When the sun is shining and the grass is green…there is no place I would rather be than Ireland!
I was talking to some friends last night about solo travel and the enormous benefits bestowed on people who are brave or adventurous enough to set off on their travels alone. I thought I could use my blog to share some positive experiences I have encountered with total strangers but mainly I wanted to use this post to hear your stories!
Have you ever experienced the kindness of strangers while on your travels??
Be it someone who helped fix your puncture in the Australian Outback or a young kid who helped you find your hotel through the winding streets of Venice??
On my way to Australia last November I had a great experience where I befriended a stranger on the plane from Cork, who turned out to be an extremely well off but more importantly very inspirational business man who employed over 800 people in a Tech company in China. He taught me many a thing that I still keep with me today, and also treated me to a delicious meal while waiting for my nest flight. An experience that can be read about here.
Almost a year later and as my trip to South Korea began, I found another stranger putting a smile on my face. After a short flight from Cork to London Heathrow, I had another dreaded 5 hour stopover. As all the restaurants were super busy I was asked to share a table with a few other travellers. No problem. I got talking to the guy opposite me, mainly because the cocktail he was drinking looked interesting so I decided to order the same(!), and he turned out to be a very good-looking and interesting Irish guy (if you are reading this…HELLO!).
We had a great conversation about work, travel and life, as he asked me why I had decided to jet off to Korea for a year. We chatted for a while and then he bid me farewell as he had to run to catch his flight. As he stood up to leave, he informed that he had been so intrigued listening to me talk and was so sad that he had to depart that he had paid for my meal and drink as a farewell gift. I was actually speechless but secretly delighted.
I’m sure we have all been that kind stranger too, at one stage or another. One memory I have, which while not entirely a ‘kind’ gesture, is certainly something that put a smile on the face of many strangers.
Standing knee-deep in the freezing, Irish sea or laying down on the hard, cold rocky pier back to back with naked strangers, as a ship sails in from England (no doubt full of puzzled passengers!) was a morning I’m not going to forget anytime soon! I can’t begin to imagine what was going through those passengers minds as they saw a few thousand naked Irish people welcoming them into Dublin Port at 5 o’clock in the morning! “Welcome to Ireland, the friendliest nation on Earth!”
Giving out FREE HUGS to bewildered students in a trendy shopping area in Seoul, South Korea was also a great way of spreading job to strangers! That, and the day I spent dressed as a clown and face painting kids for free in Dublin, Ireland.
Nothing can put a smile on your face like the kindness of strangers.
Please share your stories in the comments below! x
At the end of March I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Kolkata for one week to see The Hope Foundation’s projects with street and slum children. Most of my friends and family know how hard I fundraised to make this opportunity a reality, but many of you don’t know the enormous effect it had on me. I know it’s a long post, but a LOT happened, and my ONE WEEK in Calcutta has heavily influenced a life-changing decision in my life.
My initial impressions of Kolkata (previously Calcutta) were not what I imagined them to be. In the past whenever people mentioned Kolkata, images from the movie Slumdog Millionaire would come to mind; I imagined the streets to be full of beggars, young children walking around aimlessly, people knocking on car windows looking for money. This may have been a very naive and ignorant view, but that was what I imagined the city of Kolkata to be like. On arrival I was shocked, but in a different way to what I had imagined. I guess for people not well-travelled or the younger students on the trip, arriving into one of the poorest cities in the world could have been jaw dropping. However, and perhaps to my detriment, my extensive travels in Africa have toughened me up to the extent that very few things truly shock me these days.
The city of Kolkata was a lot quieter (although FAR from quiet…beep beep, beep BEEP!), a lot cleaner (although again, far from clean), and a lot less congested than I thought it would be. When you think of India, you think of people EVERYWHERE. Absolutely everywhere. So my first thought on arrival was, “Ehhh…where are all the people?!”
Being with a young school group, staying in a hotel, and travelling everywhere by private bus – I sometimes felt I wasn’t seeing the real Kolkata. I knew there was more out there, but I felt I just wasn’t able to see it.
Settling in – Something will ALWAYS shock you.
