Bhutan for the Backpacker: My Experience

Bhutan is a magical place, one that many travellers can only dream about. Wanting to make the most of my opportunity, my two weeks could not have more perfect! I left with new friends, a wealth of Buddhist knowledge and hunger for more. Friendly, respectful and outgoing, the Bhutanese welcomed me with open arms.

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Thangthangka, Bhutan <- 26th March.2016

Well, I’m freaking tired. So is my guide so it makes me feel a little better. Somehow I missed that we’d have 2 more passes, even if we made it over Bronte La. 4800m sucks, but hopefully we don’t go higher than that.

The climb to the lakes was beautiful but hard at 9am and 4100m. My guide had decided we’d walk until 11:30 and see how far we got. We ended up getting high enough to see the Pass! Definitely “bush-walking” and snow plowing but we followed the Yak trail as far as we could. Coming back sucked, straight up. It was stunning scenery and on the way back we hung up prayer flags which I’ll claim was badass! The assistant cook ended up waiting for 3 hours back at the Jomolhari Base Camp and, after we had finished eating, we headed down together. Although it was only 4 hours getting up, it took 3 to walk down. My heels are shot (Blisters obliterated, but hey!) and I’m sure I’ll be sore in the morning! 3 days down, 3 to go!

In the bush near Yakse ← 27 March

…Today’s mission took us from Thangthangka to (nearly) the Yakse village. There was a building at the end of the valley that Pema no. 2 was aiming for but I had to, for the first time, bail on our destination! I had felt the resistance early on from my feet, and knew that coming back down to the campsite would suck. I performed minor surgery on my blisters this morning but there wasn’t much I could do to minimise the uncomfortable throbbing pain. On top of it all I had layered up, preparing for the worst of the weather and we ended up spending 5 of our 6 hours in 20oC sun! I seriously developed heat rash! At 3500m I saw it first this morning on my hands, initially thinking it was a reaction to the sunscreen. A few days of ‘liberal’ application evidently doesn’t let your skin breath. When we got to our base camp, I discovered it was also starting on my legs. 20oC doesn’t call for thermals to say the least. To top it off, I am recovering from a freakin’ sunburn! Thanks to the beautiful day at Tigers Nest, my face and neck feel like I fell asleep on a beach.

Enough of my whining! Who have I spent the last five days with?

Pema no. 1- Guide turned confidant
Pema no. 2- Cook helper & lunch runner
Jigme- Bhutanese cooking magician. Could make a meal out of water.
Dorley- One-eyed horseman. Definitely would hire him if I moved into the woods. Could easy make a mansion from a tree.

 My first six days in Bhutan was my Jomolhari Base Camp trek. Although I had booked the Jomolhari Loop Trek, it was evident early on that it wouldn’t be possible due to the snow still at high elevations. The normal plan in this case, would have been to spend a full day at the Jomolhari Base Camp for some sightseeing hikes, and then slowly head back down. Thankfully our cook (who was very experienced with over 30 years in the trekking industry) had suggested that we head further down and have the chance to head up to the Soi Yakse Valley, an area that I should have seen on Day 5 of the trek. Despite not completing the full loop, we hiked one day high enough that we could almost see the first pass. It had snowed in Thimphu only a few days before I arrived in Bhutan and, as I live in Switzerland, fully respected the “don’t mess with Mother Nature” attitude. We weren’t going to be annoying any mountain deities on my trip.

I was thankful to see more than other tourists but it made for two long days, aided by blown-out blisters. (My hiking boots are years old, but my soft snowboarding winter feet hadn’t seen my hiking boots for over six months!) Blisters riding Blisters x3, I was walking like I had a stick up my bum. And with sun on us all day, it was an overly exhausting 5th day. The best thing about the Trek was coming back to camp with an amazing fresh meal of vegg, rice and chilli cooked up. I didn’t know it then, but it would be the best Bhutanese food I had the whole trip.

The second week is referred to more a “Cultural Tour” where I had the opportunity to visit monasteries, Dzongs (fortresses) and temples in Paro, Thimphu, Punaka and Gantey. Although I have hundreds of photos of the beautiful architecture, I wasn’t able to take photos inside the temples out of respect for the deities and Buddha. With the oldest of temples, it really felt like I was walking into a museum…floor to ceiling murals of various historical stories. Lord Buddha’s life story, Buddhist teachings and Bhutanese folk-lore decorated entrances around Bhutan. I was lucky to have a very patient and knowledgeable guide who answered all my questions — especially when I asked them multiply times!

