, small trucks transporting things, buses and a handful of private cars. In some places, like Delhi and Agra, you also find cycle rickshaws and horse drawn carts. Of course into all this add some cows and the occasional dog trying to cross the road. Oh, and the pedestrians. Everyone is heading wherever they’re going without much consideration for other road users, or so it seems at first. Drivers weave through traffic and pull into spaces that to the untrained eye, aren’t there. The horn is part of daily life here. It is used as a horn should be used, to alert people to your presence. But in the chaos that is Indian roads, there is a constant barrage of horns. For example, a horn will be sounded when overtaking, when coming up to a sharp bend, to alert pedestrians, to frighten cows out of the way, and also (in my skeptical opinion) to scare the tourists. In the UK, and most parts of Europe, the horn is used as a sign of anger at another driver, so it takes some time to stop thinking like this when you get to India. If a scooter sounds its horn the whole while it’s going round you, it’s to tell you not to cross the road rather than telling you you’re in the way. The more we use the roads, be it walking or in tuk tuks, we understand more how it works. And it does work. While on the surface it’s a complete mess, only once have we seen an accident and it was only a cycle rickshaw scraping a car, no injuries were involved. While I can sit in a tuk tuk thinking if only they actually used the highway code, there wouldn’t be the need for the horns, this is never going to happen and noise is part of the culture here. I won’t pretend like you get used to it, you just have to accept it.

 

Other things that I’ve struggled with include the spitting, the staring, the lack of toilet paper and the ‘apparent’ lack of respect Indians have for their country. Which brings me to point 3…

  1. The people do the best with what they have

This point is mainly in reference to the non-existent waste disposal scheme here. It is commonplace to see litter on the streets and in areas slightly out of town, large patches of ground are dedicated to burning waste because this is the only way they can dispose of it. While this verges on a political problem, local people are doing their best. This can’t be said for everyone however, and often you will see locals, old and young, throwing their rubbish out of train windows or just on the ground as they walk. James said he saw a young man about our age throw a banana peel out the bus window, but it was inside a plastic bag. As divers and big advocates against marine pollution, seeing this is difficult for us and ultimately I think (and hope) it comes down to poor education on the subject and not merely a disrespect for the environment.

Additionally, we’ve noticed a lot of the temples, forts and palaces we’ve visited have been damaged by people engraving their names or initials into the walls. This cannot be solely down to locals, although a lot of it is in local language. In Rajasthan, where the history is so plentiful and a major tourist attraction, I cannot understand why the monuments are not better cared for by the people who benefit from the money they bring into the area. In the last two years, prices for almost every attraction have increased by at least 200 rupees, if not more (like the Taj Mahal), so hopefully that indicates a plan for greater conservation work and protection. Although I won’t hold my breath. The best looked after palace we visited was the City Palace in Udaipur.

Back to my point, poverty is still a massive issue in this country and I won’t pretend to know enough about it to comment. But I will say that from what we’ve seen, people are happy and lead basic but fulfilling lives, something we could definitely learn from.

 

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  1. Indian food is not the complicated mystery I always thought it was!

Onto slightly lighter topics, at our last guesthouse in Udaipur, we had a cooking lesson with our hostess. We learnt how to make chai, cabbage masala, aubergine tomato curry, daal fry, vegetable biryani, fruit curry and three varieties of chapati: plain, butter and paratha. We learnt the basic paste that can be used for all these dishes and each one only took about 15 minutes! Not the hours that I’d been imagining. I’ll definitely be using less oil when I recreate them at home though. That’s been my only complaint about northern Indian food so far, the oil. We’ve been pretty much vegetarian since we arrived, aside from two or three meals with chicken, and I haven’t missed meat for a second. Everything is so tasty you don’t notice! I can’t wait to cook a feast for our families when we get home!

 

  1. How to cross the road properly

Given what I wrote earlier about the traffic here, crossing the road as a pedestrian is a daunting prospect for the newly arrived. It took us about a week to cross the road confidently. This often means walking out in front of traffic or stopping in the middle of the road for a tuk tuk to go round you. The drivers are used to it though because that’s the only way to get around. A narrow market street is one thing, a big city road is quite another and this takes a lot of nerve, something I think we developed in Bengaluru.

  1. A bit of open-ness with the locals can go a long way, but stay vigilant

A lot of the locals in India are very curious about Westerners. This means they stare and point and talk about you quite obviously with their friends/family. This is just something you have to get over. Most of the time its just small children running after you waving and shouting ‘Hi!’ over and over, so that quite cute and a wave back normally satisfies them. Then there’s the photos. A lot of people want photos of you, with you; and they don’t always ask. If you accept to one person, don’t be surprised to find them calling to a group of their friends waiting nearby for a group shot! But if you talk to these people, often they are very friendly and will try to answer your questions even if their english isn’t great. It’s the same with shopkeepers, tuk tuk drivers and restaurant owners, if you chat to them they will most often happily tell you want you want to know. Just be careful that they’re not talking you into some scam or buying something you don’t want. It’s very easy not to trust anyone in India after reading all the warnings about scams and touts. Especially when almost everyone you meet in a tourist capacity appears very friendly and then often reveals that they have an ulterior motive. Just be careful and firm about what you want and where you are going and you’ll have no issues. It’s also a good idea to have your hostel or guesthouse pinned on maps.me so you can follow the progress of your journey and also so you can direct your driver when they get lost, it happened to us more than once. Although they preferred to stop and ask for directions rather than take them from me, with the map, so I guess the trust thing goes both ways!

Some of the best interactions we had though were from complete strangers on the train. Especially for our first couple of journeys when we clearly looked a bit lost, we had a lot of help in sorting out our beds, and interpreting the announcements for our train that was 5 hrs late. I even had food offered to me by a mother travelling with her son, even though we had to use gestures to communicate because of the language barrier.

So my point is, yes do be weary, but after a little while you start to recognise the genuine interactions and those that just want your money so you can start to trust a little more and this will improve your experience of India. It’s tiring to be fearful constantly, so don’t be!

 

  1. Dressing modestly is an absolute must

All travel websites will tell you to dress modestly when visiting India, particularly when going to temples where it is simply a sign of respect for their culture. But also just for your own personal comfort when walking around, try to avoid tank tops or low cut tops because people will stare (even more than normal). It took me a little while to realise this. As we started in Goa, a very touristy, beachy place, people would wear anything and that was accepted. So when we moved north, I was still going round with my shoulders uncovered. This is generally fine and you won’t get told off or anything, just a week or so later when I started wrapping my scarf around me, I noticed far less unwanted attention. Of course this seems obvious, I’m just warning all you ladies out there, take the covering up tip seriously. Pack a couple of scarves, or buy some out there, or invest in some traditional clothing!