The two things that did shock me to the core happened after a few days in Kolkata. The first was the slums. I have never been in a slum before and everything about it was just awful. The lack of space, rubbish everywhere, pigs running around and sniffing through dirty water and rubbish, the overcrowding, the smell, the lack of access to adequate sanitation – you could see small children squatting to go to the toilet on the side of the road, or grown men just leaning against a wall or railing in broad daylight. It seemed few of the kids were in school as most were running around the slum, half-dressed, playing in the dirt or minding younger siblings. Everything about the slums made me feel uncomfortable, claustrophobic and just sad that people still have to live in such HORRIFIC conditions. You literally have no idea how awful it would be to live like that, with so little possessions, and little hope for a brighter future.
At first, even the HOPE projects within the slums couldn’t help take away this feeling of hopelessness. On arrival at the crèche/coaching centre, we found up to 30 kids in what seemed like a very small room. As it was nearly 40’c outside the room was very hot and stuffy, and I couldn’t believe how many kids were taught in that tiny space each day.
However after sitting down and interacting with the kids and seeing the incredible way the HOPE staff managed the student’s time in such confined space, it was truly inspiring. The students in this room were the LUCKY ones. They were learning, singing, smiling and laughing. They were getting an education which will lead to a brighter future, which is something kids NOT in the room will find extremely difficult to accomplish.
The coaching centres may be small but compared to the rest of the make shift building in the slum, they are actually quite spacious. Plus they also serve the community in more ways than one, as they double as health clinics in the evenings and at weekends. These rooms are little pockets of gold for the children and their families that live close by.
The second thing that shocked me was going on Night Watch. The HOPE Night Watch team is a team of 3 people (a driver and 2 ‘watchers’) that patrols the streets of Kolkata in a make shift ‘ambulance’ each night looking for abandoned or sick children or adults that may need urgent medical help. Driving through the streets of Kolkata at night was eye-opening. Suddenly, as if they had come out of nowhere, I could see that there were people sitting and lying on thin sheets of plastic everywhere. I literally couldn’t believe my eyes. I don’t think I imagined there would be so many people living and sleeping on the streets. Or maybe I thought it was just individuals rather than WHOLE FAMILIES. It was really sad to see small children and babies curled up next to their mother with nothing to protect them.
We stopped off at Howrah station and it was a real kick in the teeth to see all the people outside the train station, essentially homeless, with nothing to protect them from the elements. It was terrible to see how late these young kids were staying up, way past midnight, running around without supervision, without protection and most likely with very little to eat. We even saw a new-born baby, probably only a few weeks old, lying on the cold ground next to the mother, who was fast asleep. Anyone could have taken this baby. It was frightening to see, to witness, to know that people must live like this just to survive. We have SO much, and still complain, while these people have SO little, and yet still do not beg or ask for hand outs. While the night watch team did hand out donated clothes sent over from Ireland, each person who received something was SO unbelievably grateful and happy to receive something as worthless (to us anyway) as a baggy secondhand t-shirt.
These were a few of my favourite things….
One of my favourite things on the whole visit was The HOPE hospital. I think it is an amazing place, and while one should be sad going around a hospital, I found myself smiling and found the experience really uplifting. You realise how lucky these children are, how great they are being cared for, and know there is a lot of hope for them to have bright futures. I actually found it very difficult to leave the hospital…either I wanted to stay there with them, or I wanted to take them home with me!
Meeting little Ganesh, the 4-year-old boy who was found by the night watch team in December severely malnourished and near death, was heart wrenching. But then hearing firsthand the enormous improvement in his health over the last 3 months, and getting the chance to play ball with him and watch him sitting up in his colouring was quite an emotional moment for me.
Visiting some of the homes such as Kasba, Tollygunge and even the drop in centre (Tollygunge Nabadisha) was a really uplifting experience and in a way reminded me of my love of children, my love of teaching and how being in an office can be hard for me as I am so far removed from the actually people we are trying to benefit.
So, can one week trip REALLY change your life??
I have always felt one should ‘Do what you LOVE and LOVE what you do’. It’s now time I started listening to my own advice.