 During the second week of the tour, I would typically have breakfast at the hotel, buffet style with a mix of Indian and western items; scrambled eggs, toast, fresh fruit, etc. Lunch would be had a (very touristy) set restaurant. My driver would need to pre-order the food, usually ‘fusion’: a standard mix of three vegetables, rice and a noodle dish. During my holiday in Bhutan, it fell on a religious Buddhist holiday whereas you couldn’t buy fresh meat in the markets. Larger hotels would have stuff stock-piled, or used canned variations imported from India. DSC08344Dinner was usually again at the hotel, but on a few occasions we ate in the town, but again at touristy restaurants. Although I would request to try local restaurants, it took a few days for me to learn that this isn’t really their culture. They’ll eat together with friends and family, and on special occasions go to a nice restaurant. In reality though, what a meal cost was not something they could afford eat week. It was an interesting change from Switzerland, where people eat out regularly! In Thimphu, the most metropolis city (but still small by European standards), there was a few bars / nightclubs, but this was mostly to placate the modern-thinking younger crowd.

I learnt towards the end of my trip that the restaurants where we ate at, had already typically agreements set up with my company. Although alcoholic drinks weren’t included, tea, coffee and water weren’t a problem and were added to the bill that would be later sent to the company office.

There was a standard list of sites that we visited during the second week. My only (small) regret with my trip, was that I didn’t get to see any of the famous Bhutanese festivals. There are 100s of dances performed by monks dressed as various folklore. We did get to see a small cultural show on my last night but unfortunately it wasn’t comparable to the real thing. It’s on the list for next time!

Although we spent the second week during various goembas and temples, I actually visited the famous Taktshang Goemba (Tiger’s Nest Monastery) on my second day as the altitude change was perfect for trekking acclimatisation. It was a beautiful day, and the hike to the monastery was certainly easier that I expected.

22nd March – Paro

…One of the most exciting things was when Pema told me about a ,,wishing relic rock”. You have to make a wish, close your eyes, and aim your thumb at the round impression in the rock. My first two goes didn’t amount to anything, so wishing for children were so far off! The third go I changed my wish and got it! Now let’s see if it comes true! …

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As for the sites we saw after the trek, we started in Paro Valley where we visited Kychu Lhakhang, Paro Dzong and Sangchen Choekor Shedra. We made our way east, towards Thimphu where we would spend a full day exploring. We hiked to Tango Monastry and then had lunch back in the city. While we waited to visit the Tashi Chho Dzong in the evening, we stopped at the Big Buddha (50m tall!) and the Takin animal reserve.

When we did make it to the Thimphu fortress, it was so much bigger than I anticipated! Ironically, the King, Queen and Prince live in a modest one-story building in the lush grounds away from the busy Palace (although the king will walk the 500m to work every day!). There was surprisingly little security for the royal family, in the way of guards and security. Just one huge fence! The guards for the palace were the first ones I had seen in Bhutan that did actually carry guns, but we could almost look into the window of the royal residence across the river! We weren’t allowed to stop and look (or take photos) out of respect. When I asked about the lack of guards, Pema said that almost all tourists will have a personal guide and therefore it is the responsibility of the guide to keep their tourists in line. (On this note; when we went into the Palace, I was wearing my Burmese htamain (a long skirt) with my rain jacket. It took some discussion between my guide and the guards to let me in as they thought it was part of the ‘Kera’, the tradition Bhutanese dress for women . Had this been the case I would have need to wear the rest of the outfit, including a small jacket over the top. I had to show them it was certainly not a kera dress by un-folding it.

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Inside the Thimphu Fortress- you can see the local men in the background wearing the ‘gho’.

Inside the Thimphu Fortress- you can see the local men in the background wearing the ‘gho’. I didn’t realise until I saw photos from that evening that it had a very likable resemblance to the tradition dress. Although I never meant to insult anyone, my guide did get a quick lecture about what is appropriate attire for the tourists!).

After our day in Thimphu, we had a full day’s drive east to Gangtey. On route, we had stopped at Dochula Pass for tea but as the weather was slightly cloudy we couldn’t see the panoramic view. It was amazing to think that every year the Chief Abbott (Bhutan’s religious leader) makes the pilgrimage from Punakha to Thimphu each year Spring. It was almost 100km over a mountain pass!

Gantey was definitely the smallest town I had seen, with only one main street and a few hotels. The Gantey Valley is best known to bird watchers as the nesting grounds for the black-necked crane. Unfortunately all the birds were still in Tibet while I was there, and only got to see the injured crane whose home had been made in the Information Center.

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Rural Bhutan
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Phobjikha Valley

The following day we walked, and sloshed our way through the Gantey Nature Trail. Unfortunately my shoes were lost to the good cause due to the mud and puddles, but we continued nevertheless onwards. We saw the Fertility Temple, and later back in Punakha, the Punakha Dzong. From Punakha we headed back to Paro, stopping at a Nunnery and a local Tao Village. As I was flying out the next day we also did some souvenir shopping, where I was able to get myself a painting!

