A year in the life of a travel writer equals gratitude

While searching for a document I found this email summary of 1999  which I’d sent as a Christmas letter.  What a privileged life I’ve led, one I value and treasure it’s a sort of GRATITUDE LIST from just one year!

“I have swum in the Nile and Mekong rivers, in the South China and Aegean seas; and in swimming pools in Egypt and Thailand; Scuba dived and snorkelled off the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia;

I’ve studied Islam, Buddhism, Hindu and Chinese religions; was silent for ten days in a Buddhist temple and did a cooking course in Thailand.

food features large in my travels

Learnt to say ‘no problem’ in four languages, read junk novels, inspiring stories and travel tales as well as keeping copious notes for my own writing.

Been offered jobs in Thailand, Malaysia and Laos, and worked for 5 weeks in Athens, Greece. Had a proposal of marriage, a few propositions and some foxy flirtations.

Celebrated four new year’s: on the calendars for Christian, Islam, Buddhism religions and the Chinese one.

Stayed in little villages, large cities and islands.

Climbed: up into Buddhist temples, and down into tombs, up to sacred caves and over narrow planks to boats.

Travelled on planes, camel, horse, bus, songthaew, cars, trishaw, bicycle, dingy, fishing boat, felucca, truck, river taxi, train, and cargo boat.

Slept in beds, bunks, hammocks, fleapits and 4-star hotels, on a concrete slab; on a mattress on the felucca, and on the roof of a hostel in the old city of Jerusalem with 29 others!

I’ve danced. . . on beaches in Malaysia and Israel, in a Cairo hotel, on the banks of the Nile, as well as in Hindu and Buddhist parades.

Experienced monsoon rain and dessert dry; from 48 degrees centigrade in the Valley of the Kings, down to 12 degrees in the hills of Malaysia and needed a blanket for the first time for ages

Been blessed by monks and had water thrown over me by school children, ladyboys and farangs. I’ve played volleyball, frisbee, backgammon, scrabble, cards and petanque.

Eaten pigeon, fresh fish, fruit shakes on the beach, coconut straight from the tree, and copious amounts of rice and noodles. Drank water from the tap everywhere including on the streets of Cairo and am still waiting for tummy problems! Had my hair cut in men’s and women’s hairdressing shops, by people who spoke no English, as well as under a palm tree in Malaysia and in a garden bar in Athens by an Aussie

Made music with bongo drums, spoons sang Pali chants and both Thai and Egyptian love songs as well as playing drums in a traditional Malay cultural band.

Moonlight. Perhentian Islands

Taught English and swimming; became a grandmother in Malaysia and a mother-in-law in Thailand. And I’ve been called mum, sister and auntie, renamed Hedda, Hezza, Fox, H, as well as Pouhi (which I think is chubby in Thai!)

Ate in night markets, street stalls and fancy restaurants, in people’s homes – including the Minister of Health’s’ home in Malaysia!

Prayed in mosques, temples and churches of many religions. Chatted with monks, children, tourist police, street people and shopkeepers.

Witnessed funerals in Malaysia, Thailand and Egypt.

Swam with turtles and tropical fish and the most poison-ness snake in the world! In clean water, clear water, and polluted water; warm and cold water, calm and rough, blue and green; fresh, salty and chlorinated water.

Been to the toilet: on a boat -watched by kids on the riverbank; on swaying trains, in smelly dirty rooms; off the back of boats and developed good thigh muscles on the Asian squat toilets (which I missed when I arrived in Egypt.) Learnt to forgo toilet paper for months and used my right hand for eating and greeting!

Heather (L) joins in the fun of Thai Buddhist new year festivities

Sold beer and bananas on the beach in Malaysia, served pancakes, nasi-goring and BBQ on the same island and cooked countless meals in an Athens hotel cafe.

Been offered hash, opium, and marijuana and changed money and brought cigarettes on the black market.

Met people from all over the world was proud to be a Kiwi, ashamed of many westerners’ attitudes and behaviour. Joined the inverted élite snobbery of being a traveller, not a tourist.

Given blood in Malaysia, broken a toe, had an allergic reaction [written in 1999 and I now can’t recall what it was!]  and apart from insect bites have been disgustingly healthy.

And have kept developing my courage and resilience despite fears!