  1. India isn’t for everyone

Unfortunately, due to many of the points listed above and several other things, we did not feel that India was a good fit for us. I suspect that this is primarily because we stayed mostly in the cities where it is noisy, dirty and full of people trying to get you into their shops, give you a tuk tuk ride, sell you something or take your photo. It is just non-stop. You cannot walk down the street as a white-skinned tourist without upwards of 20 people shouting things at you. This gets very tiring and I just wish that they’d understand sometimes we WANT to walk to places or that we do actually know where we’re going or that if I wanted a coconut, I’d ask for one. But this is how they make their living so you can’t be too resentful, they’re just being sales-people, albeit not very subtly.

I’m convinced if we’d gone further into the countryside we’d have enjoyed ourselves more. But for a first visit to India, it’s not so easy to get off the beaten path like that until you know a bit more about the country. That’s how we felt anyway. So next time we’ll definitely aim for more rural places. Having said that, we ended our month with 6 days in Udaipur, which was by far our favourite place. The old town, where all the tourist stuff is, is a quaint little place set on a lake. The maze of little streets is easily explored on foot and there are countless rooftop restaurants and cafes to relax in for the afternoon overlooking the lake and the boats making their way round it. It’s also a great place for shopping with everything you could want available from sarees to tiny leather-bound books.

Side note – If you are in Udaipur and want to buy one of the leather books, we found what seemed to be the manufacturer that then sells on to all the other shops. Books in here are considerably cheaper. You can find it on the road leading away from Jagdish temple towards the Nepalese market. Its a little way down on the left hand side going in this direction, and you’ll see lots and lots of books outside. Inside, shelves upon shelves of books line the shop and it goes back quite far. They also stock other leather goods such as belts, wallets, folders and bags. You can also see the books being made in here.”

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3 Days in Hampi

Hampi is an area of 36 sq km nestled in a bizarre landscape of hills and giant boulders. Pottery recovered from the site gives evidence to human settlement here from as early as the 2nd century AD. Once one of the largest trading centres in the world, Hampi reached its peak during the rule of Krishna Deva Raya of the Vijayangaran Empire (1509-1529). However, in 1565, Hampi was attacked over a period of six months by Deccan Sultans, destroying the temples, markets and robbing Hampi of its strategic importance. Thus, the city was forgotten in time by many.

Now, the town of Hampi is small and functions mainly to cater to tourists visiting the ruins. There is one working temple remaining, in Hampi Bazaar, which has a resident elephant, Lakshmi. Hampi is accessed by train or bus via Hospet, the closest transport hub, which is a 20-30 min rickshaw ride from Hampi itself. When booking trains, the station is listed as Hosapete Junction and takes approximately 5 1/2 hours from Goa (Vasco de Gama or Madgaon) although expect some delays. We stayed three nights in Hampi which gave us plenty of time to explore everything without being rushed. We felt this was a good way to do it although you could fit everything into two days if you’re on a tight schedule. Here is our suggested itinerary for three relaxed days:

Day 1

Activities on this day will depend on what time you arrive. We arrived at 8pm so here I describe what we did the following day.

There are two main places to stay in Hampi, the bazaar with its small maze of streets, and across the river which is more peaceful. If you are in the latter area, you’ll need to get the boat across to the bazaar to explore the majority of the temples (40 rupees each way). In both places, there are plenty of cafes and restaurants so take a leisurely breakfast looking out over the winding river and ask if they’ll pack you a lunch. We used the Old Chill Out in the bazaar who are very friendly and charge 20 rupees per take out item because they pack it in an aluminium container.

Late morning, begin exploring the cluster of ruins closest to the main temple. This is best done on foot as everything is close together and the ground is rocky, hilly and uneven. Wear sensible shoes, take plenty of water and sunscreen. You can go inside the working Virupaksha Temple, but be aware that there will be men around trying to sell you bicycle tours. These are run from the main tourist office inside the temple complex and can be trusted but they can be very insistent if you aren’t interested so stand your ground or just walk away.

After Virupaksha, take the path to the right of the temple entrance. You can either immediately bear right here, over a small step or slightly further up the hill there is a building you can go through to the ruins. Both ways bring you to the same place more or less. There appears to be no sense in the placement of the temples here, they are dotted around the steep hillside. Don’t be worried about missing anything though, if you make your way up the left hand side and down the right, you’ll see everything. Give yourself at least an hour for this area, maybe two if you take it slow and stop every now and then to enjoy the views towards the distant hills. Some of the temples have passages through them, don’t be scared to go inside. At the top of the hill is the largest building with the best views, also very good at sunset if the weather is clear.

When you are finished there, make your way along the main street of the bazaar with the small stalls selling trinkets, jewellery, fruit and snacks. About halfway down take the right turn, you can’t really miss it. After a hard trek up the steep hill, take the road to the left. Round the corner you will find the Krishna Temple. This is well worth a visit just for the carvings that feature on the walls, inside and out, and the many columns. If you are brave enough, there’s an unlit section in the centre of the temple. We did not go in.

Heading back the way you came, take a right back at the main street, towards the monolithic bull (worth a quick look but nothing amazing). Before the end of the road, there is a signposted left turn towards the Vittala Temple. This walk to the temple is beautiful and makes a great place to stop for lunch. At this point, we don’t suggest going into the temple itself because entry costs 500 rupees per person and includes other sights further south but tickets are only valid for 1 day so these are best done all together on day 2. However, the walk is still worth it. Just before the temple coming from this direction is the King’s balance, off to the right. Double back on yourself here and follow the path past the balance. Maps.me is highly recommended if you don’t have it already (an offline maps app that you will come to rely on as a traveller). Along the way there are other small ruins to explore. One in particular was our favourite, marked on the map simply as temple ruins. It’s a small climb to the top but shade and wonderful views await you there. It’s a peaceful place to sit a while and appreciate the strange landscape. Further on you will find the Achyutaraya Temple complex. A fascinating place to see, in the late afternoon the light is beautiful and the palm trees lend a magical, peaceful air. Through the right side of the temple complex is a path that will lead you up to Matanga hill. If you don’t want to make the climb, head back the way you came up the straight path, then left at the end towards town. The climb is manageable with a few stops, depending on your level of fitness. Takes about 20-30 min. Once at the top, take some time to appreciate the 360 degree views over Hampi, the river and beyond. Especially in the evening light, its quite breath taking. There is a small Hindu temple here too and the attending monk will guide you through a short prayer to Siva which involves incense, flowers and making a wish. A small donation is appreciated although not compulsory. Our initial plan had been to stay up here until sunset, however we arrived far too early and weren’t prepared to wait the hour or so, so we made our descent instead down the other side towards town. We were very glad we’d made this decision as the path was not well marked, steep and pretty treacherous in places that in the dusk/dark would have been very dangerous. Please bare this in mind. The path from the Achyutaraya Temple seemed much safer although it isn’t lit in the dark and means a longer walk back to town once you reach the bottom.

