Monday, 23 November 2015

A big Buddha and a numb bum

On our last day in Hanoi I decided to map out a walking tour of the city visiting all of the sights we'd missed during our time there. I started our tour at Hoan Kiem Lake by visiting the Ngoc Son Temple, which enjoys views back out across the cityscape. After that we walked North towards the centre of the Old Quarter, through all of the shops and stalls. Each street has its own product, so you'll have fruit street, shoe street, scarf street, bag street and so on.

We made regular stops at cafes packed with locals for iced Vietnamese coffees (which I'm now totally hooked on) to keep out of the scorching heat of the day. We finished our tour back near the lake and had a lunch of raspberry granita for starters followed by two scoops of salted caramel for mains (I can do what I want, I'm on my jollies!) at my favourite ice cream shop, 'Fanny'. 

After lunch, and as if four hours of walking wasn't enough, I decided to take us for a full circle of the lake. By this time it was about 4pm and we were into Golden Hour. People had finished work now and were sitting with friends around the lake, eating and drinking, some doing crafts, some chatting and laughing together. It was a lovely relaxing stroll after a day in the hustle and bustle of the city.

The next morning we were collected from our hotel and taken to Bai Dinh, a massive Buddhist complex rising up from the hillside. As we were fighting the traffic out of Hanoi I commented that despite the number of vehicles on the roads, you never see any accidents. I hadn't even finished my sentence before we heard a crack and our minibus had hit a cyclist. Later we saw a truck cut down the middle by the central reservation with its cargo of watermelons spilled across the road. I'll learn to keep my mouth shut.

 Bai Dinh is not an ancient site like some of the pagodas we've seen, but was built between 2003 and 2010. To get to the big Buddha at the hilltop, you have to climb 600 steps passing 592 enlightened Buddhas, every one in a different pose, on the way. And I have to say, I was feeling pretty enlightened myself by the time I reached the top. Or do I mean light headed? 

The view from the top was well worth the effort though!

After Buddha mountain we continued on to Trang An Grottoes where we boarded a small wooden row boat for a 2 hour paddle up the Sao Khe River through a series of limestone caves. The water levels change throughout the seasons so sometimes it's impossible to get a boat through the low caves. We were just able to get through, but we had our heads between our knees most of the time. Outside the caves and back on the river we enjoyed stunning views of the surrounding mountains and a rare quiet with only the sound of the boat's oars slapping rhythmically away at the water.

After two hours on a wooden bench my legs had pretty much forgotten they were attached to my body and I fell out of the boat and stumbled away like I was 89. I was quite relieved to sit on a cushioned seat when our driver picked us up for the 2 hour drive back to the hotel.

Back in Hanoi we had time for a very quick dinner before rushing to the train station for our overnight sleeper train to Hue.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Good morning Vietnam!

I've missed south east Asia this year so I thought I'd book myself a little trip before Christmas as a respite from the dreariness of British winter. So I find myself in Vietnam, land of the dragon and many, many motorcycles (4 million of them to a population of 7 million in the capital alone).

First stop, Hanoi, the nation's capital, the city that gets so hot in summer you can fry an egg on the pavement.
Day 1 was a city tour taking in some of the most popular sights including the Vietnamese museum of ethnology and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex (a traffic free (yay!) area of botanical gardens, pagodas, monuments and memorials. This is also the place of Vietnam's first university (established in 1076) and a popular destination for recent graduates in cap and gown queuing up to have their photo taken in various spots around the Temple of Literature.

On  the second day we had an early start with a long drive to Halong Bay where we boarded a traditional Vietnamese junk ship for an overnight cruise of the bay, navigating our way through the 1969 islets that punctuate the landscape.

After a hefty lunch of fish, fish, fish, followed by some more fish and then fish for dessert, we hopped onto a smaller boat for a tour of the fishing village where our lunch had just come from. The people of the village live on the water, some in small stilted huts held afloat by empty barrels, others live simply on small row boats with nothing but a raggy tarpaulin to protect them from the elements. Even children and pets live aboard these tiny homes where cooking, eating, sleeping, washing and working all takes place in a space no bigger than 2 metre squared, about the size of my bathroom at home.