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Was it worth it? A perspective slice.

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 As a ‘backpacker’, my average Asian travel budget (or estimate while saving) is an average of 50USD per day, and I don’t include my international flights in this estimate. Usually within a few days of arriving this budget will change– especially in Central and South-Eastern Asian countries. As I mentioned before, the daily limit during my visit to Bhutan was $250 per day. Fives times more than my average budget. I am very, very fortunate to work in Switzerland at the moment, and without having much in the way of expenses, we work to travel. Making the most of my situation, Bhutan was not going to be missed!

I was certainly part of the small younger crowd that was travelling in Bhutan. Most of them visit for trekking, but usually for the one week tour. After, while I was in India, I usually had two reactions: 1) Omg! You were in Bhutan!! 2) What the fuck. Why would you spend so much money for that? … granted, the later came from one disgruntled Scottish traveller that was being pulled through India by his girlfriend and had consequently given up enjoying any last possible experiences.

Bhutan was the first country in Asia that I have not seen poverty. There wasn’t people sleeping on the streets (it’s illegal), children went to school everyday and were not allowed out after dark (unofficially). The only time I saw children selling anything, was personally made book-marks along the path to the Fertility Temple. When I asked my guide, he quickly said that the parents will get in a lot of trouble from the police if they saw that and chances are, the kids (maybe 5 or 6 of them) were doing it in secret. He thought it probably would have been to purchase sweets from the local shop– I compared this to kids selling lemonade on the street corner. Certainly not the beggars on the streets on India.

There is still certainly an economic class structure in Bhutan, but certainly not as rigid as neighbouring countries. My horsemen, the lowest earner in my group during the trek, still made enough to send two kids to school. One son was studying to be a monk, but he had a sick wife in the hospital. His main form on income was the tourist treks, where he made 450 Nu./ 7USD per horse, per day.

For the duration of the trek my 250USD daily tariff kept four people employed. Sure, you could argue that I was sleeping in a tent and eating by a campfire for six days but I knew after that, these guys would all have money to support their families after. The company could also afford to buy good quality gear from Nepal, instead of cheaply made tents imported from India. When it was 5oC at 4100m, I was happy to be sleeping in a -10oC Marmot bag.

During the later part of my trip, the daily tarif included all meals, the accommodation (which was easily over 100USD each night for the hotels I was staying in), and of course pay the wage of my guide, driver and having a nice car for 8 days.

Although I thought I would argue with myself for why they don’t provide a cheaper, affordable option in order to carter to a larger market, the quality was unbeatable. This is a country that is proud of its image; an educated country that is welcoming to their guests. They are not shrouded in corruption and political problems with homeless people sleeping in the doorways. Indian labourers work often in Bhutan as they earn more, but still must follow strict Bhutanese rules. The population is educated, often up through to university and has a better sense of the global world than some of the visiting travellers themselves. All the younger generations spoke amazing english, and most hindi, as well. Television, although recently introduced, played BBC, CNN, HBO, SKY and Al Jezeera New stations- a more rounded source of information than available in Switzerland! Other than selling hydroelectricity to India, the only other main source of income for Bhutan is tourism. This funds the education system, health care and infrastructure (which as I was there, they were widening the national highway which travels through to Eastern Bhutan).

Financially, I couldn’t afford to travel through Western Europe on the same budget while being offered similar quality services. And even if I could (and did), that money would be going straight into the pocket of the private company’s bank account, leaving nothing for the local people to benefit from.

Was 250USD a day worth it? Yes! For the sake of preserving their culture, they are doing it the right way 🙂

My trip to Bhutan was definitely once-in-a-lifetime, and combined with my 4 days in Delhi/Agra, but I left knowing that I will have to go back at some point. So much still to see!

Packing Tips: My Must Have Items

The adventures of packing. The smallest detail which can make or break a trip. That small charger you forgot, or that extra pair of shoes you never needed. We’ve all been there. I know each time I go on a trip I play a small game of tetris with my backpack, hoping to make the most of my 55L Eagle Creek Truist backpack. After a few solid trips, I feel comfortable to share my 5. The items that come no matter where I go, hot or cold. Long or short. A trip is an adventure!

Stuff sacks.

In this day and age, most travellers will have some form of packing system. Some use packing cubes, but as I’m not travelling with a rectangle suitcase I find the stuff-sacks work better for backpacking. I purchased my Me°ru’ ones at the local outdoor outlet center for a bargain, with 5 different sizes (S-XL). I usually split them into the following categories; undergarments, t-shirts and light pants, jeans/sweaters, one bag for the trainers/hiking boots (this is always the same bag, in my case a red one, so I’m not fussed about dirt from the shoes getting on my clothes.), and dirty laundry. It works well for dirty laundry as the fabric of the stuffsacks is breathable so the clothes don’t stink a lot when put together for a few days. Unlike packing cubes, the stuff-sack pack completely flat to save space when I’m not using one of them!