National park India

 

 

Despite the Covid-19 lockdown, I refuse to stop travelling!

Despite coronavirus in cities and countries being locked down, I refuse to be locked in – just as all my ancestors did in the mid-1800s – fleeing Scottish clearances, Cornish tin mine closures and the Irish potato famine.

And despite my trip to China – a river cruise on the Yangtze River  -being cancelled, and the fabulous Rainforest World Music Festival  -in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, being postponed until further notice, I refuse to be locked in despite the virus and, despite being compromised by age, nothing will stop me, travelling.  I remember a song from my parent’s era “don’t fence me in.”

Coffee in XIam, China

Travel writers have an affliction which, means they, I, we, are doomed to travel and as I said despite COVID-19 and the lockdowns all around the world  I am going to keep on travelling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday I was in Oman, today I’m in Dubai with my parasol and a few days ago I was back in my home city Christchurch,

Solitude, Wellington, NZ
Peacock Fountain, Christchurch Botanic Gardens

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve also been down on the Wellington waterfront I’ve seen some birds that I saw in India yet again and I’ve even been upright on a paddleboard in Fiji.

So, take that coronavirus you’re not going to stop me – my memories are too well embedded for me to be isolated in my lockdown bubble, I can, and will travel the world with my wonderful memories.

What a privilege, it’s been to have travelled so extensively and I’m grateful for the example my parents set of not wasting money, saving, and living frugally as required.  they also left me a small inheritance which, after a lot of earlier travel, enabled me to do even more.

I recall being on a plane -in 1995 – petrified that at age 50 I still wasn’t old enough to travel the world by myself (with no bookings).

If I run out of memories, I could be jogged by just some of my clippings or books.

So where are you travelling to while in lockdown? I’ve been to Alaska in bwZimbabwe I’ve been to London, Wales, and Borneo. I’ve been to the USA, Mongolia, Zimbabwe and had a river cruise in Europe – to name but a few.

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Big travel lies – and the the truth: I have an Ayurveda massage :)

I could tell you a great big lie about why I have massages when I’m travelling.  I could say it’s for research, or I could say it so I can write a blog, but neither of them would be true.

Sure, I may write an article or blog about a massage – and I confess I have one everywhere I go – but nearly always the main reason is pure pleasure and relaxation.  Of course, sometimes I  have tight muscles or a sore back and massages are my go-to treatment for them too.

About 18 months ago, while staying at the Kannur Beach House in Kerala, I gave myself an early Christmas present – the day before Christmas – and had an Ayurvedic massage, here in what must be the Ayurvedic capital of the world (Kerala) – the first time I’ve had one.

So, what is Ayurveda?  Firstly, the word is evidently Sanskrit and translates as the knowledge of life or life science. It’s a holistic way of living that combines meditation, yoga, diet, herbal remedies and massage.  Its beliefs include: everything in the universe is made up of elements, including ear fire and water.  It is the balance of these bodily energies, which governs our physical and emotional health.  According to a book I read at the beach house.  These were written in the ancient Hindu scriptures, The Vedas, which describes health as balance and illness, as an imbalance.  Imbalance can be set right through eating foods based on body type, proper digestions, physical exercise and yoga or meditation.

Enough of my research, what about the massage?

I arrived by Auto (a 3-wheeled, Tuk-tuk type vehicle) and was first interviewed about my health history.

She started with a head massage, which was lovely, and finished with my face being massaged at the end. It felt luxurious having very warm oil poured over me.  No oil on her hands but poured directly onto my body in copious amounts.

The massage included long dramatic, two-handed swirls and strokes from my foot to my fingertips.  Smooth figure-eight movements travelled all over the front of my body and included long sweeps over my arms and torso.  This certainly was a different sort of massage and not at all like a Thai massage or Swedish.

With great care,

I climbed off the oil-covered massage table – fearing I would slip right off. I thought that was the end of it, but no, I was then put in a steam box and wish I had a photo of the box with my head poking out.  I found it very claustrophobic and quite scary and asked to be let out after about 5 minutes, which she did gracefully.  A shower followed – with shampoo and body wash provided.

So, I’m not sure if the herb-infused oil used in the massage purified me, detoxed, cleansed or removed any toxins, but I can say it was a great massage and next time I’m back in Kerala I will return for another!

