Sunday, 9 January 2011

The final farewell...

Written by Tom whilst waiting for our flight from the Andamans:


As we sit in the airport in the Andamans with the sun shining outside and the birds singing in the trees, waiting to board a plane that will take us one step closer to the UK I guess the phrase “all good things must come to an end” has never felt more fitting! I’ve been thinking the last few days that a final farewell blog post might be appropriate but have been unsure exactly what to write. Since we have a bit of time now before we board I thought I’d give it a go.

Looking back over the last 15 months I actually can’t believe how far we’ve come and that we are finally at the end of such a huge journey. We set out on this trip not knowing where it would take us, what would happen along the way, how long it would last or what we would see and experience. Elizabeth and I spent our last night on Havelock island in a bar having a few drinks and reminiscing. What was amazing was that even in a few hours of talking through the trip in the order that things happened I think we only made it to French Polynesia (ie not even halfway round the world). It really is incredible how many experiences life can give you in such a short period of time (especially when armed with a backpack and a sense of adventure). 

Travelling around the world has long been an ambition of mine, a personal goal I have often dreamed about but never really known how to achieve.  It’s amazing what obstacles you can believe exist for yourself when contemplating taking a leap of faith and heading into the unknown. I can now say with this dream accomplished I can’t believe I almost let short term fears stop me from chasing it. The thought that I could have postponed and procrastinated long enough and let the opportunity slip by is almost inconceivable now. And whilst it feels great to have actually travelled the world it is without doubt (to use the phrase) “the journey and not the destination” that matters. The greatest thing about achieving a dream is not necessarily it's completion but rather the experiences and adventure life gives you along the way. It’s these experiences and adventures that I will take with me as memories for the rest of my life. 

We were talking with some travellers a few days ago who were asking about our trip and I heard myself saying that I wouldn’t change a single thing about it. And when I think about it, I genuinely mean that - not one single thing. The good, the bad and the ugly. The truth is I feel that even with the odd disaster we’ve had (like that rather unfortunate motorbike accident that left me unable to walk for a couple of weeks!) I have learnt things about myself and the world that I could never hope to sat in an office for 12 hours a day. The trip has deeply affected the way I think about life (I know how clich├ęd that sounds from someone who’s been travelling but I genuinely mean it). People ask us “aren’t you tired of travelling, don’t you want to go home and sleep for a few weeks?” etc, but the truth is that whilst travelling is sometimes tiring, the trip if anything has given me an even stronger sense of adventure. Not necessarily just for travelling (although I do want to do a lot more of it) but for life, my career, having fun, relationships and pretty much everything else.

It’s my genuine hope that our travels might act as a source of inspiration for anyone else who is in that exciting moment in life of thinking ‘what if...?’. And on that note, I’ll finish this post, if I may, by saying the following: to anyone out there who may be reading these words and contemplating pursuing something, a dream such as travelling the world or anything else life changing (and frankly the pursuit of a big goal is always life-changing) I would like to humbly offer two simple words of advice: Do it. Trust me on this, just get out there and do it. I think there are some things in life you simply will never regret and I firmly believe that chasing your dreams is one of them. Life really is an amazing gift, a privileged opportunity we should make the most of and for me a life with this simple pursuit is a life well lived. With that piece of personal philosophy I shall sign off for the last time in this chapter but watch this space – dreams are contagious and tend to breed more dreams! I can’t wait to find out where the next one will take us...



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Written by Elizabeth since returning:

With Christmas and New Year over and done with and while its snowing again outside, its almost unimaginable to think that only three weeks ago we were sunning ourselves on the Andaman Islands! Firstly I agree with everything Tom has written above – our adventures around the globe were incredible and when I think about all the places we saw and things we managed to do I really do feel so lucky. But before I go on to talk about our future plans I feel I ought to finish the blog where we left off...