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Two padlocks and a Swiss Army knife.

Although most will travel with some sort of padlock, I have found it easier to always have two. On a not-so-recent trip to Thailand, I found that my main padlock didn’t fit in the hostel lockers. My friend’s luggage lock, with a smaller shackle, fit perfectly. I now always have two, also allowing me to lock valuables away and keep my other belongings locked in my bag if necessary. When my whole bag doesn’t fit into the storage provided, I will typically leave everything (minus valuables) in my bag, as to save ‘unpacking’. The second lock is also perfect as my small packable day bag can also be locked as neccessary. Locks don’t take up a lot of room, and are definitely worth it. A Swiss Army knife is pretty standard I believe and with I use the keyring clip from my bag so as never to accidentally pack it in my carry on!

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USB retractable cable.

With technology enriching our lives (and travels!), we all have the trips where we bring wayyy tooo many cables. My first recommendation is to have everything charging with the same cable! I have never travelled with my laptop (tablets all the way!) so this eliminates the biggest hassle. My camera, phone, and battery backup all charge with mini-USB. With minimal space taken up, I usually bring the small cable with my carry-on so I can charge my phone while on long-haul flights. Most hostels (and hotels) will have USB charging points nowadays although I do still bring an international travel adapter. Battery backup is perfect for my camera, as I never want to run into having a flat camera battery!

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Rayon Sarong.

A towel, blanket, scarf, skirt, curtain, quick drying… need I say more? I got mine on my first trip to Asia and it hasn’t left my side since! They pack small and are light. With darker colours, they show less dirt too!

Add It To Your Packing List!

  1. Passport Photocopies; digital and paper versions!
  2. US Dollars; perfect for emergencies and every country exchanges them! Preferably only new notes, as countries are becoming sticklers for old, creased ones.
  3. Sewing kit. Making your clothes last that little longer! Mine is super basic.
  4. Flip-Flops. Compact and comfy, can be worn in the evenings instead of your walking shoes (even with socks when its cold 🙂 ). Although I’ve seen Crocs as a substitute, they take up more room and are fashion suicide (more so than socks and flip-flops!).
  5. Digital Watch with alarm clock. Mine is an old Swatch model that also can do two clocks, one usually set to my home timezone.

 

Happy Packing!

24 Hours in Zermatt: I have to get there first.

So as the summer is winding down in the tourist mecca of Interlaken, I finally had myself three days free from work. I was leaving the nest! Although Switzerland is as central Europe as it gets, leaving can sometimes be hard sans Car. With options limited to the Swiss trains, I decided to head to an ol’ favourite, Zermatt.

Placed on the Swiss-Italian Border, Zermatt is home to the famous Matterhorn, a pyramidal mountain rising over 4000 m. Standing alone on the horizon, it makes for breath-taking photos… but even after just an afternoon and 200 photos my camera begins to tire. The Matterhorn has, for over a century, been the setting for tragedy and conspiracy. Even on my third trip to Zermatt I was going to learn something new!


The adventure, literally, started on my way to Zermatt. I had decided to take my mountain bike along so as to ride the 80 km home. The fact that the Swiss Rail system is as organized and, as I assumed idiot-proof, the 2 hour journey should have be a simple ride with 2 connections. Like I mentioned earlier, I have been to Zermatt on two previous trips and had no problem.

My first connection was 20 minutes after departure in Spiez. My connecting train was on the same platform. No stairs… an easy win. My train to Visp was slightly cramped for the poor bike, which ended up being Origami’ed into the corner after two Tour Bikes decided to take 4 of the 5 places available for the bikes. (The Swiss trains usually require the bikes’ front tyre to be wedged into a metal bracket or hung from the front tyre, depending on the carriage.) The riders thought it was necessary to space their bikes apart, creating a gap too small for another bike to use the tyre bracket.With my bikes 29 inch wheels and large frame, the last (and smallest) place for the bike was all we had and although the bike storage is located in the lower half of the family carriage, I was happy we didn’t have any tots running down the aisle of this train. Add 4 Koreans’ wheely suitcases, and there wasn’t much space left to share.

When I got to Visp, I knew I would need to carry my bike to switch platforms. I had already looked online to see which direction I was heading in. However when I got to the top of the stairs on my new platform, I hopped on the closest train. Making the trip twice before, I knew that the train going to Zermatt was red and had Matterhorn Gotthard logo printed on the side. That train always goes to Zermatt.

