Head Games

I currently have two blog posts sitting incomplete in my drafts folder.

The first is all about my summer – from finishing my degree back in May to my recent trip to Kyrgyzstan, the main focus of the article. At some point I’ll get round to finishing it off and uploading some nice photos from my travels. I’ve had a fabulous summer and I like sharing my adventures, hoping that maybe it might inspire others to go off and start their own.

The second blog post is this one. It isn’t one I had intended to write. But as I sit here in my new room, in a new city, thinking about the adventures to come, I find myself contemplating the trip I’ve just returned from and feel that it might be worth writing down some thoughts. For my non-kayaking friends, this topic may be of little interest to you, but I think there are parallels that can be drawn between my struggles in kayaking and other extreme sports or outdoor activities, and perhaps beyond sports altogether.

The topic is head game.


My parents are fairly active folk and as children my sisters and I were encouraged to participate in sport. Swimming became my most regular sport and I went through different stages of lessons and then onto club training and swimming galas. I did my share of races but I wasn’t particularly fast and I found that the more I trained, the less I enjoyed being in the pool. Eventually, as with most kids who enter the world of club swimming, I cut back on sessions and gave up on the galas. I trained only twice or three times a week, just for fitness, and I no longer dreaded coming home from school and going to training. Even now as an adult I pop along to a session every so often and my old coach welcomes me back and works me hard, just for fun. And it is fun. There is no competition there. The only competition is with myself so that I know that I’m getting the most out of it.

I stumbled upon the world of whitewater kayaking when I started university. I had been to a few trial sessions with the water polo club at the uni, but the strict structure of the training sessions reminded me of those swimming days and I was deterred. The canoe club was something totally different – a community that focused on having fun outdoors, a sport that was incredibly exciting, and people who were not interested in race times and gym hours. I was hooked, and the more time I spent on the water, the more I loved it. I felt compelled to better myself, but only in the interest of self-fulfilment so that I could paddle more rivers and hopefully capsize less often!

I think my competitiveness is one of my absolute worst qualities. It can really hinder the enjoyment of any activity and I know I can be much harder on myself than I should be. But in my first couple of years in a boat, this self-competitive trait helped me to improve even though I didn’t get much time on the water. There was also another attribute that helped my progress that others told me I possessed – head game.

“Sacha, you have a good head!”

Em…thank you..?

To be honest, I didn’t really know what it meant. For a long time I thought it meant that people thought I was brave, that I was courageous for paddling a rapid in which there was a chance I would swim. In reality head game is so much more than that. It’s an entire mental state, a mixture of attitude, confidence and focus that keeps you grounded in the present. And as with so many things in life, you only really appreciate what you had after it is gone.

In Kyrgyzstan this summer, I lost my head game. In fact, I’d lost it before I put-on the first river on the first day. I’d never felt so much fear on a river before in my life. Last to leave the bank and break-out into the main flow, I capsized about 15 seconds later on a wave train. And that isn’t about skill, it isn’t about fitness, it was just an issue of head game. I had never felt like that before. Never had I questioned my own ability so much, questioned the safety of being on the river. If I went down that same section of river today, I would absolutely love it, and I would get down with no problems because it is within my ability. But I struggled to enjoy kayaking that day. And the subsequent days brought more troubles to the forefront of my mind, and before I knew it I was dreading putting on the river. I was so nervous, but it wasn’t the good kind of nerves that give you focus when running a new rapid or a line that will test you. They were nerves that limited my vision on the river and became panic. Suddenly the sport I had fallen in love with was terrifying. I would never wish for anyone to feel like that.

Unfortunately I can’t upload videos here but below are freeze-frames taken from unedited GoPro footage that I took on the 5th day of kayaking. I’ve watched the footage several times because I remember so clearly how I was feeling, the panic. The clip shows two short must-run rapids on the big Naryn river, right after a portage. It is evident how my fear affected my paddling and I struggled to stay online in the first rapid.

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Already off my line and fighting to get river left.

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At the end of the first rapid. I can hardly speak. Egor tells me to wait.

Egor told me to calm down in the eddy and then I followed him down the next rapid with a little more success.

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Remember to breathe!

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When I look at these photos now, I think it looks incredibly beautiful and lot of fun. But I recall all too vividly that that was not how I felt at the time. When I got to the bottom I wanted to walk off. But the hardest rapids were behind me and I was persuaded to stay on and finish the section (thanks Tomass!). I’m very glad that I did.
It’s just grade 3, it’s easy”
Russian grade 3?!
“International grade 3
Slowly, my fear evaporated and I started to enjoy the day.

By the end of my two week trip, I was loving every second on the water again and I was very sad that the trip was over. If I could go back now and do it all again, I would in an instant. But I had to work hard during that first week to get on the river and to enjoy it. I learnt more on this trip than I thought possible and in writing this post I hope that I can cement in my head the concepts and the advice that ultimately turned a frightening experience into an incredible adventure. Perhaps these ideas may even help you or someone else going through a similar experience. I’d never lost my head game before, not in such a major way, and I hope it never happens again. But if it does, then these are the thoughts that I will turn to…

Today will be a great day.
When I started to believe it, then it started to become true. Your opening mindset greatly impacts your ability to achieve any goal. If that goal is to have an awesome day on the river then sitting in your boat worrying about potentially swimming before you’ve even seen a ripple in the water is not going to help. An awesome day starts with positive thoughts, in the same way that running a rapid well starts with a good line. After my major breakdown in the gorge, I was determined that the following day would be spectacular and that I would get down the river without any problems. That next day turned out to be my favourite of the entire trip. (Great Naryn is incredible!!)
My youngest sister is a Sabre fencer (a pretty good one, too) and I’ve seen the difference it makes to her fight whether she has a good head game or not. A negative attitude can cause her to lose even though she was the better athlete. I think this idea transcends sport as well.

Listen to those around you.
I was so lucky on this trip to be in the hands of some fantastic boaters with a much wider breadth of experience and skill than I have, and was fortunate enough to get some tips here and there. There is a big difference between hearing and listening so put it action the advice that you are gifted. Everyone learns from experience but I think you can also learn from other peoples experience too. I treasure the stories that were shared.

Stay fit. Paddle often.
It’s that old mantra – healthy body, healthy mind – but I think it is really important. My fitness level was not where I wanted it to be when I started the trip and it certainly would have made some of the paddling much easier, thereby relieving some pressure. I love the more adventurous, less competitive, side to kayaking but I recognise that it’s still a sport and it gets easier when you’re a bit stronger. It’s also more enjoyable when you spend more and more time on the water, allowing you to build off experience. I’m determined to get in a boat as often as I can (despite now living in London).

Know your limits, and push them.
I think this comes down to experience and time on the water as well, but when I truly know my limits I’m far less likely to lose my head game because I can better assess whether I can make a certain line or move on the river. When you can accurately assess your own skill level, then you can also tell how far you can push yourself too. Then if you portage a rapid or walk off a river you can be sure that you did it because it was the smart decision that day, and not because you were overwhelmed by fear.

It is supposed to be fun!
It is a really obvious statement but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And for me, personally, being reminded of this by the Two Blades team and others on the trip was probably the biggest help of all in overcoming any anxiety. If it’s not fun, then what is the point?

When my head is in the right mindset, I think it’s almost impossible to not have fun on the river. And, for me, that’s what it is all about.

A massive thank you to Tomass, Egor and Alona who got me back on the water and to all the advice I received from everyone on the trip. Happy paddling!
Sacha

 

DCIM100GOPRO

The Great Naryn – my new favourite section

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Myanmar – Here We Are!

I currently find myself in Switzerland, far from the exotic lands of South East Asia, and more than 2 months have past since my last day working in the lab in Singapore. However, that is not to say I have not been busy. Much has gone on between since then and it is only now that but have finally found a bit of time to sit down and write the missing chapters of my travels so far. This particular entry concerns my last trip within SE Asia and my final farewell to Singapore before I returned to Europe. The chosen destination: Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

On Friday 8th May this year, I walked into the lab and donned my lab-coat for the last time (mostly just for washing up!). I had managed to submit my research report – 60 pages of rambling nonsense and far fetched conclusions – early in the week and as such was feeling considerably lighter, despite wearing jeans on this particularly humid day.* I had not completed all the research aims I had set out to achieve in my 9 month project, but it seems that that is not uncommon and besides, I had no motivation post-handin to gather any last minute results, despite the persistence of my professor. Instead, I relished the idea of my imminent freedom and enjoyed my last afternoon with my work colleagues.
*All days in Singapore are particularly humid!

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In the evening we went out for a farewell dinner as a group and then I joined the other exchange students for a final big night out. I’m very fortunate to have made many new friends in my time in Singapore and the evening was a bitter-sweet celebration for the end of an incredible year. The weekend was rather surreal as I packed up my room and moved out of halls. Although I would be coming back to Singapore in order to fly home, I was not permitted to keep the accommodation until then so I moved my luggage to the lab and left it by my vacated desk. In the late afternoon I said a couple goodbyes to others beginning their travels and left campus to go to my friends’ place. Orla, Benja and Ollie (my travelling companions) were still in the process of packing and sorting when I arrived and it wasn’t until late at night that we closed our eyes for a couple of hours, with the taxi booked for 4am.

Tired-eyed but buzzing inside, we lugged ourselves to the departure gate and onto the plane where we could sleep until arrival. We woke to find ourselves on the approach to Yangon, the country’s captial and biggest city. “Myanmar, here we are!”, we cheered (though mostly internally so as not to get weird looks). Immediately evident was the change in landscape. Equatorial Singapore, with a lack of seasonal variation, is 32°C pretty much all year round but the high level of moisture content in the air makes it feel about 10 degrees hotter and allows plenty of green plants life to flourish (picture tropical jungle meets concrete jungle). 2000km (~1250 miles) north north west from Singapore, Yangon in the south of Myanmar has considerably greater climate variation as I was to discover over the next 10 days. On our arrival in early May, the weather was typical of the end of the hot-dry season, around 35°C, and the ground near the airfield was a dusty brown dirt, sun-baked and cracking. I thoroughly enjoyed the dry air which did not cling to my skin, though the heat of the noontime sun was still too much and we hopped into our pre-booked car to head to the city centre.