There are plenty of options for dinner, many of the restaurants have floor cushions meaning you can relax there all evening.

Day 2

For your second day of temple visiting, we’d recommend hiring bikes as the second area of ruins (Royal Centre) is several kilometres away. There are plenty of places to hire from with prices at 150 rupees for a standard bike with no gears, or 200 for one with gears. Try to get your bikes before 11am or they may all be gone. We had to get one of each due to availability and James’ gears did not work… So be careful and test the bike before you ride away on it. If you’d rather join a bike tour, the price is 450r per person including bike hire and covers most of the places that we did on this day, also includes lunch. We chose not to, to save money and as long as you have some sort of map, you will be fine to go on your own. The ride is quite pleasant, particularly towards the end where the road takes you through some fields (if you plan the route with maps.me). Once in the Royal Centre, you can visit things in any order you wish. Leave a couple of hours to see everything. The paid attractions here are the Lotus Mahal and Elephant Stables. As previously mentioned the 500r you pay to get into these also includes entry to the Vittala Temple. The grounds around the Lotus Mahal are manicured and trees provide shade for sitting if you wish. There are also toilets (10-20r depending how charitable the attendant feels) and cold drinks available in the parking area just before you reach the ticket booth. If you fancy a bit more of a walk after seeing the elephant stables, there is a path leading behind them with a few other ruins dotted along. We had to duck into one to avoid a rain shower.

Once finished at the Royal Centre, you can cycle the few extra km to the Vittala temple to make the most of your ticket. This is listed as the must see Temple in all the guide books and certainly doesn’t disappoint. There are also some buildings to see on the outside which are somewhat interesting if you have time/can be bothered. From here, your choices are to cycle back the way you came along the road, or cycle/walk the bikes along the riverside path that you did yesterday. The second option is much shorter but not all suitable for cycling so it’s your choice. We took the road and as we reached town, our progress was stopped by the festival procession that was happening that evening. Our visit to Hampi exactly coincided with the yearly Ustav festival (beginning of November), meaning that the area was a lot, lot busier and more crowded than usual. The procession started at the Krishna temple and ended at the main temple, with hundreds of people lining the street to watch the musicians and dancers dressed in typical Indian costumes. It was fascinating to witness, although difficult to move through with the bikes. After finally making it back to the bazaar and returning the bikes, we headed up to sunset point behind the Virupaksha Temple.

Day 3

Depending on your travel plans in and out of Hampi, you may wish to switch day 3 with day 1 or combine it with either day if you only have 2 days.

For our final day, we took the boat across the river and hiked to the Monkey Temple. In hindsight, we should have just hired a tuk tuk to take us or rented a scooter because it was a long way over a large hill with a not very well marked path. In some places there was no path at all. But it was an adventure and we made it there in one piece. There’s then the small matter of 575 steps to climb to the temple. We were thoroughly exhausted once we reached the top. The views however make up for it and the few monkeys that we saw were very entertaining. One stole a bottle of Fanta from a young girl and worked out how to unscrew the top and pour out the liquid so it could drink it.  As always when around monkeys, keep your belongings inside your bag or in your pockets, somewhere they can’t easily take them! There is a working temple up here but if you want to go inside, make sure your knees and shoulders are covered. I always carry a thin scarf in my bag for times like this.

Another traveller that we met said he’d visited the Monkey Temple at sunrise because his overnight bus had arrived at 5am so his tuk tuk driver took him there on route to Hampi. His photos were spectacular so like I said, you may wish to change up the order of the days dependant on your plans. We managed to get a tuk tuk back to the boat crossing and decided to stay a while in one of the restaurants looking over the river to the main temple. This side of the river is much more peaceful and if we ever go back we’d definitely stay there.

We’d booked a sleeper bus to Bengaluru from Hospet that didn’t leave until 11pm so we spent the rest of the evening hanging around in our favourite restaurant, the Old Chill Out until it was time for our taxi.

 

Although we had a lot of down time, this suited us and meant we could take things at our own relaxed pace in the 30+ degree heat. Hampi should certainly feature on any travel plans to Goa or backpacking through India. Although we visited at a really busy time, we could see how the rest of the year it is so peaceful that at times you could not see anyone for hours. If you are so inclined, we heard that you could also go bouldering/rock climbing. The landscape is perfect for this and they even hold competitions at times.

After now 3 weeks in India, Hampi remains one of our highlights. The fascinating history and detailed carvings everywhere will long stick in my memory, not to mention the inexplicable boulders visible across the site. How they arrived there or were formed like that remains a mystery to me. A quick google search reveals it is due to millions of years of weather erosion, but it is still amazing; like giants put them there…

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Journey to Hampi

First post by James:

Our fourth morning in Arambol we got a taxi with one of the girls we met in the hostel, to Vasco. Max left our spare phone in the first place we stayed in Bogmalo, so we had to get a bus back there to pick it up. Whilst there we stopped at our favourite bar for a few drinks before getting the bus back to Vasco. Vasco… Well what can I say, this is a commercial town with little to see or do. However we came across a Japanese Garden  on the map which we thought we would walk to; 2 hours later we were running low on water and not sure if we had seen it. There was a nice look-out point to the beach below but other than that, there was no clear way out and the paths were all very overgrown. The sun was starting to set and we needed to get back to our room for the night. After taking a wrong turn and ending up in what was the indian version of a council estate a kind man drove us back into town. He told us about the area and that there are never any tourists in Vasco. So we went to find dinner. We failed. The only place we could see was a high priced western hotel which would have added 20% taxes onto our bill. So we went with leftover baguettes from lunch and crisps from the general store near our hotel. Our advice to anyone making the trip from Goa to Hampi, book your train from Madgaon instead, Vasco de Gama is not a nice place, even for one night.

