South America, Travel

A hostel made of salt, volcanic geysers, and a night on Lake Titicaca…. my continued adventures through Bolivia and Peru

An endless expanse of blue sky, and white so bright it burns your eyes, there’s literally nothing for miles around… and it’s bloody cold. The Uyuni Salt Flats are the main reason so many travellers (including me) are keen to include Bolivia in their travel bucket lists. I’ve been lucky to see some mind-blowing places in the last few years, but the landscapes of Bolivia are like another planet.

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If you’re going to go, there’s no point doing the one day Uyuni tour that only includes the Salt Flats. Like so many of these things (like the Taj Mahal for me in India), sometimes when you have seen a dramatic picture a thousand times, the main event is actually less exciting than the surprisingly incredible side-show. So it was on the Uyuni tour, where, fantastic as the salt flats are, for me they were overshadowed by the spectacular lagoons, crazy cactus island, wildlife, and volcanic geysers.

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Getting the famous mind-bending perspective shots on the salt flats is actually harder than it looks. Our lovely guide Herman, while thankfully not a drunk-driver (apparently a common problem on these tours- so beware!)  was also the world’s worst photographer, and it was kind of hilarious as much as it was frustrating that between all of us we found it literally impossible to get both us and a plastic dinosaur/beer can/hat in focus at the same time. Here are some terrible examples:

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Never mind. I was never going to be the type to get insta-famous anyway. We watched the sun disappear into the salt flats, and then drove on a few more miles to our hostel… which was made of salt. The floor, the walls, the table and chairs… one of the weirdest places I’ve ever stayed.

There are so many mind-bendingly beautiful lagoons in Uyuni, surrounded by mountains, each glowing their colour namesake ‘azul’ and ‘verde’, reflecting the minerals that are rich in their make-up.  Without a doubt the highlight is ‘Laguna Colorado’, the red lake. Inhabited by flocks of flamingos, it really was other-worldly, and I had to stop for a long time to remind myself it was real.

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The place we stayed that night was pretty bleak. It was so far in the middle of nowhere, and they only get electricity for two hours a day. Having worked for the last three years at the awesome international development charity, Practical Action, which amongst many things seeks sustainable solutions to ensuring off-grid electricity access in rural and impoverished parts of the world, I finally got a genuine glimpse of what that means for the reality of people’s daily lives. People were so poor here they apparently couldn’t afford plates from which to eat breakfast, and there was only one place in the village that evening that had heating… a bizarre little shop/pub in the middle of nowhere. We bought an incredibly bottle of disgusting Bolivian wine and tried to warm up around the wood-burner…

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On the last day of the tour, you wake up at 3 am. I’m not generally happy to do this for anything, but the chance to see volcanic geysers at sunrise is a good incentive. I feel like I’ve said this a lot about Bolivia, but it was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen… getting out of the car felt like landing on Mars, if Mars smelt like the unique evil of  post-egg curry farts. The ground was alive… literally belching and rumbling underneath us. As we peered, fascinated, into the bubbling pits, we were warned not to breathe too much sulphur and to walk on the right side of where wind was blowing boiling steam into the atmosphere, or risk being burned.

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Bathing after in a hot spring fuelled by the volcano has to be the best view I’ve ever had while taking a bath.

After briefly returning to the city of La Paz, and stumbling into the Gran Poder carnival (picture below) I continued towards Peru and Lake Titicaca, ‘the world’s highest navigable lake’.

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From the Bolivia side, you can visit the lovely but unremarkable ‘Isla del Sol’ from the little sunny town of Copacabana. The experience from Peru, in my view, though, is much more exciting.

Most visitors come for one day and experience only the Uros ‘floaitng islands’. Here, 1200 people live on 87 floating islands that are literally made of reeds. Three metres of reeds are constantly replaced as the bottom rots away, and they use sticks to anchor themselves in position. These people fled the shores of Lake Titicaca to form this bizarre existence in order to escape colonial violence, and have been there ever since, now living only from hunting, fishing, tourism, and selling textiles. They have been adversely affected by climate change, as our very wet experience of the ‘dry season’ demonstrated, but even there they have made attempts towards a better future- with solar panels installed in the reeds in order to power the radio. It’s an awesome thing to see, but no doubt somewhat Disney-ified, and incredibly touristy.

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If you have more time and want a more authentic experience, take the boat a further three hours to Amantani Island. Here I stayed, with two friends, with an Amantanian family overnight on Lake Titicaca. Staying on this unspoilt island is like stepping back into the 1950s, and provides excellent hiking opportunities, if you can hack the altitude, to the shrines on top of the hill to ‘Pachamama’ and ‘Pachatata’. In the evening there was a live band playing Peruvian music, we were encouraged to dress like the locals (see Mel and I looking bangin’ below), and spent one of the most bizarre nights of my life with about 50 people (locals and tourists) doing a kind of high-speed sideways conga to Peruvian pipe music, fuelled by local beer… we slept well.

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Watch out for my next blog as my adventure continues through the west coast of Peru!

food, vegan, vegetarian

My guide to veggie/vegan eating in Bolivia

Before going travelling, I spent three months as a vegan- having tried Veganuary, found it surprisingly easy, and decided to carry on. I’d been a veggie for 16 years- having given up meat at 9- but had only just made the connection and the next step- to cut dairy and all other animal products. Lots of people asked me ‘are you going to continue when you’re travelling?’ and I said that I would try to do so most of the time, but suspected I may need to revert to vegetarianism at some point.