Yangon

Yangon

Having just finished my placement and the other three their exams, we hadn’t read as much as we could have about Myanmar but had planned our 10 day route around as much of the country and interesting sites as possible. We only spared one day for Yangon and spent it wondering around the indoor market and visiting Shwedagon pagoda – a 99m high, shimmering gold Buddhist temple. The pagoda was built some time in the 6th century and was certainly impressive to behold, particularly in the hot afternoon sun. We spent quite some time walking around the complex perched on the hill, admiring the ornate white and gold structures and historical artefacts. Walking barefoot is compulsory in all temples in the country, as is the wearing of long trousers or sarongs to cover the legs and shoulders. This was particularly uncomfortable due to the heat and we burnt our feet on the hot white tiles, running between patches of shade.

Temples and temples

Temples and temples

All that glitters is gold

All that glitters is gold – burning feet!

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Trying to show some scale!

Looking good in the shade!

Looking good in the shade!

That evening after some not-all-that-spectacular local food, we walked to the bus station and boarded our night bus to take us further north to Kalaw. The bus tickets cost us 20500 Kyat (£10.50) including the extra fee for a VIP coach which meant that the chairs could recline (rather like a cheaper version of Malaysian coaches). Although the seats were surprisingly comfortable, the journey overall was unfortunately not so, and we were pretty tired when we were dropped off in Kalaw at 4am. As it was still dark and the poorly lit streets eerily still, we decided to stop at the nearest hostel and sleep for a few more hours. The only place we found was “Winner hotel” with a cockroach-filled but otherwise clean(ish) room for the four of us.

In the morning we walked the much more welcoming streets to Uncle Sam’s – a recommended tour-guide of the local area. We met with Sam and he introduced us to our local guide (who’s name, I am ashamed to say, I have completely forgotten) and we handed over our bags, keeping only valuables and a change of clothes with us. Around 10am we were off, led out of the little town and into the countryside. We trekked for the entire day, visiting small working communities and farms. It was hot but not unbearably so and we enjoyed chatting amongst ourselves and gleaming insight into the lives of the local people from our informative guide. The ground was rather muddy in places, and whilst Benja and I were well equipped with suitable shoes for walking in, the others provided us with some hilarity when Orla’s flipflops were destroyed in some sticky mud, and the soles of Ollie’s shoes all but fell off.

Starting our two day trek

Starting our two day trek

Ginger harvested as we walked by

Ginger harvested as we walked by

Stopping in a tiny village

Stopping in a tiny village

We spent the night in one of the wee villages that we past on our trek. Our chef had gone ahead of us by motorbike and dinner was ready by the time we arrived. It was delicious – a multitude of small fragrant dishes, rice, vegetables, nuts, and chicken. There was plenty of it too, and we were certainly well tended for as we ate by candle light, sitting on the dusty rugs of the dark wooden shack. After dinner the locals offered us rice wine, infamous for its strong taste and high alcohol content. Only Oliver was brave enough to have a glass, the girls and I just giving it a sniff which was enough to make my eyes water. Our room was an empty wooden-planked space upstairs which had four roll-mats with blankets laid out in it. We played a quick game of cards or two, and then decided we were tired and the light was too poor (despite the precariously placed candle atop an empty water bottle… in a wooden house…) and we dosed up on mosquito repellent before going to sleep.

My view when I woke

My view when I woke

Breakfast is ready

Breakfast is ready

I woke before the others from the light coming through the open windows (there was no glass) and enjoyed the early morning sun and listening to the waking of the community. One of the women living in the house must have heard me rise as she brought me some tea and toast. When we were all up and fed, we were on our way again (Orla borrowing my flipflops and Oliver persevering with his broken shoes). The landscape changed gradually as we walked, our trail leaving behind open farm lands for drier sandy areas and then into denser vegetation with tall thin trees. By the mid afternoon, just after lunch, we had reached Inle lake (pronounced in-lay). We said goodbye to our guide and were directed onto a long, thin wooden boat shaped like a open canoe, with four seats directly behind one another and a fifth perch for the driver by the motor. The lake was full of growing plants and ‘floating gardens’ and we sped in narrow waterways between them at remarkable pace. After 15 minutes or so, we came to a floating town on the lake: wooden houses, similar to the kind we had spent the night in but raised 4 metres off the surface of the lake by wooden stilts. Elevated walkways crossed between a number of neighbouring properties but it was immediately apparent that if you wanted to go anywhere – tend to your ‘garden’, visit a friend or go to the shop – then by boat was the only means.

Morning trekking

Morning trekking

Working the land

Working the land

Always leading the way...

Always leading the way…

Water-based community

Water-based community

As part of the trekking package, we were shown around the water community and taken to different workshops demonstrating local crafts (presumably in the hope that we would buy something). We were shown to the silver smiths, the sweet cigar makers and the weaving looms where the women make all kinds of raw and treated silk garments. We then powered back through some of the water gardens spotting tomatoes, cabbage and other vegetables before heading out onto the open lake. I think, personally, the lake itself was one of the most spectacular things to behold. Vast, open and yet incredibly still, it wasn’t possible to see exactly where the expanse of water ended. The weather was beginning to turn, the sky darkening with orange sunlight piercing through the menacing black clouds and somehow this made the landscape even more beautiful, the greens of the gardens more vivid and the dusty earth of the distant hills more vibrant. As we skimmed along the lake we could admire the skills of the local fisher men. They work on long wooden boats, flatter than the one we were occupying and without motors, and they stand at the very back with a long paddle. At first the image of punting comes to mind such as that seen in the canals of Cambridge, but these paddles are far from reaching the bottom of the lake. Instead, a skilled fisherman balances on one leg and raps the other around the paddle shaft, resting his foot on the blade. He lifts is leg in and out of the water and thus propels the craft forward. The nets they use are large wooden or wicker cages. I imagine it must take some skill and patience to make a catch.

Local women with extended necks, weaving

Local women with extended necks, weaving

Fishermen on the lake

Fishermen on the lake

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We arrived at Nyuang Shwe, the final destination for our trek, just as the clouds burst above us. We were quickly drenched as we searched for our hostel, and it was wonderful to have a shower and get clean again once we found it. We spent that evening and the next day in the area, relaxing and cycling. We visited a vineyard and did some exceptionally cheap ($2) wine tasting which was great fun (especially for Oliver and I because the other girls weren’t too fond of wine). That night we took another night bus, heading east to Mandalay.

Wine Tasting

Wine Tasting

I guess this blog post will be 100,000 words long if I describe everything, so I should let the pictures do most of the talking!

Mandalay was nice but we were not particularly well prepared for a big city and hadn’t planned our activities. We walked around some of the white pagodas and enjoyed relaxing and playing cards to avoid the heat of the day. In the late afternoon we climbed a large series of steps up Mandalay hill in order to see the sunset over the city from the temple at the top. We spent one night in Mandalay and in the morning took a 4 hours bus to the ancient city of Bagan.

"we've got to get up there?!" - Mandalay Hill

“we’ve got to get up there?!” – Mandalay Hill

Monk-eying around at the top of Mandalay hill

Monk-eying around at the top of Mandalay hill

Bagan is definitely the most famous attraction in Myanmar and, although this means that the area is heaving with tourists, it certainly didn’t disappoint. More than 2000 Buddhist temples and pagodas are dotted across a dusty, tree-littered expanse covering more than 100 km2 (40 square miles)! The temples were all constructed between the 11th and 13th centuries at the height of the Kingdom of Pagan, and at some point there stood over 10,000 of them in the area. Having already been privileged enough to marvel at the size of the ancient temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom in Cambodia in February, I wasn’t sure what to expect of Bagan, and was amazed to behold a sight I found even more impressive. Though the temples are generally much smaller than Angkor Wat – some the size of large castles and others smaller than a single house – standing atop a moderately sized pagoda gave a spectacular panoramic view across the top of hundreds of ancient stupa, stretching endlessly towards the horizon as far as the eye could see.

Magical Bagan

Magical Bagan

Bikes through Bagan

Bikes through Bagan

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Hundreds of Temples

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Taking a break in the shade

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Sunrise

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Sunrise

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We spent three nights in a family room of a small hotel in a nearby town and rented electric scooters each day to get around and see as much of the area as possible. As we were there in May, with the monsoon season fast approaching, it was low season for tourists and we often found ourselves on deserted streets and stumbling on empty pagodas. I found the experience quite magical, and though the time of year meant there were no hot air balloons rising amidst the temples at sunrise (the famous sight of many photographs of Bagan), I think we may have been there at the best time of year – as long as we could escape the sun every so often. The bikes were excellent for getting around on, though pretty easy to skid, especially on the sandy earth off road, and we did have a couple of hilarious moments when we ran out of power!

Bikes!

Bikes!

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We got up early to see the sunrise on two occasions as the first was a bit cloudy. Sadly, Oliver’s back tyre slipped on the second morning as we raced to get to a good temple and he was flung off his bike, grazing his legs and arms. Orla took good care of him and Benja hopped on the back of my bike instead. We also enjoyed some sunset views and fairly decent food, though none as good as the local dishes on our trek to Inle lake.