My 7 days in Kolkata were TRULY LIFE-CHANGING, but strangely not in the way I originally thought. I thought I would return home with a renewed passion for working with a charity and for progressing my career in the Humanitarian field. However what actually happened was that my week in Kolkata made me re-evaluate my career choice, and my priorities in life. It made me realise I belong in a classroom and not in an office. Working with kids and not with computers. My biggest passions are working with children and travel so it’s time I combined the two and ‘lived the dream’ so to speak.
I hope to return to Kolkata someday, with the Hope Foundation, and dedicate my time to working on the projects, working with the children and sharing my passion for life. HOPE is an amazing charity, and the people who work for HOPE are true angels in disguise. If you ever get the chance to visit Kolkata, make sure to look up The Hope Foundation. Who knows, it could change your life too.
With all the recent talk about North and South Korea, I thought I would share this post with you. This time 2 years ago I was living and working in Munsan, a town of about 100,000 only a few KMs from the border with North Korea. Here’s what I had to say about it at the time….
Sometimes as I lie in my new bed, in my new room in a brand spanking new apartment block, it’s easy to forget where I am. From the minute You step outside the door of your 21 storey apartment complex you are gently reminded EXACTLY where in the world I am. I have become so used to seeing soldiers everywhere that I have simply forgotten to write about them in my blog.
I am living in Munsan, which is a city only 20 minutes from the boarder with North Korea. Munsan is the last stop on the train line. If you go any further, and as far as I know only freight trains do, you will find yourself in the depths of a ravaged nation. A country that has been totally cut off from the outside world, has a secretive government and a nation that has been struck down with famine. Today, due to the government’s secretive nature and its reluctance to allow in foreigners, North Korea is considered the world’s most isolated country.
Soldiers are everywhere in Korea. At the moment I am sitting in a PC Bang, which is like an internet cafe except I’m the only person actually online, everyone else is playing computer games. I am also the only girl and the only perosn not in camoflage uniform! There are probably about 20 soldiers in here, as always.
When I walk down the street in Munsan, you see soldiers everywhere, just going about everyday life. As we are so near to North Korea, there are lots of high fences with barbed wire and look out posts, a lot of which it must be said are no longer in use. But the soldiers remain.
Of the three tunnels between North and South that were discovered in the last 30 years, one of them, the third infiltration tunnel, ends only 12km North of Munsan. I’m hoping to do a tour of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) next weekend, where you actually get to go down into the tunnels and experience it first hand. The tunnel is about 1,600 m long and about 150 m below ground. It is apparently designed for a surprise attack on Seoul from North Korea, and can easily accommodate 30,000 men per hour along with light weapons!! Eeeep.
Don’t ask me how or why exactly, but on Friday the other Munsan teachers and I ended up in a place Bill Clinton famously called, “The scariest place on Earth.” Anyone who knows me and knows my keen thirst for adventure will know I do not turn down offers to go to crazy places, in fact I LOOK for them.
We had befriended some US military soldiers who happened to live in the JSA (Joint Security Area) situated about 15 minutes north of Munsan and about 5 minutes south of North Korea!! The JSA is the only area in the country controlled by both North and South Korea. It is known to be one of the most isolated places on the planet, with stories of shootings and kidnappings rife. One of my friends said that she heard a story recently of someone’s grandmother who had been kidnapped for 5 days ‘just for fun’. This is no place to mess around in.
So off we went on our little adventure to what was once one of the most terrifying war zones on earth and a place still covered in secrecy and armed forces. The journey there was weird enough. We first had to cross the ‘Bridge of No Return’, a bridge lined with explosives so if any attacks or intrusions were to take place, the military could delay their progress by blowing up the only entrance into South Korea. We had to pass many checkpoints and often show our I.D cards.
We were given a mini tour of the army base, were bought a free breakfast and as the tour buses passed by (with each passenger paying 150 bucks each!) they waved at us as if we were animals in a Zoo or celebrities..it was very bizarre and we felt very out of place. We were been watched at all times, and that we weren’t allowed to take any pictures (Ooops!). It is a weird place, surrounded by mountains and green fields, and one of the first places I have witnessed birdsong and wildlife amoungst the army bunkers and look-out points.