I was right. I know some people manage to just about live as a vegan out here- but it requires serious dedication, pre-planning, and basically never being able to eat anywhere with friends, and sitting in the corner of a hostel eating peanut butter out of a jar instead. As much as I love the last activity, after a couple of days here it became obvious that for me, vegan would be too difficult. Vegetarianism is well understood in South America, but veganism is barely a concept- although there are some great little restaurants and cafes trying to change that. As it is I’ve managed to do vegan 70% of the time, but I have reverted to eating cheese and eggs occasionally… On the short tours I’ve taken (2/3 days exploring the islands of Lake Titicaca, and the Uyuni salt flats) the only non-meat or fish option has been omelette… omelette… more omelette. I have no idea how you’d explain veganism in Spanish, to people with very little means doing what they need to survive, but I think you might starve.

However, I want to write about those little awesome beacons of the plant-based life that are dotted all over the continent to give some guidance to other veggies and vegans travelling in the region. Though it’s usually possible to get a veggie option in restaurants, it tends again to be- omelette. Or tomato pasta. Or pizza. Without a doubt the best  (and usually vegan) food I’ve found has been in the little veggie cafes and restaurants.

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In La Paz I was lucky on the first day to stumble into Restaurante Vegetariano Armonia, a little vegetarian restaurant over a bookshop, in the bohemian district of Sopocachi- all the best things in one place! Armonia only opens for lunch, but offers an incredible buffet between 12 and 2.30pm for just 34 Bolivianos- around £3.84. I ate two huge plates of mixed salad, fried plantain, potato cakes, spinach fritters, and veggie rice, and had to stagger back to the hostel after for a nap.

The other veggie haven in La Paz has to be Namaste, a funky hippie haven easily within reach of the main market. The extensive menu of delicious and healthy options includes tofu and peanut Thai  veg stir fry, empanadas, soy fritters, lentil burgers, nachos, and burritos. I had these gigantic tacos, stuffed with veggie mince, salad, and guacamole. They set me back just 29 Bolivianos for a huge and satisfying dinner.

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I couldn’t help returning the next day for the set menu lunch, which consisted of a salad with the most delicious dressing I’ve ever had, soup, vegetarian lasagna (which I must admit was a bit cold), and fruit in some kind of rice pudding. Again, only 25 Bolivianos- and they do great coffee too!

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In terms of street food, it’s quite disappointing that the local favourite- salteñas- basically Latin American pasties- are mostly full of meat and potato. However, in Sucre there is one place- Salteñeria Flores– that offers a veggie option. Hot, stodgy, and full of beans and veg, it’s a cheap and satisfying-if not mind-blowing option.

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Another favourite street food in Sucre are papas rellanas– which are served everywhere for breakfast. In the week I spent in Sucre learning Spanish, I often went in the morning to the spectacular Parque Bolivar to buy one or two of these treats for breakfast. Con huevos, is basically a veggie scotch egg- a boiled egg wrapped in mashed potato, and deep fried. There is also a queso option which is flat and has chunks of cheese melted into the potato- and again deep fried. You can either eat them there in the park, out of a plastic bowl with a teaspoon, next to all the locals on little stools, or take them away in a plastic bag to eat at home with a good English cuppa. Good for the waist? No. But the soul, yes. And only 3 BOB each- around 32p!

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The other fantastic thing for veggies are the markets- with fruit and veg stacked high and sold so cheap. Best of all are the freshly squeezed fruit juices, which would set you back four times the cost at home and have several times the flavour here, with fruits you’ve never seen before easily there to try. Just make sure you ask for it sin leche as there is a local habit to add milk to juice for some reason (yuk!), and also sin azucar if you prefer your sugar natural rather than added.

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Sucre is a veggie paradise and the one place I think it would be doable to be vegan 24/7. Without a doubt the best place is the Condor Café, which is also home to the Condor Trekkers, an eco-friendly local touring company which is not-for-profit, and puts its proceeds into local projects such as building roofs for schools, and teaching children about health and hygiene in deprived areas. It does dirt cheap and huge cheese empanadas, delicious falafel and avocado sandwiches, and another bargain-a-licious set lunch menu.

Prem is mostly open for lunch times, but serves awesome and huge seitan baguettes, fresh juices, and set menus in a friendly little place just off one of the main streets.

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El Germen is another great find with a huge menu of vegan options, including a ridiculously cheap 12 BOB veggie burger, quinoa soup, veggie lasagne, and veggie curry. I went with the tofu curry, having been missing protein substitutes, though I have to admit it was quite bland and not really what I’d call a curry. Still- healthy, and cheap, and I still went back the next day for a veggie burger which was much better.

In Copacabana, I was extremely surprised to see a vegan food cart at the bottom of the main high street- and sad as it is, could hardly contain my excitement to have hummus for the first time of weeks. Selling veggie burgers, falafel wraps, hummus sandwiches, vegan brownies and flapjacks and energy balls, this cart belongs to Hostal Joshua nearby, which also has a vegan restaurant- though sadly only open until 8 so I missed it the one night I was there, but on the basis of the sandwiches definitely worth checking out if you are there.