Until recently, people from the fishing villages had no education so the older generations can't read or write. Their children, though, do receive some schooling, but only to infant/junior level - if they want to continue to secondary, they must go to a school on the mainland, which their parents would have to pay for. When the time comes to marry, they will almost always marry from within their community and continue life in the fishing village.

The evening meal was fish, fish and erm... fish. It was as if they'd phoned my mother and asked her what foods I don't like and then served them all together - fish, lemongrass, watermelon, banana and coconut. The food was beautifully prepared, and everyone else loved it, it just wasn't ideal for a non fish eater. I did make myself try everything though, and even faced my fear of shrimp - served with their coats on and their legs on show, I bravely undressed one, shut my eyes and popped it in my mouth, forcing myself to chew and swallow. Then I puked over the side. (I didn't, but it was a close call).

After dinner I went squid fishing off the back of the boat with a bamboo rod, a spot light and some wishful thinking. I was good! I caught a shower cap!
Next morning we jumped aboard the small boat again for a trip out to Hang Sung Sot (Surprise Cave) which is a massive cave system set high above the rocks with thousands of stalagmites and stalactites, including my favourite, known to them as the pointing finger; I call it the cock rock.
After the caves, another big fishy lunch (including squid from last night's fishing expedition. They didn't serve my shower cap though!) before heading back to the bay for a four hour drive back to Hanoi. 

Monday, 24 August 2015

Is that a baby hippo?

Anyone who knows me will know that no trip of mine is complete without a bit of wildlife spotting. So I could hardly travel all the way to Africa and not go on safari could I?! Obviously not.

As Zambia is but a hop skip and a jump (ok, about 8 hours) from Nkhata Bay I decided to book onto a trip (with Tubby Tours) into South Luangwa National Park, said to be one of Africa's best kept safari secrets. This place is home to 4 of the big 5 and lots of others as well, but most importantly, I was guaranteed hippo spottings, perhaps even hippo camp site encounters. Take my money, TAKE IT ALL!!

The drive was long. And dusty. And uncomfortable. But I had great company and chatted most of the way, slept some of the way and wriggled about trying to stop my ass going numb 95% of the way. When we finally arrived it was already going dark and we had missed our night safari, but pulling into Croc Valley, we were surrounded by monkeys, elephants and, by the river.... HIPPOS! So we had a little wander around camp before sitting down to a three course meal, followed by beers in front of a log fire over looking the river. A long day of travel and load shedding equalled an early night tucked up in our tent, listening to the hippos Ho-Ho-Hoing in the not-so-distance and talking till one of us fell asleep.

The next morning was a 5am start. Our group of 8 piled onto the safari truck, binoculars and zoom lenses at the ready, and set out into the National Park to find us some wildlife. 

Before even reaching the park gates we'd come across a small herd of hungry elephants munching at the side of the road so I knew it was going to be a successful day.

Inside the park within minutes were more elephants, giraffes, zebras, impala. Next we saw a lonely hyena stalking a deer.

I proved myself to be absolutely terrible at wildlife spotting. 

Me: Is that a baby hippo?
JR: No, Kat, that's a warthog.

Me: Is that a crocodile?
JR: No, it's a log.

Fortunately others around me were much better and within 20 minutes of arriving in the park we were hot on the trail of a leopard casually following a deer. 

We drove slowly behind her for quite some distance; she was not a bit bothered. We watched, breath held, as she slunk along in a ditch, pausing now and then to sniff the air, sticking her head above the parapet to check on the position of her prey. 

We were urging her to pounce, but she was in for the long game and seemed quite content just to watch, as, in the end, were we.

Our next spot was a pack of juvenile lions, sunning themselves around a bush. There were seven of them, all fast asleep. We pulled up barely metres away from them, so close we could almost hear them breathing. 

You can easily see why they're known as the kings of the jungle, they are truly majestic. They move with a haughty sense of importance that no other animal seems to have. 