I walked to end of the train where the bike storage was located. The train was relatively lacking in passages, but I put this down to the odd time I was traveling at. (There isn’t really an odd time, it’s just another excuse.) I took a few pics of the bike hanging alone, ready for her big trip to Zermatt. wpid-img_20150923_120720.jpg

It was probably at any point in the 5 minutes of bike selfies that something should have clicked. Zermatt sees over 2.5 million tourists a year. Not a single person on this train? I lived in Grindelwald for a year, and although the population is about 1/4 of Zermatt, and you can drive there, I still never had an empty train. I put it down to the fact I was in the bike carriage.

My first stop on the train was Brig. Now, I thought I knew from my first two experiences that from Visp you go up the Mattertal valley. Getting to Brig was a strange option. However, I still knew I was roughly in the right area and didn’t think twice about it. About 10 minutes outside of Mörel the conductor came to check my tickets. Looking at the bike pass first, he gave a nod of approval. Next, the my ticket. An eyebrow is raised, quite highly.

Conductor (In German): Where are you travelling to?

Me: Zermatt. duh, isn’t that where everyone is going?

Conductor: Um, Not on this train. We are travelling to Adermatt.

Me: Sure?

Conductor: Yes. trying not to laugh…

At this point, I knew my only option was to jump off and wait for another train heading back in the direction I wanted. The conductor told me the next train in Mörel would be half an hour. When I asked him which train… he replied and said there was only one, and it was a direct one to Zermatt! Now the journey had reached the highest level of idiot proof. I just had to not get off the train in Brig, where it would wait before continuing back to Visp and then upwards to Zermatt.

Because I had purchased a discounted fare online, my ticket was supposedly valid for only that journey from the time stated… so of course I get another eye-brow raise when the Conductor in Brig checks my ticket… Brig is not located between Interlaken- Visp- Zermatt route. I quickly told her in german that I had gotten on the wrong train. Eyebrow rested and she walked away with a smirk.

My arrival in Zermatt was greeted by a cold wind and hidden mountains. The autumn weather was certainly starting to show as tried to use Google Maps to find the hostel. Ironically, I had also stayed at this hostel once before… but as a large set of stairs are required to walk up, I needed to find a road in which I could ride up. Easier said then done. Zermatt is not that big, smaller if you are riding at a reasonable pace trying to warm up. I missed two streets and finally after turning around 3 times I could my self on the correct-ish street. It was super steep but I wasn’t going to let it dampen my spirits! I had made it to Zermatt 😀

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Taken the Morning after. The Skies had Cleared!

My evening in Zermatt was entertained by the Matterhorn Museum which, for 10 fr, was probably the best bargain of the trip. The 40 minutes that I spent inside was not enough to cover all the details from the displays and films that were created around the Matterhorn. With plenty of mini-exhibits covering the history and stories of the Matterhorn and general climbing in the Swiss Alps, the museum is the perfect raining day choice in Zermatt. I learned that they never found the 3rd body of those that perished from the first descent (they all made it to the top!) and now many conspiracy stores surround the family and whether or not the gentleman was pushed, or fell. All for the Swiss to claim the first ascent! Fittingly, there is no tombstone in the Climbers cemetary either.

The next day, I went paragliding and a hike to the Stellisee hike. The paragliding was a fun experience, but being as it was my 5th time in the sky, I really just wanted awesome photos of the Matterhorn 🙂 My hike to the Stellisee was gorgeous, but only after I had put Zermatt in a summer perspective:

My other two visits to Zermatt were in Winter and everything was always blanketed in snow. Above the tree-line and without the blanket of snow, Zermatt’s mountains are littered with roads and trails (too many for my likely) and, due to my late September arrival, orange. The beginning of autumn made for some nice photos, but for the most part, the summer season had taken its toll. Service roads and mountain biking paths crisscrossed over every open space like termites chewing at a tree. Winter hid the Summer scars and I think I preferred it that way.

The following morning my boyfriend made the 2 hour train journey so we could ride the 80 km home together. We found a nice pub to get a good breakfast, and after taking a selfie with the Matterhorn we were off. With a quick train ride between Birg and Kandersteg, we were able to complete the downhill trip in around 6 hours!

What Makes a Good Bucket List?

A Bucket List can sometimes be a reflextion on a person. They are a fun way to shape goals and future plans.

Inspired by an article at 1.30am, I started thinking about my true bucket list- the things that I will do before I die.

When I was younger (before I had an adult passport), I used to think of the places that I would love to see. Sights and monuments filled with history. Buildings with character. Famous city squares. That list has certainly changed. One that I compiled a few weeks ago, when I purchased Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Adventures, showed me that I was more interested in the “adventure” activities, or ones that weren’t only about the destination but also the journey in getting there. A list of week-long treks, lakes to explore and cultures to see confirmed my fears. I need to make a lot more time!