So- I’m now travelling over the water of Lake Titicaca to continue my tour of veggie eats into Peru- wish me luck!

Travel

Latin America, baby! Cholitas, Pachamama, rock bands and protests… my first impressions of urban Bolivia

Swooping into Laz Paz from the Telerifico (cable car) is the best way to experience a city for the first time. The lives that are somehow built into the jagged rocks of the dramatic mountain face that frames the city spill out beneath you… the shanty areas of El Alto, the millions of rows of little houses stacked on top of each other, the winding streets, the larger, gleaming buildings, the little green plazas that are dotted around all over the place…

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The markets are where you really find the heart of life in the city. In the main market in the centre of the city, piles of fresh fruit and vegetables in every colour under the sun are stacked high, gleaming red, green, orange, purple…. . Tables of eggs, and cheese, and spices, are everywhere… and toys, and books, and rip-off dvds, and beauty products, bras… They don’t have supermarkets as we know them, because everyone comes here to buy from their Cholita.

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Cholitas are the indigenous Aymaran and Quechan ladies that come to the market to sell their wares. Ever seen the typical postcard picture of a lady in a wide skirt, bulky knitwear, a small bowler hat perched on her head, and long thin plaits that end in pom-poms? She’s a Cholita, and yes that is how they dress day-to-day. Allegedly, the position of the hat signals their relationship status to passers by: straight on means married, no chance- on the side of the head? Single, potentially ready to mingle. Perched on the back of the head? In a relationship, but it’s complicated…

If you really want to buy everything you could ever need, you should head up the mountain to the El Alto Sunday market. It’s said that if you have your phone stolen you’re likely to be able to find it in this market. The biggest market in Bolivia, you can find everything from cheese graters to car parts.

The more touristy, and probably best known market, is the so called ‘Witches Market’. There aren’t really potions sold here anymore, though there is a powder that is supposed to cure the difficulty men sometimes have er… rising… in the high altitude, as well as a ‘love potion’. The main curiosity for most are the dehydrated llama foetuses that hang ominously from stands along the winding street. These are an offering to ‘Pachamama’, the goddess worshipped by the indigenous Andean communities, a fertility goddess or ‘mother earth’.

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At night, there is a thriving live music scene in La Paz. I was fortunate to meet with Monica, who works in the La Paz office of the charity I had been working for before my trip, who was an incredible host, showing me the coolest local places to go out, and how to party like a Bolivian. La Costilla de Adan is the height of hipster-cool, a speakeasy bar in the bohemian area of Sopocachi (where I was staying in a great hostel called The Greenhouse). There is no obvious entrance to get in, so you have to know where it is, or be lucky enough to have friends to pull you through the un-assuming door… into a bar which is an oasis of antiques and nick-nacks from all over Bolivia including dolls, books, record players, old signs… everything you could ever find in a flea market. They sell wicked-cheap cocktails, too.

From here we went to see a gig at Equinoccio by the local band ‘Atajo’, which Monica described as ‘a Bolivian fusion group against hegemony and domination, its lyrics are questioning everything all the time, with great rhythm, like cumbia/reggae/blues/rock’. Always down for resisting hegemony, I was well up for it. The energy in the place was insane, so although I wasn’t able to understand a lot of the lyrics (though Monica tried to translate in breaks) it was an incredible night out, the band supposedly in their last ever show returning for encore after encore as the audience screamed for more. We even got a sweaty hug with the lead after.

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Politics, and resistance to it, is a strong theme in the city of La Paz. The clock on the government building has time seemingly going anti-clockwise… and why? As a mark of resistance against the historical dominant influence of the northern hemisphere over their country…  because the clock has evolved from the sundial, and while sundials in the northern hemisphere show shadows going one way… in the south, they go the other. It is a mark of resistance, and independence, and about returning to its Southern roots. And I can’t help but respect that.

Another form of subverting global dominant powers is that Bolivia refuses to have any McDonald’s restaurants…. one of the few places in the world! It seems, locals would rather buy their fried snack-goods, like their groceries, from local traders. And for that they have a huge piece of my heart.

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Though there have been protests in the last few years, President Morales seems on the whole to be respected in Bolivia. He has made huge progress in increasing education and prosperity in the country, and it seems that people love him for that. However, he is not free from controversy. Apart from staying in office a term longer than is customary… with no sign of moving anywhere in the future, he has had some wacky ideas. He apparently warned against eating chicken, because the hormones might make you gay… and Coca Cola, because it makes you bald… and was spotted in the same week eating chicken with Coca Cola. Go figure.

More seriously, though, in an effort to increase the low population of Bolivia, he suggested introducing a tax on condoms, to make them unaffordable to the average person. Needless to say the health minister stepped in highlighting why this would be a potentially catastrophic idea… thankfully it is still possible to buy condoms in Bolivia (though the brand name Masculan makes me chuckle).  I also heard tell on the street that Morales put forward a proposal to tax childless women, who weren’t pregnant, in order to try to solve the same problem. Women, naturally wanting to be treated as people, rather than reproductive machines, took to the streets to protest until he was forced to retreat on the issue.  However, Monica disputes these allegations, and says that the system now is rather to give tax breaks and benefits to women with children, in order to encourage motherhood.