 

Vasco to Hosapete by train. So we got up early to make sure we would be able to find our train. This was relatively easy, apart from the fact that we went down the wrong part of the platform and had to cross the tracks, rather than using the footbridge like the rest of the locals… We wondered along the platform looking at the endless carriages wondering if this was actually our train. We found sleeper class, 1st AC, second class, 3AC, 1 carriage had 2AC but this was not ours. Eventually we found our carriage, which was being cleaned at the time. As soon as the cleaners left we took our chance and found our seat with 25 minutes to hang around. Both our minds wondering if this was our train, and no-one around to ask if it was. Eventually we found another passenger who told us we were in the right place. Panic over we started to relax, 2AC is a very comfortable way to travel, the seat double up into a bed with a lower and upper bunk, bed sheets are provided as well as a blanket and pillow. One thing we noticed was that the carriage was pretty much empty, nothing like we had heard about Indian train travel from documentaries at home. As the train pulled away our ticket was checked by the conductor and we got two cheese sandwiches as max was too lazy to wait for the indian snacks to come by. When we stopped at the next station we heard a familiar accent, a couple from Liverpool had just got into our carriage, and sods law they sat opposite us. Introductions straight away, it was nice to speak to another couple roughly our age doing a similar sort of trip, and they were going to Hampi, Same as us! We spent the whole journey chatting about our travel plans and what we had already done. At around 12:30, our lunch options were given to us. Both me and max went for Biryani and our new friends had a mixed of Biryani and Thali. On route our trian went right through the countryside with some breathe taking views of mountains, waterfalls and the farm land. As time went on it was clear we werent going to be ontime. We eventually arrived in Hosapete after 7pm, nearly an hour and a half later than scheduled. We had been told that there was a festival going on in Hampi this weekend,  so the place was going to be busy. We first realised this when we tried to get a rickshaw to Hampi, which we ended up paying double what we should have paid. When we arrived in Hampi, we had seen some of the festivities but just wanted some food and a bed. It turned out our room had been cancelled because the guest house couldnt get hold of us… We were not happy people. Luckily he hadnt filled the room, so we were able to stay there, max managed to get 500 rupies of the price as there was no mosquito net or hot water. After laying our stuff down, Sunny (guest house owner) took us to a to a restaurant, The old Chill out. Neither of us were keen on it but didnt argue as we were hungry and tired. We were greated by 2 waiters whose english was better than I expected. He explained to us that Hampi was a vegetarian village and that alcohol was banned. So looking at the menu we decided on egg plant masala to share with rice and naan bread. Whilst waiting for our food we noticed the resident cat had 2 kittens, this instantly made max feel less stressed and happier, as well as some puppies at the other end of the restaurant. Needless to say, when the food arrived we were both impressed and ended up eating there for most of our meals. We also made sure we tried some different dishes along the way. The service was great at this place and the food was just as good. Highly recommended!

 

Goa: Intro to India

We chose to start our India trip in Goa because we’d read that the south is generally quieter and a better place to get acclimatised than the north. What we hadn’t anticipated though is how touristy it is there. I never really considered Goa as a holiday destination but for a lot of people it is, there is a massive amount of Russians on all the beaches and a lot of the locals speak both English and Russian. I feel like Goa is a cross between Europe and what I imagine the rest of India to be like. There is a lot of Portuguese influence here and it definitely shows, particularly in the capital, Panjim, where the old quarter has you walking through narrow cobbled streets of multicoloured houses with wrought iron railings and wooden shutters. You’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a small French or Spanish village were it not for the left-over Diwali decorations and Hindi writing on the street signs.

 

Our first two days were in a tiny town called Bogmalo, just south of the airport. Apparently, this is rated one of Goa’s best hidden gems and indeed the beach is beautiful. We didn’t know this before we arrived though. A handful of bars and restaurants line the beach, all with good food, wifi access and excellent views over the sea. There’s only one place with sun loungers and parasols though and no shade is to be had anywhere else on the beach. A few Indian women try to bring you to their shops at the top of the beach but in general it is a very peaceful place. Our first full day in Bogmalo saw us trekking up the hill to find the closest ATM. We found it no problem and after working out how to use Indian cash machines, decided that for the rest of the day we would go for a walk to a heart-shaped lake that we’d seen on google maps. This turned out to be at least 3km away and in the midday heat with only water and no food, this was not our best decision. Additionally, after seeing the very disappointing lake which was more kidney shaped, we thought that we could take a shortcut across the rocks back to our beach. Again, a mistake. We got maybe halfway before turning round and making the long walk back. This cost me three blisters that took days to heal. We took it easy after that.

From Bogmalo we made our way, via Panjim, to Arambol in north Goa. This is a small, enchanting town with access to the biggest beach I have ever seen in my life. We arrived by bus, an experience in itself, and set off to explore after checking into our hostel. We took the long way to the beach the first time, walking through the makeshift village that leads right up to the beach. The tiny shops and fruit stalls, restaurants and guest houses are grouped together in such a way as to look like a film set. Then you emerge onto grassy dunes and down the hill to the beach. In both directions all you can see is sand and sea. The beach must be at least 100ft from dunes to the water and a good 4 or 5 km long, turning into Mandrem beach if you go far enough south. We spent a couple of hours here before returning to meet the other residents at the hostel – Happy Panda. Everyone there was really friendly and chilled out, a vibe promoted by the hostel who have a ‘no shoes, no ego’ policy. Dinner that night was our first introduction to Dosa, a large pancake-like thing, filled with delicious masala fillings.

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Our time in Arambol comprised mostly of beach, with the odd walk to the laundrette or down the market road with hundreds of multi-coloured stalls selling everything from chai herbs to leather goods, wears hung outside the shop to tempt in unwary tourists. During our time here, it was Halloween, and our hostel threw a party with a BBQ. Everyone dressed up, the best costume probably going to an American guy who painted himself blue to become the god, Shiva with great effect. We also experienced some live music at a place called Organic Vibes. You could sit on floor cushions or up in ‘tree-house’ structures at the sides which didn’t feel like they could hold the weight of the 15 people up there. I ordered a Chai tea and we watched the performance of russian/indian sitar music and a fire dancer who was incredibly skilled and bendy. It was the most random thing and even the girl we met who’d been living in India for 4 months said she’d never seen anything like it! Our last evening we ate on the beach, watching a rather disappointing sunset. The horizon was so hazy, the sun was lost well before it reached the sea, casting a pleasant orange glow but nothing more.

Overall, and in hindsight, we really enjoyed Goa. Life there is so laid back in comparison to the North where we are now. It was without a doubt a good place to begin in India, easing us in before the chaos of Delhi. I did however feel like we weren’t getting a real experience of India, Goa being so geared towards tourists, which is what prompted us to move on. Next stop, and next post, Hampi and our journey there.

Flying out of my comfort zone

A lot has happened in the last two weeks. Thursday 26th October, 6 am, saw us in the car on the way to Heathrow. I was feeling a lot of mixed emotions at that point: nervous and scared mostly, excitement hadn’t kicked in just yet. My mum had offered to take us and she even bought us breakfast to eat on the way, chocolate twists, mmmm. Except after the first one I just felt sick. We arrived at the airport far too quickly for my liking and before I knew it I was strapping my rucksack on and hugging my mum, who managed not to cry much to my amazement. It was still pretty dark outside as we entered departures and joined the check-in queue. It still all felt very surreal as we slowly trudged further towards the desks. Since discussing travelling way back in January, to actually be leaving was hard to comprehend. More difficult was accepting that I’d actually finished writing and submitted my PhD thesis only on Monday, something that had been hanging over me for months.