Before the sunrise

Before dawn

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Grace enjoying the early morning sun

Grace enjoying the early morning sun

People on the neighbouring temple watching the sunset

People on the neighbouring temple watching the sunset

Suddenly we found the week had flown by and it was time for us to part ways. Benja, Orla and Oliver took a night bus back to Yangon before flying off to Thailand, whilst I stayed a couple hours longer in Bagan and then journeyed overnight once again to Mandalay. It so happened that it was on that night, the only time I was alone on the trip, that the long awaited weather changed. Originally I had planned to go explore a new town for my last two days in the country, but when I discovered that my friend David was alone in Mandalay, we decided we should meet up. He gave me the name of his hotel but without internet I had no means to look it up. I hoped that presenting the name of the hotel to the bus driver would be enough to get me there but I quickly began to doubt when neither driver nor assistant recognised the name of the hotel. No-one on the bus spoke any English. I had already bought a ticket and was seated so I hoped that I would manage to find the hotel once I arrived in Mandalay. As soon as we left Bagan, the rain started pelting it down, heavier even than some of the tropical rain storms in Singapore, and I admit that I was a little nervous. The driver sped along regardless on the winding, unlit streets, with his windscreen wipers widely swishing back and forth as if ticking to the beat of some heavy dance track. 2 hours of so went by and then with a squeal of the breaks (at least I would have heard the squeal if it weren’t for the pounding rain and howling wind) we stopped abruptly. A huge tree lay across the road with a large muddy puddle building in front of it. The driver paused, clearly contemplating what course of action to follow, as his 15 or so passengers (myself included) peered outside helplessly and watched as the angry sky flashed and roared. The driver decided that turning round was not an option and proceeded off road, through the mud and flooded field, around the tree with some branches smacking the windscreen. Fortunately we didn’t get stuck and managed to continue on our way with the driver, seemingly encouraged by his achievement, driving faster than ever. At the midway stop, I sat alone at a sheltered table (I would have rather waited on the bus but it didn’t seem to be permitted) and wondered to myself if I’d ever make it back to Singapore. When we continued on our way again, the driver’s assistant and I tried to communicate without language in desperate attempt to find where I was staying. Fortunately one of the other passengers had some insight: it turned out I had taken down the Burmese name of the hotel incorrectly and had a spelling error! Once resolved I felt happier that I might meet David after all. And that is indeed what happened. At some time in the small hours, when I was the only passenger remaining on a strange bus on a dark and stormy night in an unknown land in which I didn’t speak the language, I was placed directly outside of the nicest looking hotel I had stayed in on my entire trip with a concierge who was expecting me. My relief was tremendous. I was very happy to see David and then have a hot shower before going to sleep in a clean bed.

David taking advantage of 'male privilege' in Myanmar. (The sigh reads "Ladies are not allowed to enter")

David taking advantage of ‘male privilege’ in Myanmar. (The sigh reads “Ladies are not allowed to enter”) Apologies for the poor photograph

Friendly monks

Friendly monks

As luck would have it, the rain was a little less persistent the following day and David and I opted to hire a car to get around the various sights and fit in as much as we could whilst saving ourselves from getting too wet. We still managed to get trapped in a little wooden monastery by a sudden downpour but we considered ourselves lucky. We ate lunch at a restaurant recommended by our driver which was a very interesting collection of incredibly pungent, predominantly cold local dishes with rice. The soup and tea was my favourite (mostly because after 9 months in Asia, I was longing for some of the familiar tastes of home).

A different view of Yangon

A different view of Yangon

Cyclist struggling on the flooded road whilst we were warm and dry in the car.

Cyclist struggling on the flooded road whilst we were warm and dry in the car

That night we took a far more comfortable night bus (they gave us complementary cakes and drinks and it even had individual movie screens) south to Yangon. Whilst the effects of the coming monsoon had been evident in Mandalay with heavy rain and road-wide puddles, nothing could prepare me for waking up in the streets of Yangon. The scorching hot city I had left just 9 days before was unrecognisable with flooded streets and dark skies overhead. I was amazed to see shops still open and people still going about their business, wading through murky, ankle-deep water on the pavements. There were even people cycling, their bike wheels almost completely covered as they made slow progress along the flooded road. The reality of life in a tropical developing country where monsoon season lasts for 5 months of the year, every year, gradually dawned on me.

Last view of Shwedagon Pagoda

Last view of Shwedagon Pagoda

We stayed in a nice hostel in the Chinatown district and spent most of the day there playing cards. David took a taxi to the airport later that afternoon and I went back up to Shwedagon Pagoda in the evening when the rain lessened. The following morning, after 10 incredible and rather tiring days in Myanmar, I flew back to familiar territory of Singapore. It was an incredible trip and I would definitely recommend a visit to anyone, especially to those who are keen to see a more authentic side to SE Asia, with rougher edges and slightly less catering for tourists (particularly compared to neighbouring Thailand, which I have decided to save for another point in time). My favourite parts were definitely riding the bikes around Old Bagan, Oliver pretending to be the character in the game ‘Temple Run’ to our great amusement, and the beautiful serenity of Inle lake.

Returning to  Singapore for the last time felt like some sort of strange dream. It is an odd feeling to become so familiar with a place that is so different to anywhere else you have been, a place you feel so comfortable and yet uncomfortable at the same time, a place you live in for a while and that you might never see again. I had only 12 hours between returning from Myanmar and catching my long awaited flight home and spent that time travelling to and from the airport, making final farewells and enjoying my last Singaporean meal. It was only when I sat at the airport waiting to check in that it really hit me that I was going home, I couldn’t wait. I don’t know if I will ever go back to Singapore, but I can say with certainty that I’m very glad I went. Although I missed my friends and family, my kayaking and hiking, good tea and chocolate, I learnt so much in 9 months abroad and had many incredible experiences, with new friends made along the way. I am very fortunate to have been able to share in so many adventures, and my advice to the reader is to seize each and every opportunity that arises to travel, to explore and to expand your horizons. Though my year is over, these memories will stay with me always.

Sacha

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Good Morning Vietnam!

Easter is not a widely celebrated holiday here in Singapore – Cadbury’s cream eggs and Lindt chocolate bunnies didn’t even make it onto shop shelves! However, after many solid weeks at work without a break (my weekend trips to Kuala Lumpur and Siem Reap in January a distant memory), I decided it was time to take a two week ‘Easter holiday’ and go on a new adventure. Better still was that Max could afford some time off from his PhD in Switzerland and flew out to South East Asia to meet me.

On the 27th of March, exactly 7 months since I said goodbye to Scotland and moved continent, Max also touched down in Singapore. One day of exploring the campus, the city and sampling the food was permitted and then we bid Singapore farewell for a short time and flew off. Before beginning my year abroad I had a vague list of travel destinations in South East Asia that I wanted to visit, but Vietnam was very low on my radar and not a place and given much thought to visiting. If it weren’t for the persuasive recommendations from fellow exchange students, each with their own enthralling Vietnamese tale, then it is likely that I would have overlooked this wonderfully diverse and uniquely beautiful country. Fortunately, though, I heeded their advice and Max, with guidebook ever in hand, was amenable.

The streets of Ha Noi

The streets of Ha Noi

Our adventure began in the capital of Ha Noi. Our flight arrived in the evening and we had organised a car to take us to our hostel – The Little Hanoi Hostel 1, which I highly recommend. Even sitting in the back seat of a comfortable, air-conditioned car, we were dazzled and overwhelmed by the traffic: motorbikes, motorbikes everywhere. Bicycles and scooters clogged the roads and even the occasional bus, which seemed far too large to fit through the tight streets of the city as we neared the centre. The smaller vehicles weaved between those with 4 wheels and the crossing pedestrians like a rushing torrent of water. The city was very much alive, with a vibrant atmosphere I find Singapore lacks, and we were buzzing with excitement. After settling into our room, we wandered around the old quarter, amazed by the number of people (locals and tourists alike) eating on little blue chairs on the kerbs. We found a restaurant that looked reasonable and enjoyed a vegetarian version of the local cuisine, phở – a broth containing noodles, vegetables and either chicken/beef or tofu. Although we ate it for dinner that night, the Vietnamese mostly eat phở for breakfast or early lunch, and Max happily became accustomed to this, ordering the dish many times during the trip, at any time of day.

Fruit seller

Fruit seller

After a comfortable night and nice (semi-western) breakfast at the hostel we spoke to Kim, a local at the reception, and asked her for recommendations. She pointed us in the direction of a Vietnamese coffee shop – “Try the egg coffee, trust me”. Intrigued, we decided to take up her suggestion and slowly made our way across town, picking our way between motorbikes strewn across pavements and road-sides and admiring the incredible narrow, tall buildings as we approached the lake at the city centre. “When you get there, the coffee shop won’t be obvious, but you’re at the right place. Just walk through the bag shop at street level and head straight to the back,” Kim had told us. “There are some stairs at the back and you can reach the coffee shop on the floor above.”

We found the stairs!

We found the stairs!

Vietnamese Egg-Coffee and Egg-Cocoa

Vietnamese Egg-Coffee and Egg-Cocoa

We were certainly very grateful for her instruction, as there is no way we would have found this gem otherwise. Max and I entered the small blue room and sat at the only remaining empty table in a room filled only with locals. The menu board on the wall listed several drinks in Vietnamese but fortunately the waitress understood enough English for us to order one egg coffee and one egg cocoa. Max, terrified that he might be presented with a raw egg floating in black coffee, was relieved when we were presented with a wee mug of sweet dense foam, his containing a hidden shot of espresso and mine heavily dusted with chocolate powder. It was delicious (and very cheap too)! The rest of the day we spent exploring the capital. Sadly the museum was closed (as were most things on a Monday) but we visited the ancient Temple of Literature – a temple and school built in 1070 to educate scholars at a time when teachers were held in much greater esteem than doctors (if only). We also enjoyed some local icecream in rice cones in what can only be described as an underground parking lot, and treated ourselves to some delicious Indian food in the evening.

In the temple of literature - turtles for the past scholars

In the temple of literature – turtles for the past scholars

As Kim’s advice about the egg coffee had been spot-on, we decided to follow her advice regarding Ha Long Bay and booked our trip through the hostel. We opted for a 2 day/1 night cruise and it was certainly one of the highlights of our Vietnam tour. At 8 am we departed from the hostel by bus, heading east to the coast. By 11.30 we had reached the town and were given a guided tour around a pearl ‘workshop’, as the harvesting of pearls from oysters is a large business in the north of the country. Though I’ve never been particularly fond of pearls, it was actually quite interesting as we were shown which type of oysters naturally produce which colours and shapes of pearls. What I was unaware of was that only 1 in 1000 or so oysters naturally produce the precious jewel and so the Japanese developed a means of forcing the oyster to grow one by inserting a small bead and some external tissue from the creature inside its shell. It was crazy (and disturbing) to see the shore strewn with oyster farms, all of which had been individual tampered with and grown to produce pearls to sell to tourists like us. And, of course, the tour ended with “Please take a look in our shop and see if you would like to make a purchase”.