However, like all massage therapists each one differs: that first one was magic, it felt authentic, but then I had another one further south, which seemed more tourist orientated, and more like a regular massage> I’m pleased I was able to ask a local where to go, who they could recommend,  when I was at the Kunnar Beach House 😊

 

Changing ourselves

The power of Gandhi’s words – despite him apparently having feet of clay, at times, like us  – can still inspire us to change the world by changing ourselves.

Gujarat is the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi

Here are some of his most famous quotes:

#1:  “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

#2: “The greatness of humanity is not in being human, but in being humane.”

#3: “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

#4: “Change yourself – you are in control.”

#5: “I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.”

#6: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

#7: “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”

#8: “We need not wait to see what others do.”

#9: “A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.”

#10: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

#11: “To call woman the weaker sex is a libel; it is man’s injustice to woman.”

#12: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”

#13: “Love is the strongest force the world possesses.”

#14: “Nonviolence is a weapon of the strong.”

#15: “A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.”

Gandhi’s birthday, 2nd October. ( born 1869). Wellington, NZ

Taj Mahal – well worth visiting

I wondered if the Taj was worth visiting – after all I’d been before. Yes, for me it was well worth visiting –  but this remains my favourite photo from my first visit.

Water buffalo working at the Taj Mahal – early morning and the marble has a pinkish tinge

Did you know the Taj Mahal gardens are only a tenth of the size they were in the days of Shah Jahan? Designed primarily as Gardens of Paradise, they planted fruit trees for harvesting and which contributed towards the upkeep of the Taj Mahal.

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The trees – in the gardens now – are not of Mughal origin but a legacy of the British. During the British Raj, Lord Curzon initiated the restoration of the Taj Mahal after it had fallen into disrepair and made renovations to the lawns and surroundings.

Visiting the fifteenth century Taj Mahal for the second time was just is great as the first time.  As you know it’s a mausoleum, built on the south bank of the Yamuna River in Agra.

A combination of Indian, Islāmic and Persian styles it was commissioned by the Emperor Shah Jahan and he dedicated the building to the memory of his beautiful queen Mumtaz Mahal.  The Emperor died 23 years after the tomb for his wife was competed and he too is buried there.

My boatman

Some of the facts I heard while there were:

  • Over 1000 elephants were used to haul the construction materials.
  • Over thirty different types of gemstones decorate the Taj
  • Many types of marble were used – from Afghanistan, Sir Lanka, Saudi Arabia, and China.
  • The marble walls seem to change colour over the day – in the morning it seems pink, white during the day, while in the moonlight, it apparently seems golden.

I saw the Taj from about four different places: from beside, and on, the river; from the fort;  from nearby gardens, and inside the walls: my favourite view is from the river.

As I’ve said before – you will love India or hate it … this last trip was my fourth or fifth yatra to this diverse, tasty and colourful country

Birds on a misty morning below the Taj Mahal

Our first view of the Taj Mahal from inside the fences

Encounters with creatures in Udaipur, India

In India, architectural heritage is often linked to the major religions of the country: Buddhist stupas and monasteries; Hindu and Jain temples in  many styles – many share structural characteristics such as stone columns and horizontal blocks carved with sacred imagery or decorative motifs sculptures of the vast pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses are everywhere the various deities have many manifestations which becomes confusing as their names, like many Indian cities, are interchangeable.

Udaipur, Rajasthan, is a fairy-tale city with marble palaces and lakes – and I will blog about them later. In the meantime, here is a slideshow (23 pics) some of the local wildlife.

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Are there negative impacts to tourism?

When you travel to less developed countries, you might think that just by being there you’re helping give a better quality of life for the locals. Seems you, we,  could be wrong.

Just $5 of every $100 you spend stays local and  after searching I found the United Nations Environment Programme reference to the negative impacts of tourism here.

NOTE Seems the above  UNEP link is broken or has been removed  see  this one instead about sustainable tourism

Tourism is one of the most powerful change agents on Earth and we consumers must vote with our wallets and support local people with local businesses.”

I blogged about this issue (first published in a newspaper column) some years ago and reprint it here. I’ve also written a small book on the same topic A Love Letter to Malaysian Borneo  – and if you have read it I’d really value a review on Amazon or Goodreads. 🙂

Here’s that column I wrote . . .

