New posts coming soon
Dunedin, New Zealand: Still more photos & blogs to come from there. (from January 2014)
MALAYSIAN BORNEO lots more blogs to come incl. Borneo Jazz Festival: Miri, Sarawak and Rainforest World Music Festival Kuching Sarawak (Both these festivals are annual)
Volunteering with turtles and or orangutans
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Chaos, slums, beggars, pollution and poverty: India is so much more than this and I recommend you put one of the least visited states, Gujarat, onto your must-see bucket list.
Birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, a long coastline, this largely vegetarian area is astonishingly varied with huge cities, national parks, bird sanctuaries, majestic monuments, and temples – as well as locals who are extremely welcoming to travellers.
Ahmedabad (founded in 1411) is the largest city and has some of India’s finest Hindu and Jain temples along with Islamic monuments. The guided heritage tour of the ancient walled city is a necessity to appreciate the old ethnic diversity of the area. Up and down narrow streets we walk, into even narrower lanes and through secret passages these few hours flew by – some of us repeated the tour days later we loved it so much. The volunteers who are the guides are charming and informative – but keep your eye on where they are – turn the wrong corner and you will be lost! When your expedition is over, stay in Manek Chowk to explore the market and taste the food – then jump on a tuk-tuk and leave him to find the way back to your accommodation or next sightseeing destination and adventure.
This huge bustling city is a good base for day trips to explore nearby temples, step-wells and even birding areas: Gujarat has some 40% of India’s bird species and with large numbers of migratory birds also, it’s an excellent venue for bird watchers.
Known for their slow but steady success in protecting the last surviving Asiatic Lions in the wild, Gir National Park is a popular destination. There are some 350 lions now compared to the 20 when the park, their only home, created 100 years ago, and with a reliable water supply, it is also home to many other creatures – this is worth more than one days worth!
Interestingly, the Sasan Gir area, in the south of the state, is also home to village of African migrants who have lived there for generations. As well as living alongside, and in harmony with, the lions and leopards of Gir, they perform wonderfully energetic, traditional dances. People come from all over India to offer their prayers to the Peer (priest) who I understand is contacted through the gymnastic-like Dhamal dance.
One of my favourite areas was a corner of the 5-thousand square km area known as the Little Rann of Kutch, home to the beautiful and endangered Indian Wild Ass (Ghudkhur) of which there are only some 2000. Few other animals can survive this harsh environment, although, as these desert salt flats flood to a depth of a metre every monsoon, it’s also home for over 350 species of birds, and where I saw the rare, and shy, McQueen’s Bustard.
Also endangered, in different ways, are the families who live in this arid setting, eking a subsistence living from harvesting salt for eight-months each year. My small donation for their hospitality seemed meagre despite being told it was appropriate, and enough for a ‘big bag of dhal” according to my guide. Next time I will take a gift of jandals (flip-flops) and milk too. I visited two families on different safaris and was charmed by their friendliness, and their willingness to share stories of generations of being salt-workers. (Agariyas)
The salt is produced by pumping, with small pumps, the underground brine up about 14 metres: it then takes four months to crystallise, a harvesting technique unchanged in centuries.
In their shack, right beside the pump, lives an inter-generational family who serve me tea in the old Indian way, on a saucer.
“Because we work in the saltpans, our feet become septic and they absorb the salt. Nobody lives more than 50 or 60 years,” a grandfather tells me – through my guide.
Locked into a religious and cast system that seems impossible to move out of, he sees no way for his family to escape the cycle of poverty and poor health. Despite the low wages and appalling conditions, they will continue to leave the villages on the edge of the desert to labour all day for eight-months each year.
The history of Gujarat goes back to the times of the Indus Valley Civilisation in 2500BC and the culture, architecture, food and history have amalgamated to create an exciting region.
India is a land of contrasts and colour, of culture, festivals and seductive cuisine and Gujarat has it all: I recommend making a list of places or types of things you want to see, contact a local tour company and ask them to create an itinerary from that list, or make recommendations, and for ease of travel, supply a car and driver for much of your trip.
A must-do is the free walking tour of Ahmedabad and see my posts – search Gujarat on right
NOTE: For my Gujarat travel arrangements I used J.N.Rao Tours, Ahmedabad.