The pearl 'museum'

The pearl ‘museum’

Finally, just after noon we walked aboard our ‘cruise ship’, The Fantasea Deluxe. Whilst the vessel certainly was pretty, ‘ship’ would not really be the correct word: it contained only 6 bedrooms, each with en-suite; a dining area; and an open upper deck, perfect for admiring the panoramic views. Really, the whole thing was perfect. Max and I had one of the two cabins on the middle deck behind the bar and dining area and felt like we’d won the lottery or something. We enjoyed lunch on the boat as we cruised among the serenity of the hundreds of seemingly floating islands of the bay, heading further east away from the coast. Following a good feed, we were dropped off at one of the many islands to explore the vast caves that had been discovered there in the early days of French colonisation. I didn’t even mind the number of tourists because the views from the island were so spectacular. Then, on a different island, we were taken to a beach where we could enjoy a swim in the surprisingly cold waters and hike to the view point at the top. Although I doubt I would enjoy a proper cruise for a long period of time, it was great to not worry about transportation as we hopped from island to island, and to have the luxury of a warm shower and a cup of tea. In the late afternoon we were ferried over to a quieter area of the large bay in which some duo kayaks were tethered to a floating shack. These open metal-seated shells were not quite the outfitted white-water kayaks that Max and I are accustomed too, but we had a great time paddling past the tall cliffs and under rocky arches formed by the tides. It was a brilliant and rather exhausting day and I was grateful to have free time after dinner to chill on the deck on the boat, relaxing and gazing at the stars that had been hidden from me for so long by the light pollution of Singapore. We even enjoyed a cheeky cocktail and some card games with the others on-board.

Our little cabin

Our little cabin

Our little cabin

Our little cabin

The top deck

The top deck

The 'dining room'

The ‘dining room’

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay

Island hopping!

Island hopping!

Exploring the caves

Exploring the caves

Enjoying the good views over the bay

Enjoying the good views over the bay

Boats by night

Boats by night

After an early breakfast, out vessel left the tranquil waters where we spent the night heading south to the port on Cat Ba island, the largest of the almost 2000 islands in Halong bay. We thoroughly enjoyed sitting at the front of the boat, drinking our tea as we slipped silently between the floating mountains. After we docked, it was a short bus journey into the national reserve and then we hiked into the rain forest up to the top of the largest hill, giving us a panoramic view of the whole island. Following our trek, we were taken to Cat Ba town, where we checked into our hotel and concluded our official Halong Bay tour with lunch at another of the many hotels in the town. However, we heard that some people we taking a boat to a Monkey island and decided that we were willing to pay a little extra to take the ferry there too. I’m glad that we did, because although the island itself was not spectacular and the monkeys more of a nuisance than an attraction, the ferry journey there was very interesting, passing through inhabited areas of the bay with many floating houses rafted together. Dogs could be seen running along the wooden planks and wee fishing boats tethered outside every residence.

The view from the window when we woke

The view from the window when we woke

View from the deck

View from the deck

Enjoying tea on the bow as we make our way to Cat Ba

Enjoying tea on the bow as we make our way to Cat Ba

 

Chilling

Chilling

Cat Ba island

Cat Ba island

We made it to the peak

We made it to the peak

Life in one of the 7 natural wonders of the world

Life in one of the 7 natural wonders of the world

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay

Dogs!

Dogs!

That night we feasted on some great local food and enjoyed a relaxed evening. In the morning I managed to persuade Max that we should rent some motorbikes and take a drive around the island since it is one of the least densely populated areas of Vietnam and boast some great road-side views. As I mentioned early, motorbikes are by far the most common form of transport in the country and it is not uncommon to see a pregnant woman driving with 2 kids squeezed behind her and another toddler standing between her knees, and that sort of thing. Therefore, Max and I figured the bikes would be pretty simple to drive. This turned out to be true, and the greatest difficulty we had was finding a man with helmets big enough for both of us! It was exhilarating and the feeling of freedom phenomenal as we sped around by the blue coast and vibrant green jungle. Even driving through the town, I enjoyed weaving between the other traffic and dodging the fruit sellers and tradeswomen.

Fast approaching

Fast approaching

Myself, speeding off (and avoiding big cows!)

Myself, speeding off (and avoiding big cows!)

Biking by the coast

Biking by the coast

After 2 or 3 hours we had to return the bikes, check out of our hotel and head to the port where we were to catch a boat to Haiphong. This turned out to be a bizarre experience: the boat was a speed-ferry, the inside was set up in a similar fashion to an aeroplane with a central isle and rows of reclining seats, and there was no accessible open deck. And boy, did it go fast, jumping and bouncing across the bay! In just 45 minutes we had reached Haiphong, a smaller Vietnamese town with essentially no tourist industry other than an airport (which is still mostly used by locals). Admittedly, our main purpose there was to take a flight the following morning to Da Nang, further south, but we made the most of the day and wandered around the locals markets. A particularly interesting experience was a visit to the ladies toilets in a shopping centre which had, what I can only describe as, open ‘female urinals’. (And no, I do not have a photo!)

Our flight to Da Nang was quick and easy and from the airport we took a taxi to the train station, bought a ticket, went out for some food, and came back to board our 6pm train heading north to Hue. The train had many different compartments, each a different price depending on whether you wanted a 4-bed sleeper-room, a 6-bed, soft seats, hard seats, etc. Max and I opted for soft seats, as they were only marginally more deer than the hard seats and would be worth it for the 3 hours journey.

Boarding our train to Hue

Boarding our train to Hue

Our luxurious room in Hue

Our luxurious room in Hue

Hue was an amazing city! We spent two days there exploring the Imperial City and the famous 7-tiered pagoda, taking ‘interesting’ boat rides and generally soaking up the atmosphere as we walked by the river and through the city. The staff at the hotel were very helpful, and aside from providing us with advice, they presented us with complimentary fruit and juice whenever we came in from a couple of hours walking in the incredibly hot and sweaty weather! We had some great tofu curries by the water front and Max enjoyed a massive coconut (although he was very shocked that it was large and green, much to my amusement).

The local market place

The local market place

The Imperial City

The citadel wall

Inside the Imperial City

Inside the Imperial City

Red and Gold

Red and Gold

7-tiered pagoda

7-tiered pagoda

Sassy stature made of rice and water

Sassy statue made of rice and water

More turtles (the resemblance is uncanny)

More turtles (the resemblance is uncanny)

Coconut fun

Coconut fun

Originally we had planned to rent motorbikes and make the journey ourselves by the coast from Hue down south to Hoi An, as a number of my friends had completed the journey and highly recommended it. However, the night before we were due to depart, Max had a change of heart – something frustratingly sensible about how renting bikes greater than 50 cc (these were 250 cc) is illegal for tourists and therefore our insurance wouldn’t be valid in the case of an accident – and, bitterly disappointed, I was forced to let go of my biker-chick dream. Instead we reached a compromise and hired a car and driver and take us on the journey south but requested to be taken along the coastal highway and to stop at the interesting spots along the way. We left in the early morning and relished sitting in an air-conditioned vehicle whilst not having to worry about weaving our way out of the city centre. Although the adrenaline was missing, the journey was thoroughly enjoyable. We stopped at the elephant springs, Buddhist temples, marble mountains and over the high pass, snapping away with our cameras in true tourist fashion. Our driver was accustomed to taking tourist on this route and new the best places to go to. Around lunch time, after an hour of splashing around in the cool waters of the elephant springs, he drove us to a floating sea-food restaurant on the lagoon. However, with Max a much stricter vegetarian than myself, we explained that we couldn’t eat there and he assured us that wasn’t a problem and he new somewhere else we could go in the next small town. We pulled into a quiet street and stopped outside an unassuming residence with no signs or menu outside. Encouraged to walk in, we took a seat at an empty table (one of many as the restaurant was almost deserted) and looked around expectantly for some sort of menu. It didn’t take us long to realise, though, that we were not going to be presented with such an artefact and had no idea what food to expect. The single waitress approached us and spoke very rapidly in Vietnamese, laughing here and there at our blinking faces. We tried and failed to express the “no meat, no seafood” slogan we had been used to repeating but the words had no effect on her and she simply smiled and waited for us to say something more intelligible. Fortunately, we were saved by a Vietnamese man at a neighbouring table who could speak English and he translated our request, at which point the woman wandered off to the kitchen. We thanked our saviour who then also departed, leaving us alone in the restaurant, still with no idea what to expect. It was a hilarious and utterly bizarre experience. The woman returned with some sort of salad, cold noodles and soy-sauce, continuing to natter away to us as if enough talking would eventually force us to speak Vietnamese. Laughter was plenty, a positive sign of merriment in all languages, and we enjoyed the unusual food. At one point, the woman decided that the bowl she had given Max was too small for him and she appeared from the kitchen with a bigger bowl of noodles. She took the existing bowl from under Max’s nose, food still gripped between his chopsticks, and emptied his smaller bowl on-top of the bigger one, topped it up with more soy-sauce, and handed it back to him. She must have known that food was the way to that boy’s heart and I laughed as the two grinned at each other. After we’d finished, she wrote the price on a napkin and we managed to butcher an awkward ‘Thank you’ in Vietnamese before climbing back into our car where the driver was waiting.

Our interesting lunch stop

Our interesting lunch stop

Driving by the massive lagoon

Driving by the massive lagoon

Golden Buddha on the way to the Elephant Springs

Golden Buddha on the way to the Elephant Springs

Buddhist schooling

Buddhist schooling

Looking out from the top of the high pass

Looking out from the top of the high pass

Marble Buddha at the Mountains

Marble Buddha at the Mountains

Many temples

Many temples

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Hidden Cave Buddha

Hidden Cave Buddha

View from the top of the Marble Mountains

View from the top of the Marble Mountains

We reached Hoi An around 5 or 6 pm and could immediately tell that we had entered tourist town – I think the ratio of white tourists to Vietnamese must have been at least 1:1. Before dropping us off at our hotel, our driver took us on a detour to stop at his sister’s (or was is sister-in-law’s…?) tailoring shop to pick up something. Of course, we were ushered inside, presented with free bottles of water and shown the sort of shirts, dresses, suits, skirts etc., that we could have made for us there. The tailoring scene in Hoi An is world famous and there must be almost 200 independent stores in the town, all offering similar business deals. Every shop owner wants you to come inside, sample their fabric, have a free fitting, browse through styles and ultimately choose to have a whole new wardrobe made by them. And there are people the do exactly that, for the price is phenomenal for tailored clothing. Max and I looked up our driver’s sister’s store on tripadvisor (the travel-guide for the Wifi age) and were pleasantly surprised to find it had good reviews and was highly rated amongst its competitors. We decided that this shop would be as good as any to get clothes made and promised to return in the morning. We thanked our driver and finished the day on a high, checking into our hotel which was probably the most luxurious (yet not the most expensive) of our trip.