After the lions, we headed back to camp for a big brunch and to relax for a few hours before our night drive. Our morning drive had been so successful I had high hopes for the evening, although we were warned that we probably wouldn't see much. It was true, we didn't see as much, but there was still plenty to keep me happy. Hippos, for starters. Hundreds of them wallowing in the river, with the constant backdrop of their comedic deep belly-laughing. After pointing my zoom for 10 minutes I managed to get the shot I had wanted - a yawning hippo. I was happy now if I didn't see anything else. I'd got what I came here for.

As the sun went down, everything was bathed in a rich salmon pink glow and our final sight as the sky burnt red was this family of giraffes standing watch over the plains.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Early monkey wake up call

Now travelling with the boys from Engineerswithout Borders, our trip to Nkhata Bay was much longer than expected, but then this is Africa, so I suppose that was to be expected.

The bus was supposed to leave at 11.30 am and after being told that we had a seat, then that we didn’t, then that there was no bus today, then that there was a bus but it was full and finally there was a bus and it was full but if we could squeeze on we could get on it, we eventually started boarding at around 1pm. Tight squeeze does not even come close. I quickly became an intimate acquaintance with the next guy’s armpit and had a small boy ask me if I’d marry him (of course, I said yes - he had a bag of sweets). When we spilled off the bus in Mzuzu at around 8.30 we had another hour in a taxi to the Bay. By the time we arrived we could barely stand; we ate and went straight to bed.

The next morning I was woken early by what sounded like a herd of angry pigs charging my cottage. When I went to investigate, I was greeted by hundreds of monkeys chasing each other around and play-wrestling right on my doorstep. It was amazing to watch. 

The little ones were bouncing up and down together and running circles around a big rock in front of the lake. 

I must have watched them for about an hour before, one by one, they disappeared back into the trees and I was left alone in silence with the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen.

That morning we travelled back into Mzuzu to give a talk at the University about the bicycle powered water pump that EWB have been developing. The pump is very simple and low cost, and uses a very simple system to pump water from Lake Malawi into farmers’ fields.

Later, back in the Bay, we spent the late afternoon enjoying the quiet tranquility of the lake. I’m not one to sit and relax very often, but you just can’t help it at this place. Everyone is super friendly; we were staying at Butterfly Space (a unique, non-profit, volunteer community project which brings international volunteers and the community together - more on that another time) and pretty much everyone was there working or on some kind of volunteering programme, so it was really nice to get to know people and hear their stories. It’s somewhere I could quite happily disappear to, never to be seen again.

With new friends in tow, we decided to have an explore around the town part of the bay and had a wander through the market, had some lunch (which, again, took a lot longer than expected!) and eventually strolled back up to Butterfly for dinner and drinks overlooking the water.

The nights at Butterfly consisted of drinking and talking, playing pool (badly) and stumbling back to my room in the pitch dark in the early hours. The days were spent meeting important folk, such as the Minister of Agriculture,  door-stepping people and making important contacts to help the EWB boys make their project a success.

Five short days passed in a blur. If ever there was a place I could go back to, this is it.

Next stop – SAFARI!

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Is it a croc or a gator?

It seems that Malawi is a bit of a mecca for Sheffield alumni and I have been bumping into them in one way or another all week.

Today I paid a visit to the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre in search of their famous one eyed lion Bella, who was rescued from Romania. The centre is actually run by two alumni from the University of Sheffield, and as I'm here on university business I will be going back out to meet them towards the end of my trip. Today was a pleasure trip.

I was surprised by how many people were at the centre. Your entry fee includes a guided tour of the sanctuary and there's a tour leaving on the hour every hour so I expected there to be, maybe, five or six other people joining me. I was one of about 40 people, most of whom were Malawian families. It's obviously popular.

We headed straight for the reptiles and found two alligators sunning themselves by a stream. Our guide, Henry, told us that they had been sterilised because if they were allowed to breed, they could have up to 60 baby 'gators creeping about each year and they'd soon become overrun. You can tell these are alligators and not crocs by the shape of their jaw - crocs have a pointy jaw where alligators have a shorter, more square one. I didn't get close enough to check, so I took Henry's word for it.