We flew back to Chennai from Port Blair, only to discover from the “Airport Manager” that Heathrow had been totally shut down. Snow. Not quite the metre or so you might expect to force one of the world’s busiest airports to close, all in all about six inches. Hey ho I’ll refrain from complaining about the UK and its inept ability to deal with such minor incidents (where else in the world are trains cancelled due to “leaves on the line”?!) Luckily for us British Airways very kindly offered to pay for a 5* boutique hotel, which when compared to our previous night almost caused me to jump with joy (obviously I played it cool...) So after 24 hours in a plush hotel room (wifi costing more than two nights’ accommodation in our usual standard of hotel) we trundled back to Chennai airport and finally boarded our plane – one of only seven being given the all clear to land at Heathrow that day. 

Yes the flight was emotional - there were profuse tears – but there was also some amazing scenery over the Middle East which sowed a seed for another trip. Eleven hours later we touched down at a whiter than usual Heathrow and all the thoughts we had anticipated having when we left nearly 15 months ago came pouring back. Everyone always says “nothing changes” when you’ve been away, but I actually think London did feel different and not just because it was bitterly cold and akin to a ski resort! After talking it over we’ve come to the conclusion that maybe we’re the ones who’ve changed.


A very cold and snowy Heathrow. Not quite the Andamans!

 

Now at the end of the first week of January, with the prospect of moving back to London on the horizon, my feelings of nervousness are actually turning into excitement. As we’ve said the trip really was amazing and I would set off again tomorrow if I could, but the real world is calling us so “Wizz and Tom’s (next) Big Trip” will have to wait... We hope you’ve enjoyed following our adventures, the blog has definitely been a worthwhile memento and I hope will continue to inspire us to pursue our wanderlust in the coming months and years. 

Finally back - the bags that took us round the world in snowy London

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Andamans – wow!

The chain of islands that make up the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are situated 1000km east of mainland India and rightly so feel very remote. Several areas within the island chain are still off-limits to tourists and are inhabited by various indigenous tribes living relatively untouched by modern development. Now cutting to the chase the Andamans, Havelock Island in particular, are truly stunning.


As the trip continues to draw to a close our transportation seems to be getting less and less reliable (much more to follow in another blog post) and late on the eve of our flight from Chennai Tom nipped out to the internet cafe to check emails, he returned with the words “We have a serious problem”. Kindly Kingfisher the airline we were due to fly with had sent a one line email notification along the lines of “Passenger please be aware your flight has been re-scheduled from 1040 to 0400”. Bearing in mind this was less than 12 hours prior to departure and the flight had been brought forward to the middle of the night we got onto the phone to Kingfisher to get to the bottom of it. After three phone calls of “absolute” reassurance Tom firmly asked the customer service officer to double check with his manager as we wanted to be 100% sure we weren’t going to miss our flight by arriving at 9am for check-in. True enough the flight time had changed. So a slightly stressful start to the final 10 days of the trip but once we arrived on Havelock and saw where we’d be spending our time all stress eased away...

Literally our first view of Havelock's beach no 5 situated right behind
where we were staying
I could say how we island-hopped to explore the archipelago, snorkelled everyday and trekked through the jungle to spot animals unique to the islands, but frankly we didn’t. Instead after 15 months on the road, we dug our toes into the sand and lay back to relax! That said we did manage to muster the energy one day to scuba dive around a couple of cool dive sites.




Whilst in India I’d come across an article online about the Andaman’s swimming elephants. One afternoon whilst sunbathing on what TIME magazine rates as Asia’s best beach (it was very nice) I spotted a large slow moving creature in the distance, Tom and I looked at each other, grabbed the camera and Flip and sprinted down the beach to catch Rajan (the local trunked celebrity) in action.



We went to the Andamans with the aim of a relaxing finish for the end of our world tour, we certainly achieved it. The islands really are a tropical paradise, largely untouched by commercialised tourism and populated with very friendly locals. We couldn’t help but think what a brilliant way to finish our travels!


The Portuguese pimple on the face of mother India

In India of course there are cows on the beach!



I’ve come to the conclusion that the Portuguese explorers definitely had an eye for gorgeous coasts and only ever seemed to arrive in paradise – Brazil is stunning, former colonies in South East Asia always come with picturesque beaches and fishing villages, Mumbai is set on the calm blue Arabian Sea and then there’s Goa which again definitely doesn’t fail to impress the sun, sea and sand loving kind.