Our room had an indoor balcony!

Our room had an indoor balcony!

Dressed the part

Dressed the part

Exploring the rice paddies

Exploring the rice paddies

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Having fun

Having fun

Tailored suit!

Tailored suit!

Another fitting...

Another fitting…

In the morning we returned to our selected tailor and described our desired clothing. They were very persuasive business women – we came in that morning aiming to buy a suit and a dress but left 2 hours later, having been measured and ordering a suit, 2 shirts, a bow tie, and 2 dresses! I had simply searched on google images, found 2 dresses that I liked and asked them if they could make them for me. If I had known then the stress that this would later cause, then I would have only ordered one. After our measurement-taking session, we explored the rest of the town and enjoyed some delicious food on the quaint sunny streets. We were able to borrow bicycles for free from our hotel which proved to be a fun way to get around. The following day we cycled to the beach in the morning and lounged on sun-beds under a parasol, swimming in the warm sea and generally soaking up the sun. In the late afternoon we returned to the tailor for what was our third fitting (the second of that day). Max’s suit looked great and he was very happy with his shirts, but one of my dresses still just didn’t fit properly, and as we had a flight that evening, I was a little concerned with the time remaining to fix it. The shop owner assured us that it would be ready when we returned at 5 pm and so we spent the rest of the afternoon visiting the various tourist sites of Hoi An. However, when we returned at 5, the dress was in a worse shape than ever and was far too short at the back. In a bit of a panic the shop owner said that she would fix it in the next 20 minutes and drop it off at our hotel by 5.30 pm, in time for us leaving to go to the airport. We returned to the airport and collected our bags, waiting for the delivery. We had hired a car to take us to the airport and the driver was already waiting for us to go. Just when we thought that we’d have to leave without the suit and dresses, the woman finally turned up on her motorbike. She knocked 20% off the price of the dress for the trouble and we made it to the airport in time – phew!

Vietnam telecom, Ha Noi

Vietnam telecom, Ha Noi

It felt very strange to arrive back at our little hostel in Ha Noi, 9 days after we had left it. We went out for a drink to enjoy the vibrant street atmosphere one last time and ended up having a great night chatting to other travellers from Europe, Canada, USA and Australia. When it was time to retire for the night, we concluded that we had a pretty amazing time in Vietnam and that we’d certainly have to come back. We arrived back in Singapore on a Thursday afternoon and decided to simply relax after so much travelling. On the Saturday night we enjoyed the Chocolate and Cheese buffet at the famous Marina Bay Sands hotel which was incredible (although the only complimentary drinks were caffeinated and hence Saturday became Sunday with little sleep between). It was then time to wave Max farewell once again and return to routine, research and lab reports.DSC04462

Our Vietnam trip was spectacular, one I’d recommend to anyone, and I’ve heard great things about the regions of Sapa in the north and the Mekong Delta in the south if more time is available to you.  This country is definitely one to put on your “Must See” list.

Sacha

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New Zealand: Part 2

At 6am on the 29th of December 2014, Max and I drove off our ferry after it docked near Picton and continued South West down the South Island. Before I’d left Singapore I had planned out our days in the North Island to make the most of our limited time but I hadn’t given as much consideration to the South. The return ferry was booked for the 7th of January so we already knew that we would not have the time to see all that we wanted to and it would be a matter of keeping our days full whilst also allowing ourselves to be on holiday and relax. And I think we managed to do that perfectly!

Caution - Kiwi Wandering

Caution – Kiwi Wandering

We drove down to Murchison, 3 hours from Picton, and hunted down the campsite that we had been recommended. However, rather than stop and pitch tent then, we drove on further to one of the many section of white water in the area to check it out. We stopped at the put-in for the Lower Matakitaki and, after reading the guidebook with some ‘umm’-ing and ‘ahh’-ing, I managed to persuade Max that the river was definitely within our ability and fine for us to paddle blind (without scouting to look) after only 4 hours of sleep on a ferry. It so happened that I was right and we had great fun paddling the short Grade 3 section. It felt so great to be catching eddies again after so long at a desk in Singapore.

After the river we drove back to the campsite to find that Auckland University Canoe Club (AUCC), from whom we had borrowed our boats, were already set up and planning their day. We pitched up beside them and joined in the fun. I was instantly reminded of joining Edinburgh University Canoe Club (EUCC) in the Alps the previous summer and happy to meet these new faces. One familiar face was also there – Carey, the current President of AUCC had studied for a semester in Edinburgh and it was amazing to catch up with her, this time on her home turf. The next 4 days were a blur of Club banter, boating and good times, and I didn’t remember to take a single photo! Max and I kayaked with AUCC each day, usually completely 2 or three runs a day. My favourite river was the Glen Roy, a rock-bed gorge section which happened to be the only Grade 4 of the whole trip. And my least favourite, Mangles, will remain my least favourite river for some time…possibly due to a certain terrifying swim involving a strainer (semi-submerged tree) that may have happened on a Grade 2 (almost flat) section whilst trying (and failing) to rescue a boat and resulted in losing a paddle – sorry Isaac! With booties aside we rang in the new year on our small campsite in a small town in the middle of nowhere on the other side of the world from home with our new found friends.

The Lower Matakitaki

The Lower Matakitaki

New Year's Eve

New Year’s Eve

Contemplating Maruia Falls

Contemplating Maruia Falls

New Year’s Day was a chilled affair, and in the evening we drove to Maruia Falls to take a look. I intended to paddle it but it was pretty high, and I settled on coming back in the morning to tackle it. It turns out big waterfalls (11m) are not any smaller at the top when you’re about to go over them and the first time I lost my nerve, but my second run was much more successful. With that it was already time to say goodbye to AUCC and for Max and I continue South West towards Hokitika on the coast. At that point I hadn’t realised that I’d be seeing many of them again quite so soon afterwards.

Preparing myself at the top

Preparing myself at the top

Over the lip...

Over the lip…

Maruia Falls

Maruia Falls

Hokitika

Hokitika

Waves!

Waves!

We spent the evening around Hokitika and camped nearby. The next morning we failed to find someone to paddle with and instead went further south to check out the Franz Josef Glacier. We spent the whole day there and awaited a call from a friend, Mo, who was considering an epic multi-day kayaking trip on the Landsborough river. Sadly, we didn’t get the call until late in the evening and had already made the decision to head back north to Hokitika, hence, that was the furthest South in the world I have ever been.

Waterfall near Franz Josef Glacier

Waterfall near Franz Josef Glacier

Franz Josef, Max and Me

Franz Josef, Max and Me

Max didn't want to paddle the icy water....

Max didn’t want to paddle the icy water….

More Ice

More Ice

The next day we woke to find Dan and Isabel from AUCC were on our campsite. They too had driven to Hokitika and we were soon reunited with more AUCC members. Without too much trouble I managed to persuade them all that they wanted to come kayaking with me on a heli-yaking trip! We called up the pilot and after hearing that the bay at our first choice of river had been washed away, preventing the pilot from landing, we made a new plan and settled for the slightly easier Taipo. Dan, Isabel, Kaz, James, Max and I got kitted up and drove to the river take-out of the Taipo. I had never been in a helicopter before and was incredibly excited as I helped to tie my boat onto the skids. Max and I went up first and were dropped at the put in, and then the chopper did two more shuttles to pick up the others and remaining boats. It was a beautiful day on the river, with the occasional bouncy Grade 3+ rapid to entertain us. Mostly I was just impressed with the remoteness and the fantastic azure blue of the river. At the take out we said our farewells (again) and Max and I headed in a new direction, North along the coast.

"Get in ze chopper!"

“Get to ze chopper!”

Tying on the boats

Tying on the boats

Not a bad view!

Not a bad view!

Having fun

Having fun

He stole the front seat!

He stole the front seat!

Taipo

Taipo

Unloading boats

Unloading boats

Second group incoming

Second group incoming

So blue!

So blue!

We stopped at Putakaiki to see the pancake rocks but we missed the high-tide which surges water through the rocks and out the blow-holes. It was still impressive but time was passing and we wanted to make it all the way to Abel Tasman the following day.

Punakaiki - pancake rocks

Punakaiki – pancake rocks

Abel Tasman National Park was recommended to me by each person I had spoken to about travelling in New Zealand and so I had high expectations as we drove over the windy roads towards the coast – it didn’t disappoint! Wall-to-wall blue skies and a shallow and surprisingly warm sea to match made the park very welcoming indeed. We pitched our tent on the last available spot on the campsite and enjoyed the afternoon swimming in the sea and eating good food (or a Subway if you’re Max). However, it was our second day in the National Park which rivalled the Tongariro Crossing, completed 2 weeks earlier (Part 1), for best day in New Zealand.

Going to the beach

Going to the beach

DSCN0985

Sand ripples

Sand ripples

Chillin'

Chillin’

Abel Tasman National Park is spread along the coast and the best way to see as much of it was possible is to either spend a number of days hiking up the coast (1 of the 9 Great Walks in NZ), or to explore by sea kayak. And so it was that two reasonably experienced whitewater kayakers paid money to be tourists for the day and paddle in a duo kayak (two-person) for the day. We had contemplated using our own kayaks, but whilst they are great for rivers and creeking, they are far too slow on the open sea and we would be very limited in what we could see on the one day available to us.
Around 8.30am we had our safety briefing and were fortunate enough to have a guide who had done whitewater kayaking himself and was happy for us to take care of ourselves. The Water Taxi ferried us up the coast to our starting point where the kayaks were waiting and soon we set of, Max in the back and myself in the front. Duos are said to be the cause of many break-ups and divorces as two strong-headed individuals may have different ideas about where they want to go and how quickly they want to get there, plus the person at the back can control the optional rudder which foot-pedals, giving more control. Max and I managed fine, though admittedly I was very happy when we swapped positions half-way through and I got to steer! We were blessed with good weather and paddled out to Tonga island (not the country!) and saw many seals, including some 1 and 2 week old pups! It was pretty incredible as we were very close to them. After a couple of hours we stopped for a delicious lunch at the unfortunately named inlet, Mosquito Bay, and there we had a little break and a swim before continuing with the second leg. Before I knew it, it was 4 pm and we were approaching the final bay where the Water Taxi picked us up and took us back to the campsite.