Next were the monkeys, always a favourite of mine because watching them is a bit like people watching. I love how they always look deep in thought like they've got something really important on their mind and how they behave towards their babies, just like a human mum would (except for picking and eating fleas - I've never observed a human mum doing that).

The serval was hiding behind a tree so we didn't get to see her, which was a shame, but Bella the lion was sprawled out by the railings of the park, gazing out beyond. Bella had glaucoma in her left eye and it had to be removed so unfortunately she'll never be released back into the wild. For most of the animals at the centre, though, the plan is rehabilitation and release.

Apparently 4pm on a Sunday afternoon is not the best time to visit the centre as a lot of the animals were asleep or hiding, as was the rock python who we could just about see coiled up inside an old tyre. Better there than coiled around your ankles, I guess.

Last stop were the baboons.

The lazy sleepy baboons.

If you could just say Aaaaaa sir...

Friday, 7 August 2015

Azungu, Azungu!

I have just arrived in Malawi to work on water and sanitation projects with students from the University of Sheffield.

The first thing I noticed as I stepped out of the airport in Lilongwe was the light. No matter what time of day it is, everything is bathed in a warm rosy gold light. There seems to be an overall feeling of happiness here, at least for me. As I sat in the taxi from the airport and chatted with the driver, I couldn’t help but let the smile creep across my face. I knew instantly that I’d love it here.

After settling into the lodge, I caught up with the students to learn more about the projects.

The first of two projects that I’ll be working on is called Tapping Potential, run by Enactus Sheffield, which takes a 3 pronged approach to supporting a better life for people in communities just outside the capital, Lilongwe.

As water borne diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea are such big killers here, educating about cleanliness is very important. The first step; clean water. The team will be teaching local school leavers to maintain the boreholes in their villages to provide their people with clean water. We will also be teaching them how to explain to people why using clean water, rather than water from the river and streams is so vital. Step two is soap. We’ll be supporting the group to set up a business where they will make luxury soap, which they can then sell on to the villages and hotels in the area. The proceeds from the soap business will not only give our school leavers a living wage, but also brings us to step three: medicine. Without medicines, countless people die each year from water borne diseases. Profit from the soap business will go into buying medicines for the local clinics. So, it’s a very simple structure, but one that could change the lives of many in the community.

On our first day we drove an hour to the village where we’ll be carrying out the training to meet the school leavers that we’ll be working with. 

We spent some time doing icebreaker exercises and then moved onto teaching about sanitation and business skills such as sales and marketing. We explained to the group that we will be helping them to set up their business, but that it is THEIR business and it is for them to run as they believe is right. We will give them the skills to make it a success, but then it’s over to them.

At lunch we ate a traditional meal of nsima (pronounced seema) – a porridgey dish made from maize flour and water, which is served in a big lump that you have to break off and roll in your hands before dipping in a watery tomato based sauce and eating with cabbage and a boiled egg. It’s an incredibly filling dish which isn’t entirely offensive, but no matter how much of the nsima you eat, the mound never seems to go down!

 In the afternoon we did more team building and training before heading out on a rescue mission to a remote village an hour away where one of our vehicles had broken down. As we drove through villages the setting sun turned the sand and bricks a warm baked orange as the streets came to life with children playing and people selling fruits, fly-covered meat and used clothes by the roadside.

When we pulled up alongside our broken down 4-wheel drive, kids flocked out to see what we were doing and began showing off for my camera. 

They all enjoyed posing and then looking at their pictures on my LCD screen. One of the really little ones was terrified of us because he’d never seen a white person before and stood wailing behind his older brother’s legs, peeking out now and then to see if we’d gone. When we asked the kids their ages we were surprised to find that they were twice as old as we thought; they are so tiny, no doubt due to malnutrition. Despite the hard lives these kids must lead and uncertain futures ahead, they all seemed perfectly happy.

 After a quick jump-start and a bit of tweaking, both cars were back on the road. As we drove away, we were followed by the call of ‘Azungu, Azungu!’ – ‘White person! White person!’