What is an eco-tourist? Ecotourism?

Like Asians need rice, Italians love pasta, British their curry, and us Kiwi’s love fish and chips, I need to travel and being a traveller who writes means I get to visit where I want to go to rather than have to go the destination flavour of the month.

This means I’m often in places that are not on the tourist trail. As a slow traveller I can stay longer and get to know people, to absorb the local culture and flavour. This also means that although I don’t always sign up for an eco-tour, I practise many of the principles of ecotourism. But what is ecotourism – a word that’s often thrown around and frequently means nothing.

My understanding of the word and the concepts behind it are that’s it an activity that has minimum impact while providing maximum benefits to the locals.

I believe independent travellers are most likely to be the closest to being real eco travellers. They leave much of their travel money in the country while those who travel on tours often have paid for their whole trip before they leave home – giving very little to the country they are travelling in but adding huge costs – in water, sewerage, rubbish, roads.

Worldwide many places say they are providing an ecotourism experience but is that really so? It seems that as long as it has a nature component many claim it to be eco-friendly. That has not always been my experience.

Life on an Asian marine reserve sounds wonderful right? A great eco experience? Yes the natural sites and walks are fantastic; money spent on food and accommodation does stay with the locals providing it. Unfortunately, the big money is creamed the off the islands in diving lessons given by Europeans who come in for the tourist season then  leave, taking the money with them. Because of the lack of a robust infrastructure, the rubbish – that travellers complain about – is bought to the island by them: water bottles are not refilled, plastic bags and straws are left on the beach.

Have travel agents sold us too narrow views of places to visit? Given us a list of sights we ‘must see’ or activities to take part in? This produces problems all over the world with buses arriving in droves, disgorging visitors and fumes to see wonderful pristine or historic sights.

It reminds me of Lake Louise in Banff, Canada, where I too was a body disgorged from a bus to see the great views. I have proof that I was there – a photo of me sitting alone with the lake and mountains as the backdrop – it looks idyllic. However I know that beside me, waiting for their turn to have the moment recorded, is another busload of chattering travellers.

The problems of being poured into these tourist funnels will continue if we rely on unimaginative travel agents (and of course not all are) and the forceful marketing of those who have invested in areas. While it is more economical for planes and hotels to have us arrive together and stay in the same places it also creates problems for them – not the least is the strong chance of killing the goose that lays the golden egg such as the warning in the child’s story.

This is not a new problem. Read books written years ago and the same complaints are made. Tell others you are going to Bali (or Timbuktu) and immediately you will be told “you should have gone there ten (2, 5, 50 years ago,) before it was discovered.”

So, what can we travellers do?  I don’t know what you will do – what I do is travel slow, travel cheaply, and use local products when I can.

So, by combining the universal codes of pack it in pack it out and take only photos, leave only footprints, along with getting off the well-worn tourist trails means I’m able to enjoy my travels with a clearer conscience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best homestay in Northern Kerala – Kannur Beach House

The Kannur Beach House is a genuine homestay and owners Rosi and Nazir are your perfect homestay hosts: eating with their guests, at the communal long table, every morning and evening and willingly share their knowledge about local traditions, Malabari cuisine,  and places to visit when they’re asked. As another guest said to me, ‘this is a little slice of heaven.’ I agree. 

This has been a family home for about hundred years and around 2000 they built a replica building, alongside the original, to use for guests.

This is a must book beforehand stay as they have 6 rooms and many guests  – who often have stayed with them before, and many like me, stay for a week or more – so, for much of the time they are full, which is of course a great endorsement. I will willingly return here to do all the things I missed out on – I was there for a week’s R&R over the Christmas period, so was happy to just, successfully, chill.

My balcony

On the Malabar Coast in Kerala, and overlooking a brackish lagoon and Thalassery beach, this beach-house was perhaps the first in the region.

Kerala is a colourful mosaic of green hills, coconut groves, rainforests,  , backwaters, and beaches. Interestingly, unlike much of India, most of the Hindu temples are not open to non-Hindu.

Watch this space for more stories about the Kannur Beach house, food, and of course, only in this area, Theyyam, a ritual dance glorifying the mother Goddess, and which is a mixture of dance, mime, and music.

See an earlier post of photos of some of the birds I saw from the grounds of this delightful homestay.