Aboard the Water Taxi

Aboard the Water Taxi

Seal pup!

Seal pup!

Close encounters

Close encounters

Suckling pup

Suckling pup

Happy in the back!

Happy in the back!

Lunch break

Lunch break

a quick swim

a quick swim

on the water

on the water

Satisfied with our day we started the drive back towards Picton for our ferry. I stopped the car by Pelorus bridge as I was aware that my dad had visited that spot when he was in New Zealand several year before, and even went for a sneaky swim, though the mosquitoes did their best to discourage me.

On the ferry back to the North Island, we made the plans for our final couple of days. We had a lot of ground to cover to get back to Auckland for our departing flights and so had to rule out the Coromandel Peninsula about which I’d heard many positive things. However, we did have time for one final tourist indulgence: Yes, you guessed it, we went to visit Hobbiton, the film set from The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. As a big fan of the books, I loved the experience and managed to overlook the large crowds there. We even had a drink in the Green Dragon!

Out side Bagend

Out side Bagend

The one ring!

The one ring!

Hiding from other tourists

Hiding from other tourists

Some hobbit holes are very small indeed!

Some hobbit holes are very small indeed!

The Green Dragon Inn

The Green Dragon Inn

Playing Hobbit

Playing Hobbit

Max played hobbit too

Max played hobbit too

Having a drink at the Green Dragon

Having a drink at the Green Dragon

The final day involved splashing-out on a hotel room and splashing even more in the pool. We visited Auckland and ate some good Mexican food and some pizza – treats that are hard to come by in Singapore. Max flew back to Switzerland in the morning of Saturday 10th of January and I flew back to Singapore later that same day. And here I sit, 3 weeks later, reminiscing about such an amazing trip. I hope I’ll go back one day and explore Milford Sound, Christchurch, the Coromandel, and many of the other places that were, out of necessity, omitted from the itinary. In the meantime, there are many more places in South East Asia that I’ve yet to visit and it’s time to start planning the next adventure!

Sacha

Sad farewells

Sad farewells

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New Zealand: Part 1

I blinked, 4 weeks flew by, and somehow I’m already back in my little room in Singapore pondering how it all passed so quickly. I knew before I left that 4 weeks would not be even nearly long enough to explore an entire country the size of the UK whilst also meeting up with friends and acquaintances, but I tried to pack in as much as possible whilst still allowing myself to enjoy being on holiday. For that reason, I’ve split the documenting of my travels around New Zealand into different parts in the hope that I can cover most of what I got up to. On Friday 12th of December I had my last day in the lab, and I’m pretty confident that I couldn’t have done any less work that day if I tried – I was simply too excited to concentrate. That evening our research group went out for our “Christmas dinner” which was a very interesting experience: chilli crab, shrimps, yam and bread rolls was certainly not something I had ever seen at a Christmas dinner before, but it was tasty and a fun evening. I then left myself the next day to pack and on Sunday the 14th I embarked on my journey. I arrived in Brisbane after an 8 hour flight and had 7 hours to wait there before my connecting flight to Auckland. Had I been more organised and had more money, it would have been nice to visit Australia for a couple of days on my way across but I guess that will be another trip in the future. Brisbane is on the very east coast of Australia but it still takes 3 hours from there to reach Auckland, putting into perspective just how far from Fife I was going.

Cloudy Auckland

Cloudy Auckland

When I finally arrived in Auckland, the bio-security staff must have thought I was mad as I grinned from ear to ear at the grey skies over the city. The temperature was less than 20 degrees for the first time in months and it was marvellous! I exchanged a bit of cash and caught the bus into the city. I bumped into another woman who was new to the country travelling from Canada and we ended up chatting as we started out respective journeys. We had a nice conversation and then she was gone. We didn’t exchange names because we didn’t need to. Just two travellers who’s paths crossed for a little while, which is something I have really come to enjoy whilst travelling. Auckland is a big, sprawling city but fortunately my hostel was in the city centre and very easy to find. Wandering around I think it reminded me most of Seattle, with its broad streets, hanging traffic lights and tall buildings. My first evening was very comfortable indeed as I was met by Arne and his girlfriend Anneleen, friends from Europe who had recently emigrated to New Zealand, and they invited me for dinner at their place. The food was incredible: not just Western food, but delicious home-cooked western food, and the company was even more enjoyable. I was utterly content, the evening passed by quickly (a running theme of my holiday) and I slept well despite the other 9 people in my dorm room.

Auckland harbour

Auckland harbour

Christmas coloured Skytower

Christmas coloured Skytower

The next day I explored the city further, walking up to one of the many dormant volcanoes over which Auckland lies and getting a great very over the metropolis. After my feet grew weary I visited the art gallery before taking the bus further north towards Maurangi Bay to visit the Gardiners: family friends who left Scotland just under 10 years ago. Unfortunately my school friend Liam was not home but I enjoyed dinner with the family, catching up after such a long time.

View of downtown Auckland from Mt Eden - an extinct volcano

View of downtown Auckland from Mt Eden – an extinct volcano

I checked out of the hostel the following morning and took the bus to Rotorua, a smaller town 4 hours south east who’s claim to fame is the many geothermal hot spots around the region. The smell of sulphur was almost overpowering and I was grateful for the rain that evening which seemed to lessen the intensity whilst simultaneously allowing the rising steam from the geothermal pools to appear even more mysterious. The weather brightened the next day and I ventured to Te Puia park to see the larger Geysers spewing water metres into the air. It was quite impressive and for the most part I managed to avoid the tourist groups. Whilst there I also watched a Maori performance and saw a live kiwi bird: definitely ticking some of those boxes for NZ travellers.

Geothermal action in Rotorua

Geothermal action in Rotorua

The rising steam was eerie (and smelly!)

The rising steam was eerie (and smelly!)

Bridge over troubled water

Bridge over troubled water

Pohutu Geyser, Te Puia

Pohutu Geyser, Te Puia

DSC02268

Landing on another planet?

Landing on another planet?

whoosh

Maori warriors

Maori warriors

From the 18th of December until the 22nd, I took advantage of the hospitality of some other family friends in Ohope, a small town near Whakatane (which is a slighty bigger town) on the east coast. Admittedly it was very nice to be looked after for a few days. I sought only a roof over my head but whilst I was there I was well fed and entertained with all sorts of activities, from swimming in the sea and surfing waves (almost), to mountain biking and kayaking round the harbour. I woke up to the waves crashing just outside my window and each day was filled with sea and sun.

View from my bedroom window

View from my bedroom window

In front of Whale Island

In front of Whale Island

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Pohutakawa trees - the NZ Christmas tree due to the red bloom in December

Pohutakawa trees – the NZ Christmas tree due to the red bloom in December

Coast, coast and more coast

Coast, coast and more coast

Enjoying my private beach

Enjoying my private beach

Waterfalls

Waterfalls

Private jet! (almost)

Private jet! (almost)

I said fairwell to my friends early on the 23rd and took and internal flight back up to Auckland on a tiny little plane which had only 6 other people on board – two of whom were the pilot and co-pilot! Although I had hoped to be waiting for him as his plane landed, Max’s flight was early and, many months after we said our goodbyes in Edinburgh, he was suddenly there in front of me on the very other side of the world. Magic. We picked up our hire car, which had been upgraded to an estate due to a roof-rack issue, and immediately sped off to the Auckland Uni Canoe Club (AUCC) lock-ups to pick out two boats to borrow for our trip. After that it was an easy drive south to a small village near Tauranga where I had hired a 1 bedroom studio – Kiwi’s call it a Bach – for us to spend our little Christmas.

He made it across the world!

He made it across the world!

Out boat laden car outside the bach

Out boat laden car outside the bach (and Charlie the cat)

Spending one’s first Christmas away from home is always a strange experience. Up until then I had been dreading it – being away from my family and celebrating in the summer had seemed far too strange. But with Max there and more adventure ahead of us it just became a fun day in which presents were exchanged and Skype calls home were made. Max agreed to uphold to British tradition and we celebrated on the 25th (not the 24th as in Germany). On Christmas eve we explored Tauranga, climbed the Mount by the sea and went swimming before feasting on some ‘kartoffel salat’ that Max made following his traditions. On the 25th we went kayaking on the Kaituna river. The run was much shorter than we had expected, taking about half an hour for us to leisurely make our way down. Sadly I didn’t have an SD card for my new GoPro so there is no evidence of our run. We enjoyed a mixed Christmas dinner that night consisting of corn on the cob, roast tatties and veg, and barbecued veggie sausages with gravy – yum! On boxing day we packed up and said goodbye to our little bach, driving west to the Waitomo Caves.

Potato Salad

Potato Salad

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve

Christmas day

Christmas morning

The Kaituna

The Kaituna

Christmas on the beach

Christmas on the beach

Christmas walk

Christmas walk

Christmas dinner!

Christmas dinner!

The caves were really cool, and the best part was a boat ride at the end of the tour which took us through an unlit water way that was filled with glowworms. They glistened like millions of stars above us, their light reflecting off the still water. It was pretty surreal. Shortly after emerging to day light again, we hit the road south and made it to a small free campsite (a bumpy field by a wee road) just as night fell and pitched our tent.

Waitoma Caves

Waitoma Caves

The 27th of December was definitely one of my favourite days of the trip: the Tongariro Crossing. With an early start we hired a shuttle to the start of the walk on the other side of the national park and walked about 23 km through the mountainous terrain back to our car. Inclusive in our hike was a detour that took us on a very steep scree slope ascent to the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe (pronounced Na-ra-ho-ee) which famously appears in the Lord of the Rings movies as Mount Doom. Is was an incredible day blessed with beautiful weather, and I think I’ll leave the pictures to do the rest of the talking on that.

A long day ahead

A long day ahead

Hmm looks steep...

Hmm looks steep…

Turns out it was steep (Max visible in orange)

Turns out it was steep (Max visible in orange)

The big ascent

The big ascent

On the crater rim

On the crater rim

The summit

The summit

Overlooking the world from 2291m

Overlooking the world from 2291m

The red rocks

The red rocks

Looking back on Mt Doom

Looking back on Mt Doom

The emerald lakes

The emerald lakes

again Covered in dust and sweat we splashed out on a motel room that night rather than camping and enjoyed a hot shower and well-deserved bed. The following morning we drove down to Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, and after tramping up Mount Doom the day before, we thoroughly enjoyed some good food, the national museum, and to watch the final hobbit film in the city in which it was made.