As we sat in the departure lounge, I can’t really describe what I was feeling. Mostly apprehension I suppose because we didn’t have our stopover hotel booked, or anything past day 2 in Goa. Also scared because we had no idea what the next 6 months were going to involve. I wrote about this in a previous post, how I think it’s normal to be nervous, and now that we were actually leaving there were so many thoughts going round and round in my head; would we be safe? How easy would it be to get around? Would money be ok? Would people be friendly?

Fast forward 9 hours to Mumbai and I really needn’t have worried, of course. We got a room in the airport hotel, ok we had to wait half an hour but at least we had somewhere to sleep. The next day we arrived in Goa and made it to our guesthouse where we proceeded to plan the next few days.

We’ve now been in India for two and a half weeks and it’s took me until the end of week 1 to really feel ok. I’m the sort of control freak that likes to know where I’m going, to have things planned and organised so that I don’t have to stress. Hence the title of this post. I’ve been so far out of my comfort zone it’s reduced me to tears on more than one occasion. Being in a new country where the customs, language and culture is so different from your own is always going to be daunting, but add on the fact that as a backpacker you are moving around a lot with no fixed plan, it puts you so much closer to the real nature of the country. You cannot hide behind your hotel or resort walls. You have to integrate with the people, travel on local buses, explore to find places to eat. It is a generally much more exhausting experience that is a lot to take in the first few days.

I wrote this on the train to Hampi, 10 days ago. It’s taken me that long to get this blog back up and running because I forgot my login details…  Nothing but expansive, lush forest was visible out the window, mountains in the distance and the odd waterfall here and there. Our week in Goa had been strange, some good experiences, some not so great.  See the post “Goa: intro to India” for more detail. We now know that after Hampi we are heading north to Delhi for a month exploring Rajasthan. I feel a lot more comfortable now, partly because we have more of a plan and partly because I think I am settling into traveller life and more accustomed to the barrage on the senses that is India.

6 day Scottish Road Trip Itinerary

“I feel a sort of reverence in going over these scenes in this most beautiful country, which I am proud to call my own, where there was such devoted loyalty to the family of my ancestors – for Stuart blood is in my veins.”

Queen Victoria, journal entry in 1873

This quote represents quite nicely how I feel about Scotland, although my blood is that of the McKenzie’s rather than the Stuarts. I’ve always been proud of my Scottish heritage, with such a large family that I’ve been close to my whole life. Although I did feel slightly uncomfortable walking around the highlands with the name McKenzie and a truly southern English accent!

This trip came about because we wanted to go away for a week to celebrate our anniversary. We debated cheap beach holidays then settled, somehow, on Scotland. A Scottish road trip has been something we’ve wanted to do for a while now, so we thought why not?!  We chose to fly and rent a car rather than drive all the way up from Sussex, seeing as we weren’t planning to dive or anything. That’ll be another trip!

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Day 1

We landed in Glasgow at about 3 pm with only our hand luggage and made our way to the car rental place via the shuttle bus provided.  We got given our car, after they tried to swindle us out of an extra £10 a day for the next model up, and we set off. At home we have an almost 16 year old fiesta so a brand new Citroen C1 felt just fine to us! We also didn’t have a sat nav, only the road map I’d bought so we were doing this old school. Leg one of the journey was to get to Fort William for the night. The drive took about 2 hours and we went through the stunning Loch Lomond National Park and Glen Coe. I made James stop so I could get this shot:

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There was even a little snow up there still! We didn’t stop again and arrived at our Fort William guest house in good time, a lovely little place over looking Loch Linnhe just before you get into town. Being here, of course I had to take James to see Ben Nevis. I climbed it years ago with my parents and sister, so it was nice going back although I’d forgotten that you can’t see the summit from the road, it’s hidden behind the surrounding landscape. We tried to get a table for dinner at the on-site restaurant but they were full so we ended up in a pub on the high street which was wonderful! The Grog and Gruel is a traditional feeling place with a great menu of pies, burgers and haggis, but also pizza and tex-mex food. After a little walk up the high street we headed back to our guest house for an early night ready for the long day I had planned next. Not before we’d taken some photos of the glorious sunset though!

Day 2

This was by far our busiest and, I think, most enjoyable day. Breakfast was huge, with a Scottish cooked breakfast but then also cereal, toast and a waffle maker on the side! Lucky for me James doesn’t like black pudding so I got double helpings all week. We set of at 9 am with our first stop the Glenfinnan Viaduct, more famously known as the Harry Potter bridge. Unfortunately we weren’t there at the right time to see the steam train but it was very impressive nonetheless and we had it to ourselves.

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The structure itself is concrete I believe but the multitude of arches and mountains in the background make it just breathtaking. There is a walk you can do from here to get a better view from the other side but we didn’t have time, we had a ferry to catch!

Next we had to get to the ferry port in Mallaig, a picturesque journey following the railway track. We were there for the ferry to the Isle of Skye, the bit I had been most looking forward to. We left the little port town for our hour crossing to Armdale. The feature image at the top of this post is some of the scenery we had along the way. There’s something so peaceful about layers of mountains fading into blueness like that. It makes you remember how small you are and how insignificant your worries are to the world.

Upon arriving in Skye, we immediately headed north, towards Uig and the mysterious Fairy Glen. This whole island is beautiful with it’s own small mountain range and dramatic scenery. I should say, we were so incredibly lucky the entire week to have glorious sunshine, which made everything so much more inviting. We made it to Fairly Glen by accident actually. James took a wrong turn (which I’d probably told him to take…) so I had to use my phone to get us back on track when I realised we we’d just passed the glen. Even once we arrived in the spot on the map it took us forever to find it. It is not signposted and there were no hoards of tourists to show us the way. To save you time if you ever venture that way, park near the small pond on the right hand side and make your way over the ridge behind the pond. There’s sort of a path, and it will lead you to the glen. When we arrived, eventually, we found circles of rocks that are either meticulously cared for or they are moved regularly. There is also a mound you can climb to get a beautiful view of the whole thing.

The hills here are totally different to the rest of the area. Like they have wrinkles in them, while the surrounding land is smooth. Even when we drove away we could still pick out the place from a distance. Our next stop was the Quiraing. This was a place I’d read about and couldn’t wait to get to. It’s an area in the north east of Skye with some incredible views of the enchanting landscape. We donned our walking boots and set off on what turned out to be a 3 hour hike. But it was so worth it. The path is clearly marked and you begin setting off towards some imposing rock formations, with a stunning view behind you. Then you are led round the back of the mountain for what feels like forever before you start climbing, emerging at the top with a lookout over the sea, my favourite view of the whole trip. The top is a bit marshy, even in the good weather we had so be careful, and there isn’t a well marked path here so just keep heading roughly south until you start to see the descent. From here, you get another breathtaking view of the Quiraing. The descent is tricky and steep, full concentration required.