One protest that can’t be disputed, however, was a huge uprising in support of our favourite yellow family, The Simspons. When The Simpsons was taken off the air in Bolivia and replaced with a reality TV show, thousands marched in the streets, some even dressed as the Simpsons themselves,  and as bottles of  Duff beer, to demand they returned to the television! And you know what- they were successful. Now The Simpsons shows in Bolivia three times a day. So who says political protest doesn’t work?

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It was an incredible, vibrant and varied first week in a new continent. In my next blog I will share my experience of the other side of Bolivia-  the wilds!

Love and peace,

Helen

Travel

Crazy for Kerala: a friend’s wedding, and a love letter to India

India blew my world apart in 2015. It was the first place I ever travelled to outside of Europe, and that trip, taken at a time when for various reasons I was feeling depressed, anxious, and insecure, was the best decision I ever made. It was the happiest I had ever been; seeing new crazy things every day, being constantly challenged, and surprised, and amused, and awed in turn- by the people, the culture, the landscape, the food. It made my world bigger, as well as my understanding of what is possible from life.  It is thanks to that trip that I decided I had to change the rest of my life in a way which would incorporate seeing as much of the world as I possible. I had found a reason to live fully and finally understand what that means; and that it doesn’t come from textbooks, grades, job security, or sometimes even relationships.

For this reason it is a country that holds a very special place in my heart; I love the generous natured people, I  love their literature (which was the basis of my Masters dissertation), and of course I love their  food. I always hoped to go back for a longer term trip next time, but when I was lucky enough to be invited for my friend Deepak’s wedding in Kerala shortly before my trip to Latin America I was desperate to go. Last time I had spent three weeks travelling in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, and here was the chance to see the other end of the country. And my god, I knew India is diverse, but it’s a different planet.

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Driving through Kerala is a lush panorama of green on all sides; palm trees, coconut trees, banana trees, jackfruit trees…. And endless expanses of water- the sea, lagoons, and rivers.  It couldn’t be more different to the harsh desert landscape in Rajasthan, where water scarcity is a serious issue for the people and is often rationed.

After being welcomed by Deepak’s family, we spent the first three days having some much needed rest and relaxation on Cherai beach, which, even when overcast, was a hot and beautiful expanse of sand and palm trees. We stayed in a beach hut on stilts a few steps from the sand. It seemed there were no foreigners around. (This proved to not be true- if you follow the only sign for ‘cold beer’ in the town- there you will find them- all huddled in one bar with an amazing sea view). We had fresh, hot, deep fried chillies, served everywhere on the beach- especially delicious if you get them straight out of the fryer. It was hard to tear ourselves away to go back to the hot city of Cochi, but the promise of an epic Indian wedding was a pretty good incentive.

We had a pre-wedding dinner with Deepak’s lovely family, then the next day had an 8 hour bus ride to the bride (Nida)’s home town. Hari, Deepak’s Dad, told us the pre-wedding dinner was just a ‘small family gathering’ and ‘no need to dress up’. Thank god we decided to anyway.

As the bus drove on to the island (!) on which Nida’s family live, we heard drumming and saw out of the window a huge marquee, and a procession to announce that the groom had arrived. We walked down a path behind it and the drummers moved into the marquee (really not adequate to describe the size of it) lit up in purple like a disco. There were speeches, a cake cutting… Nida looked stunning. An incredible array of food; veggie down one side, meat and fish another, a separate dosa counter… and dance and song tributes to the couple all night. I guess there were a couple of thousand people at this ‘small family gathering’…

The next morning the women of our group got roped (quite literally) into our sarees until we could barely breathe or walk- seriously! Thank god they looked good because they are not comfortable or practical to wear.

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The stage had been reset overnight in gold for the wedding, with a pillared gold canopy in the centre framed by two smaller ones, and real roses woven into the framework. Somehow, us  bunch of ten foreigners that made up Deepak’s friends, were allowed seats in the front row to witness the ceremony.

The bridesmaids (I assume?) began the procession, in a colourful array of sarees, carrying fans with incense billowing from the centre. There was a parade down to collect the groom. Deepak sat on the stage, looking nervous but excited.  Then they collected Nida, who , if possible, seemed to be wearing more gold than the stage, her hair and makeup immaculate.

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The ceremony was very much  about the coming together of two families, and both appeared with the bride and groom on the stage. I didn’t quite  understand all the ins and outs but will try to describe them. The Hindu priest, a tiny, hairy man wearing a dhoti blessed the families, Nida and her father binding hands.  Deepak led Nida around a circle in the centre of the stage three times, and then they exchanged garlands (the equivalent of rings). The groom’s sister, the lovely Divya, was to fasten the necklace around Nida’s neck that made her officially a part of their family. They were married. Then just a casual three hours of photos, while the rest of us went for lunch.

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Lunch was a huge array of vegetarian curry, pickles, rice, popodoms, and three puddings, on a banana leaf. How do you cook for 5000 people? See below!

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After the craziness of the wedding we had a day out to explore the famously beautiful Keralan backwaters.  We spent a blissful morning on a larger ‘houseboat’, watching life on the river drift by. After stopping for lunch, the afternoon was then spent in smaller ‘dugout’ canoes, which took us through narrower rivulets, past children playing in the cool water, people washing clothes, beautiful birds, and even a river snake.DSCN1587.JPG

The following day was the after party- in which Deepak and Nida were fashionably late, their presence announced  by a stream of fireworks down the central aisle as they were lead by a troupe of dancers to the stage. Again, the whole of both families were welcomed to the stage, with what I can only assume was some banterous rhetoric about each person- though a friend tried to translate from the Malayalam, we got odd words displayed on a screen for us foreigners- like ‘cauliflower’ and ‘selfie’. I tried to keep up.