Relating back to an earlier post about chosing Travel and not an academic career just yet, I feel like there is still the world to see. A popular traveler’s quote, “There is always more to see.” sums it up. You could do a city-break trip and feel like you’ve seen the country. Where is the line for scraping the surface? Cities tend to be multi-cultural, melting pots of the cosmopolitan life. But does rural living define culture? Tourism has always be a fast competitor to aid international development, but what is everyone looking for?

Everyone is looking for adventure, of varying degrees, and so am I. My current bucket list certainly shows my lifestyle at the moment. Active.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to see the sights. As long as I could remember I have also had two of the oldest resolutions in the book;

  1. Step foot on every continent. (5/7!)
  2. See the Seven (New) Wonders of the World. (2/7!)

I’ll die happily if I complete those two goals. Of course, my bucket list just completes the gaps in between!

So what is the current bucket list?? Looking over it, it’s a slight scattered-brained approach… but I think it’s always fun to share these sort of things!

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The Newest Bucket List:

  • Munda Biddi trail, WA
  • Lycian Way, Turkey (5 weeks)
    • St. Paul Trail (500km)
  • Torres Del Paine, Chile
  • Canada: Iceland Parkway: Cycle Jasper -> Banff. Robson Bight Kayaking.
  • Myanmar (2 weeks) (Bagan hot air balloon)
  • Naimibia Sossusvlei Namib Desert
  • LL: Central America (2 months)
  • LL: Italy (via ferrata) (4 weeks)
  • LL: India (Ice trek, February)
  • Bulgaria, snowshoe/ mountains -> onward Turkey?
  • Jordan (2 weeks)
  • Norway & Iceland (3 weeks?)
  • Croatia
  • Tasmania (Franklin River)
  • Uganda (Gorilla Trek)

◊ When I was originally writing my list out on paper, I had added LL: Life List. It will happen!

The World Is Really An Oyster.

It’s frustrating.

There is only so many pictorial books, maps and travelogues that one can read before it becomes clear. Everything is possible.

Although times have changed since Shakespear and I wouldn’t be attacking the world with a sword, I have a GPS and a sense of action. For a long time (or ever) my biggest mission was to see everything. I wanted to travel and to experience new. New cultures, new customs and new languages. But the sad honestly is that in 2015, we have youtube, social media and twitter. World events are shared simultaneously, and there isn’t anywhere that hasn’t been explored…

In recent weeks, I have stepped it up on the ‘getting outdoors’ front. In the area where I live in Switzerland, it is possible to get a SommerAbo, allowing me to pretty much access the same areas as winter (minus the chair-lifts). For any mountain-loving bum, its a down-time dream. I have made it a personal mission to get out every day. I’m exploring new areas, taking way too many selfies, and feeling amazing while doing it.

However, feeling amazing while doing it, has opened new doors mentally. Before when I would look at new countries to visit, it was historical sites and cultural areas that drew me in. Now, the idea of a 4-day bike ride in the Rocky Mountains gets me more excited than any city tour would.

Living in Europe has definitely pulled me away from the idea of self – sustability. Switzerland, especially, thrives on having everything accessable. Nothing is out of reach. Maybe that’s why the idea of having to carry 4 days of food and water is so enticing. My last trip to Nepal, where we hiked to the Annapurna Base Camp, was a gorgeous experience, but one filled with the 21st commodities. Accommodation, a hot meal, and even WiFi greeted us every night.

A few days ago on a hike, I had the pleasure of meeting a nice lady from the UK, who had been visiting the area for decades. We shared a common interest in gorgeous views and Switzerland. She mentioned, as many do, the irony of me living in a place very similar to the home which I left 6 years ago. “… But there is so many beautiful areas to hike in Canada I imagine as well?…” There is, but Backcountry Canada was something as a kid we were told not to venture into, alone. Bears and freezing temperatures were just the start of it.

Of course, a day hike in Switzerland is something I many times take for granted. A train to get me home, and a Berghaus with a warm lunch and a view, are just the beginning. A day hike in Canada? You need Bear Spray.

All of this however, has recently been motivating me to possibly return to the Mother-land for a season. Banff resonates to me for some unknown reason. I have never been there. But somehow I picture it to be the next place I want to explore. Of course, there is the 5 day bike ride from Jasper to start with, along the Icefield Parkway that is calling my name.

Travelling is sometimes about tours and trains. But even in 2015 we can still find adventure! It will probably just be with another 20 others that signed up for the same thing…

Asia and a Newbie.

Starting when I came to Europe at 18, never having ever visited any part of it and on a one-way ticket, my desire for travel has always been a fire burning under my passport. Although I thought I would come to Europe and travel around (never had travelled, and never read a guide-book), life took a short turn when I went back to university. In February 2012 I booked another one-way ticket, this time to Thailand.