By now it was about 5 pm. I’d really wanted to climb to see the Old Man of Storr but we just didn’t have time. You can get a reasonable view of it heading south from the Quiraing to Portree but if you stop at the marked car park, you can’t see a thing unless you actually do the walk. In the main town of Portree, we stopped for dinner. At least one fish and chips meal is obligatory on any Scotland visit. My final activity for the day was to go and watch the sunset from the Neist Point Lighthouse, the westernmost point on the island. Everything in Scotland is much further away than you think it’s going to be because of the tiny single roads everywhere. Passing points become your best friend in an attempt not to lose the deposit on the car squeezing by other vehicles, but this slows you down incredibly. We arrived at the car park with probably about 10 mins to spare and I literally ran to find a good viewing point. We didn’t have time to get to the lighthouse itself which is another 20 minutes or so walk away, and with the amazing weather, it seemed everyone else on the island had the same plan as me so the crowds were pretty large. It was a beautiful place, I just wish we hadn’t been so rushed.

Not only was it a mad dash to get there, it was also a mad dash to make it to our hostel and collect our key before the office shut. And now with it being dark, the roads became even more treacherous. James was amazing, driving as fast as he could with my dodgy directions, getting us to the hostel only 5 minutes late. Thankfully the guy knew we were coming so he’d waited, but he did not seem impressed. We slept very well that night, so exhausted from the day.

Day 3

The next morning we had breakfast at a lovely little cafe across the road with wonderful coffee and gorgeous mountain views. Our first stop this day was the Fairy Pools in south west Skye. This was more than worth the drive. The walk is as long as you choose to make it although the best views of the pools are a little way up. The river is winding and so pretty, with crystal clear waters. I couldn’t resist taking a paddle, the water was so cold, my feet were numb within 2 minutes! If you only have time to do one thing on the Isle of Skye, I’d highly recommend going here. It’s the perfect family walk too.

Then we set off back towards the mainland over the Skye Bridge with our next stop being Eilean Donan Castle. This was the busiest place we’d been to so far, with several tour buses. But listed as the most beautiful castle in Scotland, we couldn’t really drive by so close and not visit. I’d done very little research about this place before we arrived so I was stunned to learn that in the 13th century, this castle was owned by my ancestors, clan McKenzie/MacKenzie! It was very surreal walking where they’d once walked.

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From Eilean Donan, we headed towards Gairloch on the west coast. Our drive took us partly along the Coastal Road and was so pretty. Surrounded by mountains, Lochs appearing as if out of nowhere as you turn a corner and barely a single car on the road, we felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere, which was exactly the aim of this road trip. The drives between each destination were as much part of the fun and we made several stops along the way to admire the views.

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That night, we’d booked into one of the only hotels we could find in the area, the Gairloch Hotel. It was the strangest place. From the outside it looked amazing, then you walk in and it’s like stepping back into the 90s. All the decor was outdated, and our room was at the end of a long, winding corridor like something out of a horror movie. The room itself was nice and big and clean, but the TV was a tiny 10×10″ thing and the bathroom had some loose fittings. Dinner was an even stranger experience, there were three things to pick from the menu which were then brought out to us within 5 minutes. The waiter also tried to tell me I was ordering wrong by asking for wine before the food…

Needless to say we got out of there as soon as we could and took a walk along the beach to the pub down the road. The walk along the road would have taken about 10 minutes, we decided (after a bottle of wine) to climb over the rocks which took considerably longer and was much more fun. And there was the bonus of another sunset.

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Day 4

Day 4 our goal was to get to Inverness. On the way we stopped at two waterfalls and Loch Ness. There are plenty of gorges across the central highlands and the waterfalls that come with those are all free to visit and worth the time. The two we saw had suspension bridges over the river for a good view of the falls.

Just outside of Inverness we stopped at Loch Ness. We ended up parking in a little village that was actually quite a way from the loch. It took us about half an hour through a little residential area and a woodland to reach Loch Ness. Even once we got there, there wasn’t a great deal to see. Despite being the most famous loch, it’s not the prettiest, it’s just one of those things you have to see. That evening we walked into the city from our guest house. We went to take a look at the castle and wandered round the cobbled streets before ending up in a Chinese buffet restaurant (I know, I know). After eating, we walked into a small pub, full of locals that all stared at us when we entered. It was a nice place though, good for people watching and very amusing when a french couple came in to try whiskey for the first time.

Days 5 & 6

Our last two days were spent in the two national parks, the Cairngorms and Loch Lomond. Overall we preferred the Cairngorms. It felt like a bigger space, more wild with more to see. We visited Loch an Eilein, a beautiful walk through peaceful pine forest.

In the Loch Lomond national park, we climbed Ben A’an, a fairly arduous walk for people with our low fitness levels. The view from the top is stunning though, overlooking Loch Katrine.

On our last morning, the day of our actual anniversary, we went to Loch Lomond itself, and walked around the grounds of Buchanan Castle. A lovely way to end our tour. Scotland is an amazing place and visiting slightly out of season in May, meant that we had almost every place we visited to ourselves, adding to the feeling of vastness you get everywhere you go in the highlands.

Although we spent about the same as if we’d gone abroad, exploring your own country is so important and we’d thoroughly advocate anyone to do it.

5 Days in Bermuda on a Budget

Last year, we were lucky enough to visit Bermuda, a tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic. This came about because of a competition we won, giving us flights and 5 nights in this stunning location (the only thing I have ever won, or will probably ever win again). Before October 2015, Bermuda had not been on my radar at all. Everyone has of course heard of the Bermuda triangle and for me it conjured memories of watching The Sword in the Stone as a child, when Merlin jets off there at the end of the film. But it never felt like a real place, just a far away and mysterious island that I’d likely never see.

But as I started researching our unexpected destination, I realised it was very real, with so much to offer! The first thing I learnt (because it was the answer to the competition question) is that Bermuda is actually an archipelago made up of 181 islands. This seemed unlikely and even when we were there I still didn’t believe it until we climbed to the top of Gibbs lighthouse. Apparently every rock with any bit of vegetation counts, no matter how small.