After we had said goodbye to the bride and groom, a small group of us went on to Munnar, the most beautiful place  on earth. All you can see for miles around are glimmering emerald mountains, covered in tea plants. Shrouded in clouds (literally, try taking a tuk-tuk back at night and you’ll be swamped in them), it’s like walking into a mystical fairy tale.

We took a jeep at the crack of dawn to try to see the sunrise over Kolukkumalai, the world’s highest tea plantation. Unfortunately due to Indian sense of timing, and our friend Will holding us up  for 15 minutes having a dump, we actually missed it. The jeep ride was insane- ‘off road’ doesn’t really cover it, and we all came out quite bruised.  However, the photos prove it was worth the views.

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If you come to Kerala you must not miss the Kathakali shows. This is a form of traditional dance enacting parts of the Ramayana-  an ancient Hindu epic poem. The pictures show the incredible costumes- I wouldn’t want to spoil the plot but it seemed to involve jealousy, violence, divine intervention, and eating intestines and rubbing them in people’s hair… yup.

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This was followed by a traditional martial arts demonstration which was out of this world! Seeming superheroes performed battles so fast and insane our eyes couldn’t keep up… leaped through fire, and jumped over about eight audience members.

I will never forget the incredible two weeks I spent in Kerala and all the things we saw, but most of all I am grateful to have come to know Deepak’s family, who made the whole experience so much richer. I have never met more genuine and giving people- so thank you to Bindu and Hari, Divya and Ajith, Joby and Neeraj, and the many more who made us feel a part of your family. We friends from England will always make sure that Deepak has a family in our home, too, and that your new daughter and sister Nida will be welcomed in the same way.

Love and Peace,

Helen

human rights, humanitarian crisis, Migrant crisis, people, Politics, Refugees

‘Dangerous migrants’- a portrait of the real former inhabitants of the Dunkirk refugee camp

How many more can we take? The ‘swarm’ on our streets! We must stop the migrant invasion!

These are real headlines from the Daily Mail concerning the refugees that have fled to our shores in increasing numbers in the last couple of years as a result of growing instability in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

There have always been global wars, violence, and instability, but there is no doubt in the last years the world seems to have got darker. Civil war, ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and further catastrophic bombing by intervening foreign powers, have forced more people than ever to flee their homes, lives, families, and friends, in search of safety in Europe.

In the mean-time the flux of new arrivals has made many people in the UK and the rest of Europe very afraid. It is understandable. Though I am proud to live in a multi-cultural country, and believe it is an inevitable result of our history of colonialism, followed by globalisation, and modern technology enabling easier freedom of movement, there is no doubt that the landscape of Britain has changed rapidly in recent decades. People have had to adapt to people from different countries, and cultures they struggle to understand, arriving in their neighbourhoods. There is a human instinct to be protective of your territory, and family. This fear is liable to be greater if you are already struggling, and people living in severe austerity as a result of the inequality within our own country are naturally more inclined to be concerned over competition for jobs, local resources, etc. Evidence has shown that refugees granted asylum in the UK are also most likely to be placed in the most impoverished areas, that are least able to cope with the growing demand. And in this environment, the media has capitalised on this anxiety to spread fear, suspicion, and hatred towards refugees. There has been a deliberate language choice to favour the term ‘migrants’; implying that these people have travelled for endless months, largely on foot and unsafely hidden in lorries, because they fancy a change of air, rather than because they are fleeing persecution and death in their own home countries.

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Having returned from volunteering at the Dunkirk refugee camp on the day it burned to the ground, I wanted to share the stories of some of the people that I met, to put some faces to this seemingly faceless threat, and show that these people are humans with lives and fears, and families, and hopes like all of us. No doubt, there were some very dangerous people on the camp; I have been honest in my previous blog about how afraid I felt of the tension within the camp, and the influence of criminal gangs. The majority, however, were normal people that have been victims of a tragic series of circumstances we can barely imagine having to live through. They include women. They include children. They include teenage boys. Good men trying to get by and keep their head down to avoid the violence in order to protect their families. Old men. All desperately looking for a safe home and to protect their loved ones.

I have changed names where I have known them in order to protect people’s identities.

Ariya is a young mother. She has a gentle, soft demeanour, and speaks English well. She has been married for two years and has a six month old baby; the cutest and most sweet natured thing you have ever seen, with big, questioning eyes, and long, soft lashes. She was forced to flee Iran with her husband shortly after her marriage. After months of travelling, she fell pregnant. Love will out in any circumstances. She carried her baby to term while living in the Calais Jungle. When she went in to labour, she was brought to a nearby French hospital to deliver the baby. After four days, mother and newborn infant were returned to the camp, in spite of the inhumane and unsanitary conditions. After Calais was closed, she was forced to go on the move again, carrying her baby, and ended up in the Dunkirk refugee camp. She always had a positive attitude considering everything, even though she worried for her baby, who cried at night and sometimes became ill in the cold conditions of their shelter (no more than a small and dark shed).