“ For this trip- South-east Asia, Australia, and possibly South America, could be thrown into the impulsive category. My decision to join my best friend was over the bar @ Metro, Balmers Herberge. It’s somewhere I haven’t travelled before; while backpacking will probably kick my ass (although I did bring my Swiss Army knife, Nivea and my own cutlery). I’m looking forward to it like no other!”– 23.02.2012

Looking back at my first ever backpacking diary entry, I laughed. I have no idea why I thought Nivea would be useful! My newly purchased Eagle Creek Truist 55L weighed in at around 15kg. Never has my bag weighed so much since. Most of the clothing that I had packed was quickly swapped with bargain from Khao San Road purchases. My winter Vans were donated to a taxi driver. In exchange for my enthusiasm, Bangkok was kind enough to give me some heat rash for the first few days. For the next three months, we travelled around Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Western Australia.

Its funny though, because I never felt nervous- always excited. It never really occurred to me what kind of culture or people who I would come across, and if I would like South-east Asia or not. I didn’t think about the variety of toilets I would use, or if it mattered how clean the bed was. I never thought for a second that I may not like the food. It just felt like the right thing to do at the time. I have no idea what I would be doing right now, if I hadn’t gone Asia. I learnt so much about my relationship with my boyfriend and, especially, how I like to travel. I certainly don’t need much material goods to feel content. And content does not mean settling. I loved every minute.

So what did Asia teach me? Travelling is about time; how you spend it, how you appreciate it and that’s it’s not unlimited. There is only one first impression. How you react to it, what you learn from it- is for you to decide. Split-second decisions could, and did, potentially change the course of my trip. Travelling with my boyfriend has definitely showed me that slowing down doesn’t mean you will miss anything- you’ll probably notice more.

I always feel a bit chuffed while having this strange sense of excitement whenever I travel with my passport. One of the resonating memories I have of any airport was when I was flying out of BSL (to Edinburgh) and a small Australian girl asked her mum why the gentlemen standing in front of them didn’t have a passport. He was flying with just his ID card and as with the Schengen Area, he wasn’t required to collect customs stamps. The young girl had never seen this- even to her, travel meant the excitment of a passport. Even though I live in Europe and could also travel with just my ID card, I like using my passport 🙂 Hopefully its only a few more months before I get to use mine again!

Iquitos and a Shower.

There was this guy in at work yesterday and he stunk. And I shouldn’t say he stunk, but there was definitely a body odour issue. I think it was to the point that he didn’t know how bad it was.

I noticed it first when he was sitting on the couch area near our bar, about 2m away. He moved to the bar when he order his next drink and that’s when I could really smell it. It was so bad, I couldn’t stand behind the bar counter. Even though I had regulars at the bar that I could have talked to, I had to stand at the end as the odour was rapidly spreading throughout the bar area. He smelt as though he hadn’t showered in days… and skied every single one of those days. It was a bad acid-like scent mixed with the diluted scent of laundry soap.

It got me thinking about the shower that I appreciated the most, and it takes me back to when we were in the Amazon. As one can imagine, it was hot. Not hot that you couldn’t be outside but so humid that you skin was always sticky, like those children’s stickers you pull off the carpet after a few days. 100% humidity. Which, I thought I had experienced until I actually had to be in it. It’s the same feeling that your skin makes when you face is over a pan of steam.. except your body is encased in it. It was so uncomfortable. You didn’t even sweat because your sweat evaporated before it could run down your face. It ended up leaving your skin with this nasty, sticky, salting feeling.

For our trip on the Amazon, we were fortunate enough to go from northern Peru to Colombia via the almighty Amazon River. Now this entailed going from a small dock town of Yurimaguas to Leticia on the border, stopping overnight in Iquitos. It was nice to see Northern Peru, as the Gringo Trail takes you from Lima straight to Mancora. We were never the only backpackers on our trip, but there wasn’t a tour group in sight. We took a cargo ship from Yurimaguas to Iquitos. From Yurimaguas, which we were stuck in for a day as the boat didn’t leave until the following evening, we took a 4 day journey up to Iquitos. Iquitos, as some will know, it is the largest city not reachable by road. They do have a section of sealed road to Nauta, but this doesn’t have much advantage other than allowing people not to travel the entire way to Iquitos by boat.

I think we paid 300 soles for both of us, for 4 days including food. It included a runny porridge for breakfast, and rice with jungle potato and curry of some kind for lunch. Dinner seemed to be the freshest meal, always rice with chicken (or in one case, fish). They were also kind enough to feed us the first night that we were on the boat but stuck in port. Our meals were all prepared on the bottom floor, which we later discovered was pretty much the cargo hold. Funny enough, we never saw anything that resembled a kitchen. To sum it up, we boarded with a few dozen chicken and I know 100% that none of them made it to Iquitos. However the meals were surprisingly delicious and filling. We never felt hungry. But the fish meal? Ironically the worst meal we had been the fish. Amazon fish so fresh that it still tasted like the silt it had swam in. It went overboard as quickly as it was served.