Tip – to say Ahmedabad – sound it out like this “arm dar bad”
Recommended places for bird watchers
- Porbander Bird Sanctuary
- Thol Sanctuary
- Little Rann of Kutch
- Sasan Gir
In middle-eastern or Asian countries people are often sad, or amazed, that I’m happy to be travelling alone and some women on dating web-sites appear fearful at the thought of being alone.
It seems this fear of being alone is almost primal in many – equating being alone to being lonely. Not so.
Years ago I also feared being alone and often contrived to have people around by having parties, marrying, living or sleeping with men so there was someone in my life, that I was not alone. Nevertheless, being surrounded by people did not guarantee I wasn’t lonely even though I was ‘not alone’ and at times, could still be alone in a crowd.
I have now learnt how to be alone, whether I’m in a group of people, alone at home, or traveling the world, and not be lonely. Here are a few photos of me alone!
Living in cities, with a family, or even traveling, sometimes means it can be hard to be physically alone so it’s a valuable skill to be able to be alone in your mind or emotionally no matter how many people are around you.
Hermits and mystics choose to spend much of their time alone. A pilgrim, whom I met on the north bank of the holy Narmada River, in the centre of India, was spending three-years, three-months and three-days on a Parikramavasis, a thousand-mile circumambulation of the river. It is a spiritual quest, for self-realisation, or a thanksgiving for favour asked for or received, or just an act of love, with just as many reasons for the walk as there are people who undertake it. Despite being dependant on people for food by their alms, this sack-clothed man was mostly alone but did not seem lonely.
Women behind a burka can choose to be alone by using the cloth to create a barrier between them and strangers while at other times, still behind the same material, in small or large groups, are laughing and enjoying each other’s company – or talking to me, a stranger. Old age too can confer a barrier, albeit not chosen by the person. This wall is an invisibility cloth placed by over them by the people close by and much to the recipient’s distress or anger.
Language, or rather the inability to speak a language, is another obstacle that can force you to be alone while surrounded by people. As a travel writer, travelling alone is essential and even when separated by language I know I can always break the verbal barrier by ‘talking’ with signs or gestures – all the while chattering in English to non-understanding ears. Silence also allows me to be alone when I hear the occasional English voice in a non-English speaking country – allowing me to eavesdrop on unmonitored conversations while staying alone with my observations.
So how, apart from solo-travel, can you learn not only to be alone, but to be alone and not lonely. For me it started with needing to radically change my life; to change many friends; to stop throwing parties, to stop using alcohol, and learning to mediate.
At first the task of being alone for ten minutes with no coffee, no music, no cigarettes and no people was impossible. Without those props, within 2 or 3 minutes I would rise from the garden seat to pull out a weed or go inside to check the time: “surely I have been sitting here for ten minutes” I would say to myself: the apparent tyranny of living alone can lead to talking to oneself!
And, over the years of practising meditation and trying to still my mind, I find my mind is peopled with imaginings. As Oscar Wilde said “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train”, and I never sit alone without ‘something sensational’ to think about. As he also said “serious writers … are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists”. I stand convicted: I can, and do, enjoy the wanderings of my mind and entertain myself for ages, so never feel alone.
So how to be alone? For me, it’s living in the now and, enjoying my own company while knowing I can change being ‘alone’ at any time I choose – it just takes practise.
Like the Nike ad says “just do it’. you will no doubt find, like I did, the fear of being along was purely in my imagination – you are stronger and braver than you realise.
See my book, Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad, for more ways I learnt to be alone. It tells of my solo travels around the world, age 50, and which started with me being full of fear on the very first flight – Auckland NZ to LA, USA.
The Dunedin Chinese Gardens were high on my ‘to-do’ list and I suggest you put them on yours too. Along with the Scottish settlers, the Chinese have been in the Otago region since 1863 (incidentally, the same year my mother’s family arrived on Banks Peninsula, from Cornwall.)
This Chinese Scholar-garden, Lan Yuan, is tucked in beside railway tracks and the Toitu OtagoEarly Settlers Museum in the city centre – on the corner of Rattray & Cumberland Streets. It’s the only authentic Chinese garden in New Zealand and in fact is the first in the Southern Hemisphere and one of less than half a dozen outside China which surprised me.
Despite being in the city, it is an amazingly peaceful and quiet place and I know when I’m back in Otago I will revisit this wonderful garden.
Look at the photos and I know you too will love them.