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View of NE Bermuda from the top of the Gibbs lighthouse

So we arrived fresh from our British Airways flight to be picked up by a taxi from the Bermuda Tourist Board and taken to our hotel on the opposite side of the country, a 1.5 hr drive. We stayed at Cambridge Beaches Resort and Spa which has an over 13’s policy, and our Water View room was about the same size as our 1 bed flat back home in London…

So we felt slightly fraudulent, in a beautiful room with a stunning view, surrounded by people who’d paid thousands of pounds to be there, drinking our free welcome bottle of wine on the terrace too scared to go and find out the prices at the bar! We did take a walk around the resort though in time to see the sunset.

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Anyway, getting to the point of this post, how do you survive in Bermuda when you are on a tight budget? Well, it’s very hard. I should explain, last year James and I were both students with no holiday plans because we couldn’t really afford it. Then we won a trip to a very expensive place… The whole island has a dress code. Beach wear is only acceptable at the beach, and most restaurants request sports jacket and summer dress type attire. At any other time in our lives, this would have been amazing. Just not last year.

So the first morning, after an enormous breakfast, we went to the hotel reception and bought a 3 day pass for the islands public transport, costing $44 each. This seemed like the best way to get around and included all buses and ferries. There are several ferry routes around the islands and this is by far the fastest and most convenient way to travel and lets you see a lot more of Bermuda than by road. I had our day all planned out. We took the hotel shuttle bus to the Royal Naval Dockyard and caught the ferry to St. George’s. This was the first settlement back in 1609. Walking around the pretty town you get a real sense of Britishness. The streets are cobbled with little shops everywhere. We went for lunch at a place we’d seen in the hotel welcome pack, Wahoo’s Bistro and Patio. It had a lovely view over the water and we both ordered the cheapest thing on the menu at $22 each. The waitress didn’t seem impressed with us. After eating, we ended up in the town square just as some locals were starting a re-enactment of the tradition of dunking. A woman had been accused of nagging her husband and was sentenced to 10 dunks (I know…). She was placed on a seat at the end of a large see-saw contraption and James was roped in to help hold the other end with 3 other unsuspecting bystanders. The whole spectacle was very amusing and drew quite a crowd. James and the others let go of their end to dunk her, then grabbed it to pull her up again.

From St. George’s, we got the bus to the Crystal Cave in Hamilton parish. This is an absolutely must do itinerary item for any trip to Bermuda. There are two caves you can visit, which we did, costing $30 (or $22 for 1 cave). Crystal cave is probably the most visited and slightly more impressive although Fantasy cave has some rare stalactite formations which was fascinating. The water was so turquoise and clear. You aren’t allowed to swim here though. Because we went in May, slightly before high season, we almost had the caves to ourselves. It was so cool and peaceful and the guides are very knowledgeable on the geology of the area. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit.

Close to the caves there is the Blue Lagoon. This took a bit of exploring to find, it isn’t signposted at all. Google maps to the rescue! Thankfully this is free to visit and very pretty. Here, you are allowed to swim but we hadn’t brought any swim stuff and didn’t fancy stripping down in front of the few people around. There were some fish in the water and it could make for an interesting snorkel perhaps. From here, we got the bus back to our hotel, stopping at the supermarket down the road to pick up some dinner. This was our attempt to save money and we certainly felt like proper students having our picnic on the balcony.

Days 2 and 3 we spent diving. We chose to book with Dive Bermuda because we have a friend that works there. This was our treat, it wasn’t cheap. We spent $300 each for 4 dives, not including equipment rental because we’d taken our own, again to save money. That was a fun bus journey at 8 am! At $75 per dive, this is about double what we’d pay in the UK and if I’m totally honest, I wasn’t too impressed with the quality of the diving. We did two wrecks, each one barely a mile offshore directly out from the dive center. Considering there are roughly 700 wrecks around the island, we felt a bit cheated just being taken to the closest ones. The water was 21-23 °C and there wasn’t half as much life as we were expecting. The corals weren’t too inspiring either. Having looked forward so much to this part of our trip we were quite disappointed. The dive center itself was very well run and the staff were great, we just wish they’d taken us to some more interesting wrecks. I suppose that’s partly our fault for not researching it better and requesting where we wanted to go. Apart from the visibility, I definitely prefer UK diving. The most interesting thing we saw was an octopus.

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After our first day of diving, we went for a walk along the famous Horseshoe Bay beach. If you keep going, you get to some rocks which you can climb to get to Angle beach, then Jobson’s cove and eventually Warwick Long Bay. The further east you go, the pinker the sand gets and the less people there are. I spent several minutes trying to get a photo portraying the accurate sand colour.  If you look closely, it’s actually individual grains of pink sand mixed with white sand. There is an artist who collects the pink grains and makes beautiful pieces of jewellery with it.

It was also this day that we climbed the lighthouse. I hadn’t previously checked the opening times and we were lucky to arrive 10 minutes before closing (5pm). If I remember rightly it was only $3 each to go to the top, by far the best value attraction we found. It was cloudy that evening so the view wasn’t as stunning as it could have been but even so, it’s pretty impressive being able to see all four corners of the country.

On our last full day, we had planned to rent bikes and cycle the length of the old railway. I’d read this is an amazing way to see the island, but we felt like this would be a lot of effort after an already very active 3 days. So instead we got the ferry back to St. George’s and walked around the forts that are dotted at that end of the island. We started at Gate’s Fort, and made our way along the north east coast to Fort St. Catherine. On the way we stopped at the famous glass beach of Building Bay. There wasn’t as much glass as I’d expected but it was worth a visit nonetheless. The whole coastline there is simply stunning. Green grass giving way to unbelievable blues of the ocean, every step of the way. Every now and then there are little paths leading to the rocks. The whole journey took us about 4 hours but we were taking our time and made a few stops. At Fort St. Catherine, we stopped for a drink at a beach bar. We didn’t go inside the fort because we didn’t feel it would be a good use of our last dollars. It’s the only fort on the island you have to pay for. Our last stop before heading back to St. George’s was Tobacco Bay, again a famous place. Of all the beaches we’d seen, it was the noisiest. There was a beach hut playing music and it seemed like a tourist attraction more than a beach. It was pretty though.

Our last night in Bermuda we were taken out in the capital, Hamilton, by our friend, Matt. It was messy and I’ll not elaborate except to say that going out with the locals always guarantees a good night. I spent the following morning on a sun lounger waiting for our flight and feeling very sorry for myself.

All in all, we enjoyed our trip to Bermuda but won’t be going back until we’re in a position to not worry so much about spending. My lasting impression of this place is that it’s the best possible combination of England and America. Everyone is super polite, there’s a real sense of pride about being Bermudian, and all the houses are painted in bright colours like a picturesque countryside village. Our taxi driver told us its a requirement to repaint your house every 5 years so they always look pristine! But then at the same time, everyone has an american accent and there’s something distinctly non-British about the place that I can only attribute to the american influence. The whole country felt almost too perfect to be true. I remember clearly saying to James it felt like we were in a film set. We did find out that there is actually quite a high crime rate, but this never affects the tourists and walking around we just did not see anything at all that hinted at it.