One thing that moved me was the way in which people still looked out for others, even though their own conditions were so bleak. Roza is a large, middle aged Kurdish lady, with a cheeky gleam in her eye and a wicked smile, in spite of her only having three remaining teeth. One day she grabbed my arm in her large hand, seemingly very concerned, and insistent to drag me off with her into the camp. Her husband joined us on the way to the shelter and with slightly more English, explained ‘not able work man, not good’. They took me to a disabled man who had become ill because he was so cold at night. Through signing they requested blankets to keep him warm at night, and we went back to the centre to find some. Roza was insistent that he must have the best of the ones we had.

A young couple. They sat on the high bank at the edge of the refugee camp looking down to the swampy, filthy water below that separated the camp from the motorway. There was fighting around them, children crying, the smoke from people’s cooking blowing everywhere. They held each other, and rubbed noses, and kissed.

Belen is a very young woman, a few years younger than me, who ties her hair each day into a tidy plait and studies very hard to learn English. Belen is one of those people who is beautiful because their personality and warmth shines out of their face; she has a constant, gentle smile, in spite of everything she has been through. She attended English classes every day, turning up with her pencil and notebook, learned quickly and remembered things instantly, and asked for extra homework to complete herself in her shelter in the afternoons.

A pregnant lady. She was asked if she thought it was a girl or a boy. She said, a boy. She hoped for a boy. She had a boy before, and he was eight. He was shot three times. The third bullet hit his heart and killed him. An eight year old boy.

The children that did make it as far as Dunkirk were very obviously struggling to cope with the trauma they had been through, severely damaging to anyone, let alone at such a young age.

The very small ones were so traumatised that some of them were unable to communicate. A boy of no more than two or three, whose eyes are depths of sadness, and who just stares , silently, or cries. He is unable to interact in any way, no matter how you try to talk to, play with, or comfort him.

The middle aged ones (between about 6 and 11) are sometimes like normal children. They play, and squabble, and are boisterous, and would run around having water fights. But they are also angry. They are frustrated where they are, and apart from the volunteer-run children’s centre, had no outlet for their emotions and energy. They have also not had the chance to go to school or have an education. I was shocked, though I shouldn’t have been, at the level of aggression they displayed when we were not able to meet their demands. But really, it’s not surprising they would demonstrate these behaviours, because violence,  warfare, fear, and a fight for survival, is all they have known.

children dunkirk copyright jamie wiseman

© Jamie Wiseman

The older children (11-16) are heroes. They have a much better understanding of the situation and the difficulties the adults around them are facing, and have undertaken huge responsibilities in caring for their younger siblings, or other children around them. They have maturity far beyond their years and a calm, measured approach to assessing their situation.

I met two brothers. The older, who was 16, told me he was looking after his brother, 14. They wanted to talk to me to improve their English as they were desperate to get to the UK. He asked if he would be able to go to school there. I said I thought he would and would be in around year 11. He then intimated, through motions and broken English, that he would have to start at the beginning, because he could not read or write. I asked, did you go to school even when you were very small? And he said he had started, but then the Taliban came. Motions shooting. Then, schools close. Many of his friends killed. He said he had travelled with his brother for 11 months to get as far as France. They had come with their cousin but had lost him in Serbia. He was going to try to come to the UK soon, maybe by boat, or by lorry. I begged him not to try to come by boat. Tried to motion he might drown.

These are the people trying to reach the UK. They are people who deserve love, and compassion. The media are constantly telling us that people want to come here to change our culture, to bring violence, and take benefits from our hard-earned taxes. Everyone I met wanted to learn English. They wanted to work again, as they had at home, and regain their sense of dignity by providing for themselves. They wanted education, and to contribute to the country they had idealised in their minds as a safe haven. They just wanted a life of safety and dignity, which is the right of us all.

Because people only run the length of the earth, carrying their crying children in their arms, if the alternative is more violent and terrifying than we can possibly imagine. They only leave the homes they love, and the only life they have known, to run with a few possessions on their back into squalid refugee camps for shelter if the alternative is to be killed. See your friends killed. To see your children murdered right in front of you. Wouldn’t any of us do the same in those circumstances?

Love and peace,

Helen

humanitarian crisis, Refugees

Dunkirk refugee camp destroyed by fire

‘Helen, the camp is burning down’— this is the text I received from a friend a few hours after I had fled home from volunteering at the Dunkirk refugee camp because I felt things were seriously unsafe, dangerous, and poorly managed by the French authorities.  Still a bit shaken from the things I had seen, I told my parents over a strong drink ‘I just have this feeling something terrible is about to happen’.  Within the hour heard the news that a huge fire had broken out in the camp which could be seen from the volunteer residence (a good 20 minute walk from the camp through a lot of forest).

dunkirk fire

Image of the fire shared by media. Source: Getty

My immediate panic was for the people. Have they got everyone out? Where are they going to go? And uncontrollable anger, because if people were killed as a result of this the government MUST be held to account for the gross neglect that led to this situation, which could have been avoided if it wasn’t for the total absence of organisation and humanitarian oversight to deal with the unfolding crisis. In particular I was scared for the many children, and devastated this could happen to them in the place they were supposed to be escaping danger no one should ever live through, let alone at such a young age.