The museum

The museum

Elven soldier costume from the Hobbit

Elven lieutenant costume from the Hobbit

That night we slept uncomfortably in the car for a couple of hours whilst waiting to board our 2am ferry that would take us across the Cook Strait to the South Island. Our adventure continued onward from there and included kayaking, glaciers and helicopters, all of which you can read about in Part 2.

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Just a Jaunt in the Jungle!

This post is embarrassingly late, but finally, with presentations and literature reviews out the way, I have some time to sit down and tell you about one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

When my friend Mike mentioned to me that he wanted to go trekking in the Sumatran Jungle it seemed like a pretty cool idea, but with work deadlines looming I wasn’t too sure it was a good idea for me to join him. Fortunately, Ben, a fellow chemistry friend from Edinburgh, was also going and told me with some Nike attitude to “just do it”  – boy, am I glad that I did! I  quickly booked the flights from Singapore to Medan (Indonesia) and got the necessary Friday and Monday off work. And then in typical last-minute style, I left it until 1 am the night before to consider what I would need to pack for a trek in the jungle…. “change of clothes, camera, towel, water bottle…. that ought to do it.” Turns out I’d taken ‘packing light’ a little too far as I really could have done with a change of shoes/ flip-flops, swimming stuff and a waterproof (who knew you’d want a waterproof in the rainforest?) but I managed none-the-less.

On the Friday morning of our departure, I met with the others at Pioneer hawkers centre at 7 am to get some breakfast before our long journey. We were 7 in total – Mike (English), Elie (French), Francesca (Italian), Cat (English), Matt (Welsh), Ben (English) and myself (the token Scot). Mike had organised the trip after hearing about it from our Spanish friend Toni who had already done it recently, and so I was in the fortunate position of not having to worry about anything. After some greasy noodles, we took the hour+ train to the airport and the 1.5 hour flight to Medan, where we were picked up by our driver and taken north for 4-5 hours, through towns and then countryside to Bukit Lawang – a small village by the river which was to be our main base for the weekend! It was a colourful little place with painted houses, small shopping streets and wooden-planked bridges the crossed the river. We met are tour guide, Thomas, and took one of these bouncy bridges to the quieter side of the river where we were welcomed to Thomas’ Retreat, a cute little hostel on the river bank.

Cat, Cesca, Matt, Mike and Elie (fleft to right)

Cat, Cesca, Matt, Mike and Elie (left to right)

Bridge over the river

Bridge over the river

Thomas' Retreat

Thomas’ Retreat

Thomas' Retreat

Thomas’ Retreat

Bukit Lawang

Bukit Lawang

It was about 4 pm and we weren’t to begin our Jungle mission until the following morning so we had the evening to ourselves to relax and explore and Thomas encouraged us to take a dip in the river. With Francesca clever enough to bring two sets of swimwear, she leant me a bikini and we all enjoyed the fairly strong currents of the refreshingly cool, though rather murky water right on our doorstep, with the mass of green jungle looming just a. Then, after a brief wander round the shops, we settled down for delicious Indonesian dinner, a couple of beers, and a wee game of cards. There were a couple of other people staying at the house and the locals and staff were in high spirits which really gave us that Friday feeling. When the guitar came out the karaoke kicked off and everyone was joining in to all the classics and latest big hits. The local guys really showed off their skills, particularly with the rhythm/beats on the wooden box, and we were even treated to some Indonesian music too which was excellent. Chris and Andrew, two Aussies who were staying nearby, came over to join the party and they further increased my excitement about our trek, having just completed one themselves with only good things to say about it. The hours slipped by in good company and before I knew it it was time to call it a night and get some much-needed sleep before the long day ahead.

A cheeky dip in the river

A cheeky dip in the river

Guitars and drums

Guitars and drums

In the morning we had some more tasty (and very cheap) food at the retreat before packing our bags and starting our trek. Within 3 minutes we were already in dense Jungle, with an initial steep ascent. I was very glad that I’d decided to wear shorts as it was hard work fighting through the first bit of vegetation. I was loaded up with Mosquito repellent (thank Elie!) but I still ended the trip with more bites than everyone else combined.

Up we go!

Up we go!

Mike feeling optimitic

Mike feeling optimistic

Thomas gave us lots of interesting information throughout our trek and was a brilliant tour guide. He later told me that we were one of the luckiest groups that he has ever taken, because we saw more species than most people ever get to see. This first spot was a group of white-handed Gibbons, far up in the tree tops, quickly swinging from branch to branch! It was an incredible site! Apparently, only 1 in 20 groups would ever see them in the Sumatran Jungle.

White-handed Gibbon

White-handed Gibbon 2

White-handed Gibbon 2

White-handed Gibbon 3

White-handed Gibbon 3

Once we were forced to move on from our close encounter, it wasn’t long until we had another, far closer one: orang-utans! Two orang-utans, one male and one female, were sitting on trees at eye level just 2 metres in front of us down a steep embankment. Being rather solitary creatures, it is unusual to see both sexes together at one place, and both of them were curious about us, and not too camera-shy.

Big Male Orangutan!

Big Male Orangutan!

And then there were two...

And then there were two…

Female Orangutan

Female Orangutan

A call from Thomas further down the trail alerted us to the presence of more orange-furred friends. Higher up, sitting in a nest she had made, was a mother with her baby! I couldn’t believe quite how human they looked, particularly the baby as he “monkeyed around”. Closer to ground level was also a Thomas Monkey, who didn’t seem phased one bit by our presence. It was a spectacular sight and I was reluctant to leave when it was time to move on.

Mother and baby

Mother and baby

Monkeying around!

Monkeying around!

A Thomas Monkey

A Thomas Monkey

Me and the Monkey

Me and the Monkey

We had a quick break after a few hours of trekking and were presented with what can only be described as a feast of different fruits – watermelon (red and yellow), bananas, oranges and passionfruit (my personal favourite). We gorged on fruit, unaware that we were to have lunch in an hour, but by the time we stopped again we’d already built up an appetite. Lunch was still warm and consisted of fragrant rice with egg and veg, yum!

Fruit Galore!

Fruit Galore!

As we finished lunch the rain came in. Although my bag got a little wet, I felt comfortable in just my vest and no waterproof because the rain was fairly warm (just like in Singapore). However, the ground became more precarious to walk on as the rich orange mud started to loosen, and a couple of the group had some slips and we all got a bit grubby. The mood never dimmed though, and we hiked on through the afternoon until we encountered the rarest find of the trip – a black gibbon. Even Thomas himself was amazed to see this ape hanging in the distant trees. I tried to take a photo or two but he was very far away and surprisingly well camouflaged.

Near the top

Near the top

Then the rain came down...

Then the rain came down…

Ben sporting his high-tech waterproof gear

Ben sporting his high-tech waterproof gear

The black gibbon!

The black gibbon!

Just when we thought we were done with our luck for the day, we had our last ape encounter, not far from our camp destination. No-one had any difficult spotting this find as a mother orang-utan and her child sat on the ground, almost blocking our path such that we had to walk right past them! I don’t think any words can describe how amazing this experience was so I’ll let the photos do the talking.

Close encounter!

Close encounter!

Hello, little one!

Hello, little one!

Me and Jackie

Me and Jackie

Jackie taking a piece of banana from Matt's mouth!

Jackie taking a piece of banana from Matt’s mouth!

After about 10km of trekking we arrived at our base camp, up stream of Thomas’ Retreat where we stayed the previous night. We eyed up our sleeping arrangements – 7 roll mats under a tarp – and then donned our swimwear and jumped into the river, which had cleaned up a lot from the rainfall. Ollo, the chef with an infectious laugh, brought us some amazing tea and biscuits by the river and I marvelled at the luxury that one would never expect to find in the jungle of all places! It was so relaxing just sitting by the river with no plans and everything taken care of. The pack of cards were brought out again and we sat on roll mats on the ground by the fringe of the jungle and played some games. Dinner was cooked by Ollo and the others and just as darkness fell, candles were brought out and we feasted on Indonesian curries, spiced beancurd and savoury popcorn, as well as a can of beer and a ‘cheeky’ smoke for those interested. It wasn’t until late at night, after a hilarious round of “this is a cup” game, some magic tricks and puzzles, and a midnight feast for the boys with munchies, that we finally said goodnight to a fantastic day.

Coming out of the Jungle

Coming out of the Jungle

Almost at camp

Almost at camp

Bed for the night!

Bed for the night!

Comfortable clothes

Comfortable clothes

And games of cards, of course!

And games of cards, of course!

I was first to wake in the morning (presumably due to all the mosquito bites I’d received) and took a quick dip in the river to freshen up. Thomas brought me some tea and biscuits and I chatted with him and Ollo before the other rose for breakfast. Once everyone was up and changed into swimwear (thanks again Francesca!) we started a rather precarious trip up-stream along the root-covered rock of the riverbank, heading in the direction of a waterfall on the other side of the river. Using rubber rings covered in tied rope-netting we were ferried across the flow and clambered up the banks and into the jungle following the stream that met the main river we had just crossed. I must say, it felt rather odd to be walking through a tropical jungle barefoot in just a bikini…. but the waterfall was worth it – a ledge of riverbed that created an overhang which one could stand behind as the sheet of water pummelled down. We splashed around in the neck-deep pool before rafting back down to our campsite to pack up our things.

An early morning swim

An early morning swim

Definitely surfable...where's my playboat?

Definitely surfable…where’s my playboat?

The kitchen

The kitchen

Tea whilst waiting for breaky

Tea whilst waiting for brekky

Waterfall fun

Waterfall fun

We had one last goodbye from an orange-furred friend who had come all the way down to the river to wave us goodbye, and then we packed the bags into plastic sacks (to stay waterproof) and hopped onto the rubber ring rafts, which had been lashed together to form two larger rafts. One guide sat in the front and one at the back of each vessel and they used long wooden branches to change our direction as we enjoyed the ride back to Thomas’ Retreat in Bukit Lawang. It was no kayaking adventure, and the rapids only hit Grade 3 at most, but rafting with friends is always a great laugh – especially when Matt gets thrown off the back and is clinging to the side to try to hop back on! In just half an hour or so with were already back where we started – much more dirty and tired than before, but very, very happy!