Before heading straight to the beaches we spent a day or two in Goa’s little capital Panaji where the International Film Festival was in full flow bringing in big names of Bollywood from Mumbai. The town had a nice buzz about it as we strolled along the river front and admired the Portuguese architecture.


Apparently 14th century sailors from Lisbon would clamber up to the church on arrival
in Goa to say thanks for the safe crossing
Statue of an 18th century Goan priest, Abbe Faria, "the father of hypnotism"

 


To start winding down the trip we headed to Palolem beach for a few days (popular with Russians) as well as spending a day on both the quieter Agonda and Patnem beaches. Goa does feel very different from other parts of India and the most noticeable difference is the food. Tucking into fresh fish and coconut curry was delicious.







To continue our whistle stop of southern India we continued into Kerala, one of the most prosperous states in India and the first place in the world to freely elect a communist government (which for once seems to have worked!) Fort Cochin has a totally mixed history of Portuguese spice traders, Chinese fishermen, Jewish settlers, Syrian Christian and Muslim residents. Fort Cochin is still an important spice trading hub of India and wandering through the back streets there were huge sacks of spices ready to be exported.

Ancient Chinese fishing nets


A little further south Alleppey is the starting point for tours into the Keralan backwaters – a huge network of rivers and canals that feeds the rice paddies inland. We decided to skip the expensive and touristy house-boat option and stayed in a home-stay on the banks of the backwaters. Our hosts were Matthew and Beena, an extremely welcoming couple who have lived in the backwaters for most of their lives. We took a couple of bikes for a morning to explore the villages – it was so peaceful and for a change people were moving at a steady, relaxing pace. With Christianity being the main religion there were small churches dotted all along the river banks.


The government in Kerala has long been communist and most people within the state attribute Kerala's impressive stats (highest literacy rate in the developing world, lowest infant mortality rate and highest life expectancy in India) to the democratic-socialist blend of its politics 

Tom catching dinner with Matthew





Modern farming makes things a bit easier in this part of India. In other places around the country we've seen people doing this kind of work by hand (or with a water buffalo if lucky)


Feeling well and truly relaxed (and well fed thanks to Beena’s home-cooking) we headed a couple of hours south to Varkala, one of Kerala’s well-loved beach towns. A few days of yoga, time on the beach and good food in Varkala we embarked on our final mammoth train ride across the country to Chennai. Unfortunately a late in the season cyclone set in on the day we were travelling which resulted in a panicked scramble to catch our overnight train from its new departing station three hours away leaving in three hour’s time. We weren’t terribly optimistic that we’d make the train as the bus we were travelling on drove past totally submerged villages and temples with only the tops of the roofs poking up from under the burst rivers. Finally we did make our destination and with a rickshaw driving at full speed we reached the train a few minutes before it departed the platform. 16 hours later we arrived in Chennai, our final city before the Andaman Islands and home!
The sunset at Varkala

Mumbai and suspected malaria

As we were now very much on the home straight through southern India we opted for a cross-country flight from Kolkata in the east to Mumbai on the west coast rather than a not so brief 33 hour train ride. We’d contacted a guy via Couch Surfing and headed to his residential part of the city. Couch surfing always gives you a different take on a place compared to visiting as a true tourist in a hotel. We spent a couple of nights with Chan and as the Ashes had just started our cricket knowledge was put to shame (not for the first time).

Cricket at the Oval Maiden in central Mumbai

Mumbai wasn’t the huge modern metropolis I had in mind. The city centre is reasonably compact and there are plenty of historical sites to check out and according to statistics more than half of India’s most populous city live in slums.
The Gateway to India overlooking the Mumbai Harbour
 

"The Victoria Terminus is to the British Raj what the Taj Mahal is to the Mughal empire"
The roof of the Victoria Terminus, Asia's busiest train station 
Bombay University had the same designer as St Pancras Station
By our second day we decided Tom ought to see a doctor as he’d starting feeling dreadful in Kolkata and still wasn’t feeling any better. The doctor immediately advised he have a Deng-Mal blood test as India seems to be suffering from Dengue Fever quite severely at the moment and of course Malaria is always on people’s minds as they travel. All results were negative so we breathed a sigh of relief and put it down to some dodgy beef momos (steamed dumplings) that he’d eaten in Sikkim a week or so earlier (the blood tests did show that his intestine was working overtime).