Thankfully I was told that all the residents were standing outside the camp. I’ve now learned from the news that about ten have been injured, some stabbed in the fight that broke out that led to the fire, apparently between Kurds and Afghans. Most of the people that were living in the camp are Kurdish, from Iraq and Iran, but since there have been more Afghans arriving following the demolition of the Calais camp, and the situation had become overcrowded and tensions had increased as people were forced to live in unimaginable squalor.

I am worried that the right-wing media will interpret this incident as a way to further demonise refugees. From my perspective, having spent the last week working in the camp, something like this was inevitable. The conditions in which people were forced to live, and a lack of professional humanitarian management have created and exacerbated a situation that is now extremely dangerous, in which the majority of people, who are harmless, ordinary people forced to flee war and terror on a scale we can’t imagine, have become further victimised and endangered while seeking refuge from one of the most developed and wealthy nations, France, and being denied refuge within another, our own ‘Great’ Britain.

This news report claims that Kurdish refugees were living in ‘chalets’. The reality is that in this camp that is ‘internationally recognised for meeting humanitarian standards’, up to 8 people shared ‘shelters’, that are little more than small, filthy, dark, dingy, and rotting garden sheds, with no heating or electricity. I am amazed they survived the winter. They had no safe way of cooking and so many are going to be permanently damaged from the smoke pollution. Disease is rife and many people suffer from scabies. The huts were packed together, and the camp is so overcrowded, that it’s no wonder that if a fire started it would spread quickly. The people have nothing, and are forced to beg volunteers as we pass by for a pair of shoes that aren’t falling apart, or a blanket to stay warm at night. People are desperate. And in this environment, a mafia group has taken a lot of control. Though the media frequently presents these gangs as typical refugees, the reality is that most people living on the camp are as scared of them as we would be, and have lived in this fear unable to escape for a long time.

refugee camp

A picture of the camp I took before the fire

This is well known to the company that manage the camp ‘Afeji’. I should have taken it as a warning sign that Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), a world leading humanitarian organisation that created the camp, pulled out several months ago (though there seems to be no publically available explanation as to why). Afeji seem to be little more than a logistics and so called ‘security’ operation, with no real interest in managing or preventing the criminal activity within the camp that victimises those with less power, including women and children. It is widely known that human traffickers operate within the camp, but no steps are taken to prevent exploitation of those that are desperate enough to be forced to turn to them for help.  And why do they take such a risk? Because we fail to offer them a safe and legal way to find passage to safety.

To describe the various dangers and failures in the camp would take a lot of words, and I will have to share this at another time once the situation is better understood and there has been more time for reflection. I had intended to write about the people of the camp, and their lives, and share their stories so that people better understand the situation for refugees in Europe. I had intended to stay for a month volunteering in the Women’s Centre. I knew the conditions would be difficult and potentially dangerous, but I had imagined that there would be organisation and systems available to support volunteers, most of which, including me, are relatively young and not trained to deal with humanitarian crisis situations such as this. This proved to not be the case and within the first few days I was unhappy with the situation on various levels. Over the weekend you could feel the tension in the camp rising, and on Sunday we were forced to close the Women’s Centre after an incident and leave. I felt at serious risk for my personal safety and that of my fellow volunteers, who felt the same.  I really felt we were lucky to get away without injury.

There were various other things that had happened, both in and outside the camp that meant even the accommodation provided from the local council didn’t feel safe or secure. I couldn’t sleep for anxiety. I was worried what would happen the next day on the camp and from an awful premonition of danger.  I struggled with the decision to leave all night. A friend made the point to me ‘do you feel like you can genuinely improve this situation?’ and in all honesty the answer was no. I was not equipped to deal with this. It should never have been left to un-managed volunteers to step in where the government has failed, it puts both the volunteers and the vulnerable people on the camp at great risk.

At this point I strongly feel that the camp needs specialist intervention. The volunteers that work there are incredible people-  brave, selfless, and endlessly giving individuals, some of whom have been there for many months and given up their whole lives to support vulnerable people they otherwise may never have met. Those people have my endless admiration. But we were still really only a bunch of well-meaning lefties in our early twenties. What is really needed is for a humanitarian organisation or body to take control and provide the support of staff that have specialist training for crisis situations such as this. An organisation that will work with the authorities to ensure that in handling this situation now, refugees are treated as people, with rights, who deserve respect and support, and safety.

refugee camp 2

Cry for help scrawled on the side of a shelter in the camp before it was burned down

It is well known that the government really wanted to shut down the camp soon, knowing how out of control it had become. As I have written this news has come through that the authorities will not rebuild the camp. My fear is that all the poor people who had lived in the camp will end up homeless on the streets, as has happened in the aftermath of closing the Calais jungle, and victimised by police treating them like criminals. I heard stories from volunteers who had gone to Calais of disgusting cruelty to homeless refugees from the police, who slept at night on the streets with their sleeping bags open, because there had been incidents where they would be sprayed in the face while they slept (with some kind of pepper spray or immobilising agent, I was not clear) and then seized while they were unable to get out and run away.

It was some of these people who were coming to the camp in search of refuge after the Calais ‘Jungle’ was shut down. The situation would never have got this bad if the French and British governments had dealt with that crisis in a responsible and humane manner. As it was, they drove these people into this situation and now should bear the burden of responsibility for de-escalating it and creating a stable environment in the aftermath. I do not believe in all faith that they will step up.