This is not a typical backpackers destination. We took £600 worth of dollars with us and came back with about $5… and we were being mostly very frugal and careful. Not including what we spent on diving. But if you like beaches and golf, its a wonderful place. Thinking back now I have mixed feelings. I’d like to go back someday but I feel like we went at least 10 years too early to really make the most of it. But it is a beautiful country and we were so grateful for the chance to visit.

 

The Magic of the Red Sea

My first trip to the Red Sea is something I will never forget. We touched down in Sharm el Sheikh with our diving friends, eager to experience Egypt. The first thing that hits you is the heat. From the air conditioned airplane you walk out into what feels like volcanic heat. A shock if you have never experienced such heat before. Then there’s the struggle to get through the airport and buy your visa from one of the guys not charging an extra $5, then out into the car park to find your transfer vehicle. But that’s the charm of travelling is it not? And the following day when we got our first glimpse of the sea, it was all worth it.

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50 shades of blue. That feeling of an overwhelming urge to jump in the water overcame me immediately. Having only dived in the UK and Mediterranean before, this was a complete revelation to me that the water could be so clear and so blue. All our kit was loaded on to the boat by the Egyptian crew, who throw cylinders around like it’s a game, and we set off. That first dive in the crystal clear water is so clear in my memory, as if I’ve just come back from the boat. It was just a check out dive for the guides to assess our levels and the reef was maybe 10 m below us. Descending to the colourful reef and being able to see every single diver, brings me even now so much joy just thinking about it.

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If you are reading this as a diver, you will know there is no better feeling than that of weightlessness when you are only diving in a shorty 3mm wetsuit. Having trained in the cold UK water, we were used to cumbersome drysuits, three layers of clothing underneath, hoods, and in my case dry gloves. So this was a totally new experience for everyone in our group. Your head is no longer encased in neoprene so you can move it freely to look at things. You feel so light floating there over the fish, in the fish. It’s just magical. You can hear nothing but the gentle stream of bubbles from your regulator. Total peace. In 28 degree water with 50 m visibility at least. I cannot urge anyone enough to try scuba diving if you haven’t already. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever done before.

And then there’s the life. More fish than I have ever seen even in an aquarium. Everywhere you look there’s little orange anthias, silver sergeant majors, trigger fish, brightly coloured wrasse, clown fish, the list could go on. When you are close enough to the reef, you glide through the hoards of fish darting about you and they let you through like a parting curtain, close enough to touch and yet somehow always just out of reach. As a biologist, I am always fascinated by life on the reef and love to look closely for the small creatures; nudibranchs, corals and hermit crabs are some of my favourites.  For more underwater life photos, check out my instagram page @macro_scuba .

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On some of our deeper dives in the Ras Mohammed National Park, we were lucky enough to see schooling jack fish and barracuda. The school is several meters high and wide, completely dwarfing any diver. They are not too scared of divers either meaning you can get fairly close for a totally surreal experience.

Also on our trip we got to do a couple of night dives. The difference a few hours and the darkness makes is just astounding. A totally different set of life is seen at night. The turtles and the parrot fish go to sleep, the latter creating a cocoon of mucus around themselves, and the octopus and spanish dancers come out. In the dark there is no visual reference of your position in the water so you are reliant on your depth gauge and good buoyancy. It can be slightly unnerving at times. And if you hide your torch light you are immersed into blackness with only the disco-like flashes of other divers torches around you. What we weren’t told, is that lion fish are attracted by torch light. Although seen during the day, these fish are often more active at night and you must be careful not to get stung by one following your light!

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Leaving the harbour for our night dive

All in all, Egypt was an incredible place. The people are so, so friendly and helpful and although there is heightened security at the moment, never once did I feel unsafe. It is a beautiful country with so much to offer and such a lovely atmosphere. I can’t wait for my next visit! Since this trip I’ve written about, James and I have been back to Egypt, which I will write about soon! For now I’ll leave you with some more photos from a stunning holiday.

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Dolphins! Mother and baby
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Shameless selfie
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View from the surface
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Best dive buddy
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Underwater landscape
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Snorkelling on my surface interval

Thinking out loud

So some of you may be thinking after reading my last post, why on earth have we started a blog when we don’t plan to go off travelling for another 4 months??!

Well, I got a little over excited, as I’m sure many of you can relate. I was procrastinating trying to avoid writing my PhD thesis and decided to come up with a name for our blog, which turned into designing a logo, and now here we are. (As I write this I am yet again procrastinating…but it’s a Sunday so that’s ok.)

To fill the time between now and October, I’m going to be sharing some of the trips we’ve been on in the past but for today, I want to talk a little about mine and James’ travel expectations.

Seeing the world is something we’ve always wanted to do, although we didn’t know we were both thinking it until January this year. On our way home from an exhausting trip visiting family over Christmas, I jokingly said next year we should spend the holidays abroad. We started talking about it and decided that actually, once I finish my studying, this is the perfect time to go off and travel. James would be looking to change jobs in September anyway so what’s a six month break?

And I’m terrified.

Of what exactly? I don’t know. The unknown I suppose. Which I’m reliably informed is totally normal. I’d love to hear your stories of how you felt before your first big trip! Please comment below so we can read them!

We are lucky in that we both have supportive families who all think this is a great thing. And they all offer advice on what to expect, from tips on how to avoid getting ill, to how this is going to change our perspective on life. A little while ago I was watching Dara O’Briain and Ed Byrne in their three part series ‘Road to Mandalay’. At the end Dara said something which resonated with me and it’s that travelling doesn’t owe you anything. You come home with incredible memories of the times you had and how you felt in those times but to expect it to make you into a new person is, in most cases, a little too optimistic.

I may be totally wrong. I have no idea what’s going to happen or how things will change and that’s all part of the excitement. But unless we decide to never come back and keep travelling forever, I expect that in 10 years time, this period in my life will feel like a beautiful dream.

 

Next time… The magic of the Red Sea

 

Welcome!

We are James and Maxine and together we are going to write about our adventures across the globe. We hope you’ll join us!

We are a couple from London and met 8 years ago at our university scuba diving club. We have so far travelled to Egypt, Malta, Bermuda and the Canary Islands for our diving but have a long, long list of places yet to visit. It’s not all about diving though and we generally love the outdoors, hiking, exploring and testing our sense of adventure!

In four months time, we are setting off on a six month trip. James is quitting his job and we are heading to Asia, first stop – India.

Sign up to follow our progress and join the adventure…