Kolkata aka Calcutta aka London on the Hooghly



To be frank we didn’t have high expectations for the “Black Hole” - with Delhi as our only reference as a major Indian city, along with the understanding that poverty is a serious and inescapable problem, we were both pleasantly surprised and ended up spending more than a week in Kolkata. There is of course severe poverty, as we started to realise it seems there isn’t a town or city in northern India that doesn’t suffer from hardship, and Kolkata still has men pulling rickshaws (a common sight was a bare-footed impoverished man running exhausted with two large wealthy women sat in the carriage behind) but compared with Delhi it is a far more orderly city. For a start there is a definite lack of free roaming cows and for a change it is an Asian city that actually has pavements!

Laundry on the banks of the Hooghly

There is of course still a lot of hardship in the city
Our first few days were spent sight-seeing which included a visit to the most bizarre Indian Museum. Never have I seen before a pickled “fully grown abnormal human baby” or a three-headed goat floating in a jar. The Victoria Memorial along with the BBD Bagh area of the city are both clear reminders of the British rule.


The Victoria Memorial
 



The rather odd Indian Museum
 The second part of our stay in Kolkata was a true highlight and eye-opener. After more than a year of gallivanting we were keen to volunteer and I suppose try to give something back to the world. India had always been the place we envisioned volunteering so when we arrived in Kolkata we contacted a couple of NGOs and were lucky enough to help over a weekend with an Indian-run NGO called CRAWL http://www.crawlsociety.org/

As a relatively new organisation it operates on a very local level with just a handful of full-time women dedicating their time to the projects. We joined Bobby and Gita, two extremely accommodating women, who literally held our hands as they involved us in a project they carry out at Sealdah railway station – one of the two busiest stations in Kolkata and home to a large number of destitute families. Arriving at the station shortly after 6am and already in full flow for the day, we sat with a group of homeless children colouring and playing with them for an hour or so. It might not sound overly valuable but as these children have long since lost their childhoods it was clear to see that just by playing and showing them affection they were hugely thrilled. On day two as we approached the meeting point some of the children from the previous morning sprinted through the station towards us and gave us tight bear-hugs. After an hour’s play we helped to give the kids a wash at the station’s drinking taps and handed out toothpaste. Finally we took the children around the side of the station (bureaucracy means very little help can actually be offered on the station’s premises) and handed out breakfast (a banana and a couple of slices of bread along with a cup of milk) to each of them. As this could well be their only proper meal of the day they queued up patiently before waving goodbye to us. Tom and I both fell in love with the children, for all the adversity they are faced with they were such lovely innocent kids who just wanted a bit of love. I’ll never forget the absolute delight on one little boy’s face when I sat next to him and put my hand on his back as I looked at his drawing.


During the afternoon sessions we jumped on the local train to the north of the city to CRAWL’s “informal school” – basically a rented room where they offer a basic education to children from the local slum. We were both apprehensive prior to our Arts and Crafts lesson with the class but once we explained our idea of making collages with pictures of India and England, the children immediately got to work and by the end of the lesson had produced really impressive displays. Again these children were great to teach and really welcomed us by calling us “aunty” and “uncle”. As we were leaving the school, Bobby in true big-hearted Indian style declared “I love you!” and hoped to see us again one day soon.


The children were extremely studious
 








Before we left Kolkata we had time to visit another NGO’s projects. Hope (www.hopefoundation.ie) is a well-established Irish charity that has been operating in the city for the last 13 years and provided us with some good ideas for CRAWL to try to replicate. The extent to which Hope is helping turn around former street children’s lives and offer opportunities to the poorest parts of the community is seriously commendable.

The insight we gained from volunteering definitely gave us a better understanding of the overwhelming poverty that India still must tackle as it continues to develop its bourgeoning economy.