Learn Indian cooking – hands on – in Kerala, India

‘Stir faster’ I’m told –  it seems Indian cooking is not for sissies.  Jacob, my tutor, said he’s not a good cook which didn’t sound promising, but then went on to say he’s a great teacher which was encouraging.

This hands-on cooking course takes one to ten days and there is no standing back and watching – it is a learn-by-doing course.  I’m here for 3 days and a real asset is having Madhu in the kitchen.  He is a great cook – he is also an expert in preparing everything we need: chopping, measuring, slicing, dicing, peeling, blitzing, and blending the ingredients.  Even better, he cleans up after we’ve done the cooking and taken the glory!

But before the reflected glory, I’m still ‘stirring faster’ and now expect my right bicep to have developed centimetres and strength before I leave Kerala.

the kiwitravelwriter tries to stir faster !

Jacob had introduced me to all the ingredients for my first vegetarian curry – and that’s a trick I’m taking home – this way nothing is left out of the dish.

Ingredients are all in order

All the ingredients are lined up in order of use – each container with the exact amount needed.  This happens every time we cook – we know the name of the recipe, the ingredients, and how to cook it before starting.  In keeping with the learn-by-doing method, we’re not given the written recipe until the dish is complete.

A lawyer for some twelve years, Jacob returned to this family land where, as a solo dad, and with his widowed mother, he farmed Haritha Farm for a while and, impressed by Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, Jacob stopped using pesticides. ‘I’m not an ecocentric or big crusader’ he tells me, ‘I’m human first and just thinking about the next generation.’

The 6.5 acres of land had been in rubber for some ten years and he has slowly ‘. . . turned back the clock. I’m recreating the old Kerala – a small holding which is self-sufficient, plus some to sell’.  The land is now producing many fruits, vegetable, and spices, including coffee, coconut, ginger, banana, papaya, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric, and of course jackfruit, a regional, carbohydrate staple.  It’s also growing mahogany and bamboo.  The bamboo is good for holding water and land as well as a cash crop for scaffolding.  He calls it ‘do nothing farming’ and it seems to be working well.

Part of his self-sufficiency and diversified income stream, are four stand-alone bungalows set on the hill behind the main house which he built as homestay accommodation. Sitting on the patio up among the mature trees, birds and squirrels, I realise this is a different type of Indian tourism, eco-agro-cultural. Most cooking classes are show-and-tell, this is a dive-in-and-do-it course.

Over the three days I’m reminded to ‘cook slowly’, to ‘stir constantly’ and, to ‘always have a smile on your face.’  A pressure cooker is essential in an Indian kitchen and I’m also told, ‘cook for one whistle’, or two, or three, depending on the dish.

Evidently Kerala cooking is very much like the state – a fusion state he called it.  Over thousands of years trading and the mixing of diverse cultures –  Egyptians, Romans, Arabs, and Chinese – all who bought their religions and food. Coconut, originally from the Pacific, is an absolute staple in Kerala, while rice, another primary food was rarely grown here. Of course, the various churches, mosques and synagogues alongside Hindu temples also show its chequered past as a spice trader.

Pimenta Homestay is about 1 ½ hours inland from Cochin but a thousand miles away in atmosphere.  Starting the day with freshly ground coffee, grown and roasted there, Jacob ensures his guests have an authentic experience of the culture and flavours of Kerala.

In between eating and cooking guests are taken to various places and saw activities in the area: this of course changes with the seasons.  As well visiting farms and food markets, I also saw rubber bands being made in the middle of a rubber plantation; clay pots being made by hand; and the dying art of cotton-weaving. I especially loved watching men decorate trucks with a riot of bright floral motifs, miniature landscapes and messages such as, Save Oil Save India; Prayer is Power; and the common, noise inviting, Horn Okay or Horn Please.

Unlike many tourists’ tours around the world these day trips are personal with nothing for tourists to buy – just great interaction with locals who are rightly proud of their crafts. Well done Jacob, you exude generosity and warm hospitality along with the mouth-watering food lessons.

©Heather Hapeta 2018

 

 

Birds of Northern Kerala – while at the Kannur Beach House

Just some of the birds I enjoyed watching during my week at Kannur Beach House, with Thalassery Beach, a river, plus a brackish lagoon makes it ideal for birdwatchers.