(Extract from Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad. Available from Amazon and all other e-book sites, for Kobo, Nook, Kindle and others – if you have read it, I would really value a small review (on Amazon, Goodreads etc) so others know whether to buy a copy – seems many only buy on reviews)
. . . The sixties were an important time for me too, flower power or blooming idiots we were called. Idealistic, the first of the baby-boomers, we wanted to change the world – the American civil rights movement and television was the catalyst for many. For me they started in 1960 when South Africa demanded that no Māori could be in the All Blacks rugby tour to South Africa. ‘No Maori. No tour’ was the call from many New Zealanders and it became my first political stance. I was at high school; Vietnam and women’s issues followed and this museum brings it flooding back. Feeling drained, I eventually leave and return to the hostel and go to bed early. Tomorrow will be la crème de la crème – I’m off to Graceland.
Local buses take me the 16 kilometres (10 miles) to my goal. I’m wondering if I’ve missed the stop when I see ‘his’ aeroplanes and ring the bell; it’s time to get off. Heart pounding, I walk to the ornate wrought-iron gates – I’m going to Elvis’s home: it’s right in front of me, perched on the top of a little rise and smaller than I’d visualised. A guard stands at the gate.
‘Sorry Ma’am, you can’t come in this way. You need to get a ticket over the road’ and points at what looks like an Elvis Disneyland. Although frustrated in my plans I ask him to photograph me at the gates, then cross the road.
Despite my initial distaste, I’m swept up into the atmosphere as I wander through a few shops then buy the expensive ticket that will allow me back over the road – a short wait then I’m invited into a mini bus.
‘Welcome to Graceland. This is a great time to come to Graceland. The house has just been decorated for Christmas just as Elvis did. He loved Christmas and we try to keep things just as he would,’ our guide tells us. We drive to the road, wait for the lights to change, cross the busy road then through the gates I’d been turned way from. Within two minutes we pull up in front of the doors my hero went in and out: I’m here, I’m breathless and it’s not the mansion I’d expected. I’m welcomed again and given a hand-held audio cassette player to guide me around the house.
The dining room first: I’m surprised the small room as it’s so formal and made even smaller with people milling around the table, set for a traditional Christmas dinner.
‘What a ghastly colour scheme.’ A woman says as she looks around the living room frozen in time – the 1970s colours of orange and black. I want to explain that HE would have changed it had he been alive, that this was the fashionable decor of the time but I bite my tongue. I want to sit and absorb the atmosphere; rest on HIS couch; soak in HIS presence, imagine HIM jamming with friends. It’s not possible so continue slowly through the house.
Gazing up the stairs that lead to the out-of-bounds bedroom: I imagine how I’d have slept there if he had married me – like my youthful dreams visualised.
A thick peanut butter sandwich awaits the King and I’m pinching myself. Am I really here? Right where HE ate? Exactly where HE sat? I push the rewind button and listen to his voice repeatedly.
Continuing on to the stables, through the collection of records and clothes in the trophy room, I spend ages reading the plaques and gazing at the small paddock where he rode his horse, trying to visualise him there and eventually I’m at his grave in the Meditation Garden.
I was driving to work in the early morning light when I heard he’d died and was appalled most of the staff didn’t see his death as a moment of import. In the following days I played and replayed his records: crying. No more new music, no films – he’ll never marry me now I sobbed; my kids thought I was mad – perhaps they were right.
I’m horrified I didn’t think to bring flowers for his grave. I take photos around the Elvis-pilgrims who are spoiling the moment for me and soon I’m back in the mini-bus to return over the road – wishing the others would shut up, stop contaminating my mood with their noise.
Walking slowly around the museum I sit and watch film excerpts, climb into the planes, gaze at the powder pink Cadillac, the Harley Davidson golf-cart and then ring New Zealand – my daughter’s out of her office.
I leave a message on the answer-phone. ‘Guess where I am! I’m at Gracelands! I’m at Gracelands!’ I gloat. I buy tapes, a book then reluctantly leave. If only he waited for me – such are the dreams of a 50-year-old-woman-going-on-16.
I leave a message on the answer-phone. ‘Guess where I am! I’m at Gracelands! I’m at Graceland!’ I gloat. I buy tapes, a book then reluctantly leave. If only he waited for me – such are the dreams of a 50-year-old-woman-going-on-16.
Just a few of the native birds I saw at Zealandia this morning. Free bus from downtown for visitors
I didn’t expect to find butterflies galore in Dunedin New Zealand. However the Otago Museum has them in abundance in their Discovery World Tropical Forest, and delight all who see them – including me.