Back in Bukit Lawang

Back in Bukit Lawang

Taking a wander

Taking a wander

Kayak Rental!!

Kayak Rental!!

Once again, we enjoyed good food and good company at the hostel, and certainly a good sleep after two days of trekking. We woke up at 6am on Monday morning with one last treat before starting our journey back to Singapore: The Bat Cave!

The sun was already up and we started our hike in the opposite direction to our previous venture two days prior. This allowed us to see more of the local area, the little houses and farm lands where the Palm trees grow for palm sugar, or the rubber trees for rubber. It was interesting to hear first hand from Thomas how people there felt about such produce compared with the allegations in Singapore and the Western world. We walked on, along paths that were much better defined than the trails we took in the jungle.

“AAAAAH!”, I screamed. Out of nowhere I felt agonising pain in my lower right arm and looked down to see a small black and yellow bee, quite unlike a friendly bumble bee, stuck in my skin. I instinctively brushed it off but was still yelping in pain and Thomas saw my arm and just shouted “RUN”. We all legged it down the path, but unfortunately for Elie, Matt and myself, we were at the back and didn’t escape so easily. As I ran, I felt two more attacks right on my spine which felt like a knife in the back. When we stopped running I had 4 stings in total, Elie had one and Matt had one dangerously close to his eye. Thomas gave us some cream to rub in but even now, 5 weeks later (whoops, this is a late blog indeed!), I still have lumped marks on my arm from the stings.

Fortunately, we were out of the bee territory and almost at the bat cave. We started our decent into thicker, darker jungle and climbed along perilous stone walk-ways between boulders that had been weathered by running water. We reached the first cave, but were informed that we had further to go. With our head torches on, we went deeper and deeper and the space got smaller and smaller until I thought we were at a dead-end. I saw one single bat fly past and was admittedly a little disappointed. However, Thomas then pointed out to me a hole in the cave wall in front which he told me to climb up through. Being more than a little claustrophobic, I had to watch Ben go through first before I could bring myself to contort myself through the awkward space which twisted upwards and left. After so crawling, squatting and shimmying we were in the open again in some sort of large chasm. We could see the sky and trees above and continued forwarded to the much larger cave. It was deep in this cave that we saw what we were looking for. Hundred of bats lined the walls and the ceiling of the dark space – the smell was awful. They were actually quite cute, with little pig faces. Thomas remarked that there were not that many and said that if we could have been here a few hours later then all the bats would have returned from their night hunting and would fill every wall space available.

The open between caves

The open between caves

Into the second cave

Into the second cave

However, we didn’t have long to dwell, and rather quickly headed back along a different bee-less route to the Retreat to quickly pack up and eat delicious banana porridge (which is essentially rice-pudding because they use rice instead of oats) before saying farewell to Thomas and his diligent team and taking the long car journey back to the airport. We spent our last Rupiah on food at the airport – which paled in comparison to our feasts over the weekend – and we enjoyed a last game of cards or two, and then boarded the plane back to Singapore, where lots of lab work lay waiting for us!

It really was a fantastic trip though. Thanks to everyone that made it so special!
The semester is drawing to an end now – those taking classes are studying for their exams, and in just one more week, they will be finished. I will be very sad to say goodbye to many new friend who are only on exchange for one semester and I hope to see them again in the future! I am also a little jealous of those that get to go home to their families for Christmas, but I have a very special trip planned to a country I’ve wanted to visit for a long time….
I’ll tell you all about it in my next post in the new year!

Sacha

I leave you with these cheeky little ones!

Tiny kitten

Tiny kitten

Cheeky baby Orangutan

Cheeky baby Orangutan

Cheekiest pair of them all!

Cheekiest pair of them all!

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Bicycles and Beaches in Bali

University work is catching up on me and hence I’m a little behind with my blog, but I’ve finally found some time to give mention to my trip to the island of Bali, Indonesia! As seems to be the general theme with trips here, this was a rather last-minute decision as my German friend Magdalena approached me and asked if I would like to join her for a long weekend in Bali only a week or so before we left. My friend Ruby, also from Edinburgh Uni, joined us too and on Saturday the 4th we took the almost 3 hours flight to the island.

Singapore to Bali!

We arrived in the early evening and got a taxi to our hostel which was in Ubud on the west coast of the country. Despite being ripped off by the taxi driver who took full advantage of three white tourists who weren’t familiar with the local currency, we were in high spirits when we reached our hostel which turned out to be absolutely beautiful. We had deliberately chosen Ubud so as to avoid Kuta and the heavily tourist populated areas, so I had been very unsure of what to expect of our rooms, and they were so much better than my expectations. Everything seemed clean and we had a family suite to ourselves – two single beds in 1 room, and a four-poster double in the other with ensuite. Admittedly the bathroom was very basic and I was at one point held hostage by a manic cockroach that wouldn’t let me leave!

Magda's double bed!

Magda’s double bed!

The bar

The bar

Our table

Our table

After a quick wander around our new place, we walked down into the town to find some food. It was immediately apparent to me how different the town was to anywhere else I’d ever been. The climate was really pleasant with still some warmth at night but none of the humidity of Singapore. The fresh smells in the air and the bustle of people walking along the dirty road reminded me a little of Jinja in Uganda as did the number of scooters/bikes whizzing past and weaving between the occasional car. But the presence of so many small shops, pharmacies, and clothes/tourist outlets brought an end to the similarities. We meandered down a side street to happen upon a small restaurant and decided to have dinner there (And a mango lassi, of course!).

Dinner!

Dinner!

After a pleasant evening, we decided to continue our chat back at the hostel and have an early-ish night. On Sunday we ventured out again and followed our ears to a local temple where a group of men were sitting on the floor playing music which consisted of drums, chimes, bells and some kind of xylophone. We then took another side street which led us further away from the road and on towards the rice terraces! A long, tree-lined walk through the fields – it was really peaceful and relaxing, with such vibrant colours of green.

The door to our hostel

The door to our hostel

Morning music making

Morning music making

The rice padis

The rice padis

Rice worker in the field

Rice worker in the field

Taking a break!

Taking a break!

Along the path

Along the path

We stopped for lunch at a beautiful little restaurant and had some good food. In particular, I recall that the coconut bread with palm syrup was delicious! In general I preferred the food I had in Indonesia over most of that I’ve tried in Singapore, but I’m also aware that we were on holiday and eating at restaurants everyday!
After eating we walked back into the town and wandered around the market, picking up a couple of things here and there. Suddenly, I came out of a shop to see a mass parade of people all dressed up walking down the road. Bali is well known for it’s numerous festivals, celebrations and rituals ceremonies and we had happened to arrive during another busy weekend of celebrating.

Many figures

Many figures

Colours

Parade

Parade

The following morning we were picked up at 7.45 for our cycling tour that we had booked. The tour guide, Katutt (Joe), was from Bali himself and provided us with amazing insight into the lives of the local people (away from tourist areas). Along with some girls from Alaska and four individuals from the Netherlands, we were first dropped off at the restaurant for complimentary breakfast which overlooked Batur volcano! It was a beautiful morning! (Made better by pancakes and fresh pineapple!)

We were then driven to a nearby coffee plantation. As part of our tour we learnt about the different beans, tried a raw bean (which is very sweet and tastes nothing like coffee) and got to see the special species of cats which eat the coffee beans, fermenting them with stomach enzymes. Apparently it is supposed to make an excellent (and expensive coffee) though I didn’t try it. We were sat at a long table and given samples of different local teas and coffees to try, most of which I enjoyed although all were rather sweet!

Balinese breakfast - not bad

Balinese breakfast – not bad

Volcano

Volcano

Coffee Experience

Coffee Experience

Bean roasting

Bean roasting

Coffee Cat

Coffee Cat

Free Samples - yum

Free Samples – yum

It was then time to get on the bikes and start our tour. We cycles through 14 different villages, far away from tourist areas, and were educated along the way as to the meaning of certain temples, or the reason for the location of a certain graveyard or doorway. It was all very interesting! We even visited a rice terrace and had a shot at harvesting some of the rice and I can say I will now appreciate rice that little bit more after seeing how much work goes in to collecting it all. After a couple of hours of cycling around, we had one last 20 minute cycle up the hill to the restaurant for a well-deserved lunch.

Local life

Local life

School kids

School kids

Ruby working the rice

Ruby working the rice

Rice worker

Rice worker

Big tree....

Big tree….

After the tour, Ruby, Magda and I decided to make the most of our afternoon and visited the Monkey Forest Sanctuary – an woodland area with many 14th century temples overrun with Balinese Macaques or long-tail macaques which, I am informed, are the most widespread and successful of all primates (apart from us). There were so many of them! And they were clearly accustomed to many ignorant tourists as they would try hard to steal items and break into backpacks and handbags in search of food. It was a nice place to spend the afternoon.

Banana Munching

Banana Munching

Babysitting

Babysitting

Is King Louis home?

Is King Louis home?

Monkeying around

Monkeying around

Among the Vines

Among the Vines

Our final day in Bali was beach day! We took a taxi in the morning across the southern half of the island to Kuta. As we walked along the beach it didn’t take long until a salesman approached us trying to get us to take surfing lessons from his team. I managed to haggle down to a good price (350,000 IDR = £18 for 2 people, for 2 hours each!) and Magdalena and I decided to give surfing a shot, whilst Ruby enjoyed some breakfast bintang on the beach! For the first hour we had an instructor each who showed us the basic principles and helped up to catch waves, and then the next hour we had the boards to ourselves and were free to try our luck. I started to get the hang of it towards the end and managed to stand up and control my movement a bit along the wavefront, but I could definitely do with more practice! Hopefully I’ll get the chance to try again someday (though I think a wetsuit might be necessary in Scotland…!).

Surf's up!

Surf’s up!

After some Italian food for a late lunch, we took the taxi back to Ubud and enjoyed a relaxed final evening before preparing to get up at 2.30am for our ride to the airport! Before we new it we were back in Singapore  – time to start planning the next adventure!

Until next time!

Sacha

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