We (British and French), or at least our governments, are complicit in creating this atrocity from our intervention in wars in the Middle East in the last years that has exacerbated danger to the point that people have had to flee to our shores. And our governments are directly responsible for this happening right under our noses, only just over 100 miles from London.

refugee camp 3

Another picture of the camp before the fire

As the aftermath unfolds we must put pressure on them to take a responsible and humane course of action. I don’t know now what will happen, and what assistance will be needed, and if I will need to return to help. I am waiting to see news of some plan of action.

For now people have been temporarily taken to local gyms to stay, and there is an emergency appeal for donations to replace what was destroyed, including food, clothes, blankets and sleeping bags, emergency blankets, shoes and trainers, and backpacks. Please, please donate if you can. I am very afraid for what will happen to these people.

Let us support refugees and demand a different approach from those in charge. We must, for once, act with humanity, and with love. Though I am not religious, I pray for these people’s safety.

I will write more in time. Keep watching the news.

Love and peace,

Helen

Travel, Uncategorized

New beginnings

This winter I finally did the thing I had thought about for so long: I handed in my notice at work, told my housemates to put a vacancy ad up for my room, and bought a one-way ticket to Bolivia. In May I will be embarking on a solo adventure through South and Central America with just my plane ticket and my backpack, and vague intentions to be back by Christmas, but really, who knows? I have a map of the region and a vague route planned through Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, but I am open, and for once have the flexibility, to just see what happens.

I have always wanted to get out into the world and travel long term, but at the usual gap year age of 18 I was far too shy and anxious (and too poor), and like everyone else, as soon as I got into work (finally) after university I had debts and needed financial security and the stability for a while, and to gain experience. I was never able to travel with work but I did always make a personal commitment to saving a large chunk of my income each month and managed a couple of longer holidays; one in India, and a safari tour through Southern Africa, but it was never long enough and I never felt able to really get to know other countries, people, and cultures properly.

This time it will not be rushed. If possible I will spend a month in each country, learn Spanish, and integrate with locals as much as possible. At the end of my trip I hope to spend a few months in my final destination, Nicaragua, rent a room and find a volunteer position within a women’s/human rights organisation, and maybe teach a bit of English or do freelance work to keep my savings from dwindling too low.

This was the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life. I’ve had to make heart-breaking sacrifices in my personal life, give up the job that I had always wanted (working in publishing within a charity), the home I shared with friends, the town I’d become settled in, and to sell or give away a lot of my possessions, including my beloved car, Poo-Jo. It’s the first time in my life I feel completely uncertain about what the future holds.

As scary as this seems to me, though, the opportunity to travel in this way is, I am very aware, a privilege, and one that I am extremely fortunate to be in the position to be able to choose to take. While more people are moving around the world now than ever before, most do not have the luxury of being able to leave their home by choice. War, terrorism, political instability, discrimination, and climate change have forced seemingly more people than ever to flee their home countries and there are now an estimated 20 million refugees worldwide. It is a matter of shame and outrage to me that my own country, ‘Great’ Britain, has utterly failed to meet its human rights obligations to provide adequate shelter and protection to people desperately seeking refuge, particularly unaccompanied minors. So before I fly to Bolivia, I’ll spend a month volunteering at the Women’s Refugee Centre at the Dunkirk Refugee Camp in France to try to offer whatever help I can give.

I have thought about this a lot, and in many ways I have wondered if it is a failure on my part, and selfish, to be moved by this and yet to  still offer only a month, relative to the time I will spend travelling for personal enjoyment and development, and realistically it probably is. I have justified it to myself on the basis that I have worked and saved hard to be in the position to do this. Not being particularly well paid working in the publishing/charity sector, I have often had to skip social activities I really wanted to do with friends, mostly live off cheap food like rice and beans, avoided ever buying new clothes etc. and have lived in a small shared house that is falling apart in order to save money for a long time, because travel is the thing that has always meant more to me than all of that. I hope that, by travelling with good intentions, favouring eco-tourism and local companies, and offering whatever volunteer help I can to small local organisations working on issues I care about along the way, I will at least be making a fair attempt to enjoy this privilege with as much responsibility and care for the places and people I will meet as possible. Apart from the travel experiences, my end goal with this trip is to gain volunteering experience in human rights work, before doing whatever else I have to do to be able to nudge my career over in this area. This is not because of a (potentially patronising and self important) desire to fight on behalf of others, but simply to be able to offer whatever support is needed to people that have been discriminated against in their own fights for justice, and for the same freedoms we should all be able to enjoy as equal citizens of the world. Idealistic? For sure. But well intentioned, and better than doing sweet f/a? I certainly hope so.

As I travel I will be writing about my adventures, the people, the wildlife, the landscapes, as well as political issues I care/am learning about (particularly in the areas of human/women’s rights, LGBT issues, refugees, labour rights, the environment, and sustainable international development), inspiring work I have seen, maybe some veggie/vegan food recommendations for other travellers, and anything else.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading my blog and get in touch if you have any ideas, thoughts, recommendations, or if you happen across this and are also travelling in this region in 2017 and want to meet up, please do send a message! I am not sure what the next year will bring, but I am very excited for the adventure that is ahead.

Peace and love,

Helen