On exiting one building we heard gun shots and looked at each other with frightened glances. Thank-fully we were told it was just the shooting range/practice range, but it was still somewhat scary. The guys flicked laminated pieces of paper at us, their “licences to kill’. These were no joke, they were real life licences to kill. They also showed us their guns, unloaded of course. A serious reminder of where we were.
We got to observe the army first hand, the rank system, how ‘higher ranks’ could smoke the junior privates and how their was a huge amount of respect to be found. It was quite a culture shock to us carefree teachers I must say and I was happy to head back to Munsan and my life as a teacher!
Just thought I would share some photos I took while visiting Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) in March. Nearly everyone I photographed had such striking beauty, such big, beautiful eyes and were dressed in a rainbow of colour that would brighten up the dullest day.
Many of their circumstances were awful, living in slums or on the street, surviving on less that €1 a day. And yet they power on through, so resilient, so dignified, so grateful for the smallest things such as getting to see themselves in a photograph. I will never forget these people, and hope that these photos will help, even just a little, to inspire others to keep them in their thoughts too.
Guess what? I have set up a new blog by the brilliant name of ONE FIT MUCKER. Don’t worry…I’ll still be posting about my travels here, but posts about my new mission to get fit and have fun doing it will be posted on my new blog with lots of great photographs from each event.
The challenge : To participate in as many wild and wacky adventures before the end of 2013, with the goal of having as much fun as possible while increasing levels of fitness at the same time.
This will not be your average fitness blog.
This is not about running. Not about marathons. Not simpply about getting fit. It’s about getting down and dirty on crazy adventure courses, spending more time outdoors rather than in the pub (although there might be a bit of that too!) and strengthening friendships through day time excursions rather than night time sessions!
By the end of the year I’m going to be… ONE FIT MUCKER!! Check it out now.
If you were to ask me, “What was the best thing about you holiday in Lanzarote?”
I would tell you… “THE WINE!!”
If you were to ask my friend Ollie who, I traveled with, he would say, “The Wine…and the cheese!”.
On arrival in Lanzarote, and upon first glimpse of the rough, dry terrain, you would have to wonder HOW ON EARTH there could be vineyards growing on an island COVERED in volcanic rock. An island that is hot and sunny all year round, gets minimal rainfall and has strong winds blowing through that could almost pick you right up off the ground?!
The answer?? There are TWO! Firstly, it turns out that the volcanic eruptions, and subsequent fields of lava and rock, that almost ruined agriculture on the island 300 years ago is now proving to be an amazing fertiliser! The small grains of volcanic rock serve as porous mulch, drawing moisture from the air, releasing it into the ground and preventing evaporation, and thus enabling vines to grow in this otherwise warm, dry climate.
Seondly, they have invented something quite ingenious to protect plants from the wind. Small, semi-circle walls which are hand-built stone by stone. These little ‘Zoco’s', as they’re called, protect the vines from the strong atlantic winds and are absolutely spectacular to look at. Agriculture is Lanzarote seems to be a real test of Man Vs Nature, where man seems to be , miraculously winning!
But enough about the technical stuff. Let’s talk wine. Sweet, sweet wine. On one of the cloudy days of our holiday, we booked a day long hop on hop off bus tour, which gave you the option to hop off at any of Lanzarote’s top attraction which included beach resorts, museums, monuments, tiny villages and last but definitely not least, some wineries. Being the typical alcohol loving Irish youths that we are, Ollie and I opted for not one but TWO wine stops. Everything else on the bus tour, we agreed, could be skipped. Glad we had our priorities parked in the same place!
The first, and best, stop was at the El Grifo Wine Museum, where besides spending half an hour wandering around a seemingly quiet, empty and dusty museum, we got to taste a platter of pure goodness. This heavenly platter included six wines of our choice, two different types of goats cheese and some delicious home-made cranberry sauce. A feast for ones palate. We simply could not get enough of the El Grifo Semi-Dulce (semi sweet). It was sweet, but not too sweet. Just sweet enough for you to want another glass. And maybe just one more.
We bought one bottle in the vineyard and about 5 more on return to Puerto Del carmen.In fact I think Ollie may even have bought 1 or 2 extra in the airport, much to the delight of his friends and family back home no doubt. The second winery, Le Geria, while nice, felt a lot more like a cattle mart than a peaceful winery. Tourists were herded on and off buses and into the shop on the hour every hour and there was nowhere to sit down and enjoy the wine. There was also no cheese tasting, a huge crime in Ollies eyes. Wine and no cheese?? What sort of devilment is this!!!
If you make it to Lanzarote but for some strange reason don’t make it on a wine tasting tour, fear not. Just ensure that you order a bottle of wine with dinner. And lunch. Every day. You’re sure to find one that you like, we sure did.
I recently returned from a week-long break in The Canary Islands, with a good friend and fellow wine lover! Our week of winter sunshine was just what the doctor ordered for both of us; a chance to top up the tan and explore a new place (my holiday goals) and a chance to relax and rejuvenate while sipping on copious amounts of wine and cocktails (my friends holiday goals!).
Two of the highlights from our week-long boozey package deal (the shame, the shame) for me included a trip to Jameos Del Agua and climbing a Volcano that happened to have a pirate museum perched on top!!
Checking out the hundreds, if not thousands, of rare blind albino crabs in a blue lagoon which was created following a volcanic eruption over 3,000 years ago was certainly a first for me! The water was so shockingly blue, so unbelievably clear, that is t was like stepping into a parallel universe or the set of Avatar! Photos and words cannot do this natural wonder justice, it simply must be seen and experienced.
The Blue Lagoon in jameos del agua was not the only thing that treated our senses. Towards the end of the lava tunnel is an astonishing concert cave with amazing natural acoustics, a feast for the ears! The cave seems to draw you in and could very easily lull you to sleep, as you listen to classical chimes and admire the vastness of the cave.
En route to this enchanting place, our magical bus tour allowed us one more stop. We hopped off the bus in Teguise with the intention of checking out some churches and architecture and maybe even grabbing a bite to eat. However upon hopping off the bus, we both looked UP. And the sight bestowed upon was one of pure temptation. One of Lanzarotes 300 Volcanos, but with the added effect of a newly renovated caste-turned-pirate-museum perched on the edge, lay in front of us, begging us to climb it.
We had 1 hour until the bus returned to pick us up, so without thinking twice we shot off up the spirally road, wrapping its way around this ancient mountain. And boy were the views from the top worth it. (The pirate museum had much to be desired, but the views made up for whatever was lacking!) Those that read my blog regularly know that I’m a BIG fun of ‘jumping pics’, so the chance to leap into the air at the edge of a volcano was not something I was going to turn down.
Besides climbing volcanos and spying on blind crabs, much of our time in Lanzarote revolved around 2 things. 2 very important things if you were to ask my friend. But those delicacies, dear readers, are for another post….
India will be country number 36 for me…a tiny bit closer to my goal of traveling to 50 countries before I’m 30.
However before I go, I am determined to raise €1,500 for The Hope Foundation, a charity which does amazing work in Kolkata with street and slum children, giving them a brighter future. HOPE has so far helped over 30,000 children through education alone, and I want to be part of their amazing story.
SHOCKING FACT: There are currently over 250,000 street children living in Kolkata, living on the streets with no shelter from the elements, no one to care care for them or to protect them. HOPE works tirelessly to help these children through education programmes, healthcare, skills training and their 8 protection homes for young boys and girls.
To raise money for HOPE, I have signed up for the ‘RUNAMUCK CHALLENGE 2013′ which considering by shocking levls of fitness, is sure to be quite the challenge! If you would like to donate to this very worthy cause, and like to see me get absolutley battered and bruised and covered in mud from head to toe..then PLEASE DONATE HERE!
I will post photos here of both this event and my experiences in India, so you will be able to see exactly where your money is going and all the good it is doing!
Thanks for your support!
Janet xxx aka Journalist On The Run