We chose to get a cabin, which was on the top section of the boat, allowing us to lock our belongs away. This was super handy so you can go on the deck for a while and not worry about our rucksack. The unfortunate design flaw was that it was a tin can with no air movement. As soon as you shut the door, you might as well put a bag over your head. We only learnt after the first night that people would actually sleep with the cabin doors open. When we had docked the night in Yurimaguas, you couldn’t do anything about the air as the door open meant the largest family of mosquitoes would also try to crash the cabin party. But shut, meant you would die due to the lack of air movement. The slightest breeze was felt as though it was a silk ribbon rubbing against your skin.

What surprised us though was that our cabin actually had a power outlet! Allowing ourselves to use electronics and such. My boyfriend and I didn’t think we would have more than a hanging bulb from the ceiling. Either way, we didn’t tend to use the light bulb that much after dark as it was the strongest magnet for any flying insect, including massive roaches. In terms of the facilities on the boat, there was a large shared bathroom for about 200 people. It was kept surprisingly clean the entire time. The toilet water most likely came straight from the river (given its vibriant orange tone) but the showers were good! It was like standing under a water hose in full blast. This water wasn’t yellow, and we had noticed after that they did have a filteration system on the room. My hair was always clean 🙂

It was the most incredible trip, floating down the heart of the Amazon, as we got to see Nature at its best, and at its worst. Villages living on supplies delivered only from boats or dugout canoes, and families surviving on what bananas or sweets they could sell to the arriving boats while they docked for the 10 minutes. And by docked, the barge style boat rammed the shore, and planks or stairs would bridge the gap between. Primitive, but quick and effective. The sad reality of the Amazon was hard to ignore however; massive deforestation for farming and huge oil refineries changed the landscape of the once, pristine Amazonian rainforest.

People eagerly waiting for deliveries, and customers.
People eagerly waiting for deliveries, and customers.

After having four days with meals consisting of rice, chicken and jungle potato, we were extremely happy to get to Iquitos and eat something different. After settling in the hostel, we headed out to a pizza shop across the street. We were told later that it is one of the better ones in town. We got a version of a pepperoni pizza, my boyfriend had a bottled cola and I had Sangria. The meal went down a treat. We had a nice dinner and promptly went back to the hostel as we were looking forward to sleeping in a room with a window.

So my story about showers starts that night, around 2am. I woke up feeling really sick. For dignity reasons I will edit the next few sentences: Whatever was in me, wanted to get out. When I went to the toilet and what came out was the consistency of the Amazonian river. At the time I didn’t overly think about it. It could have been bad food, water… you never really know. However, when I woke up in the morning, probably around 7 and the temperature outside quickly rising from the mid 20c over night to low 40c’s, I woke up feeling like I had been through a physical tsunami. I couldn’t stand up, and my stomach felt that it needed to remove itself from my body. I felt so weak, I couldn’t stand up straight.

At that point, I had asked my boyfriend if he could run to the chemist to get some medicine. Antibiotics are sold over the counter, so it was a matter of getting something to aid my stomach: speed it up, or slow it down I couldn’t care less. I was just so uncomfortable.

I had been sick already on the trip, about 3 weeks before. For 24 hours I was bed-ridden but I had woken up the next day feeling as fresh as a snow-fall. I was hoping for the same turn-around time.

He went to the chemist and picked up some antibiotics, and electrolytes. He was back by 8, and we decided to try to sleep a bit more, hoping that rest would subside the war going inside my stomach. We don’t normally have air-conditioned rooms, and Iquitos was no exception. The fan was a decent one though and certainly kept the air moving. Even if it was 42c air. I did try to sleep though and eventually, with CNN playing on a TV hanging on the wall at the end of the bed, we both feel back asleep. Sometimes its nice to have a day of sleep when your travelling for 5 months straight.

And, I don’t know why I remember this, but it was about 10:30 when my boyfriend woke up and flew into the bathroom.

Now of all hostel/hotel rooms to play the scene for this story, this bathroom had a door that didn’t close. And on top of that the area in the door where the handle would have been installed was pre-drilled and completely open. You could see straight through to the bathroom, and by seeing straight through, you could also hear everything. There was no privacy.

So, at 10:30, my boyfriend went to the bathroom, and projectile-vomited so quick… that I think the toilet bowl has in indent from the first hit. It was so quick, just like for me 10 hours earlier.

Over the months we have talked about what could have triggered the sickness. The obvious option was ice, or just the Sangria in general. But he didn’t drink any of that, and I hadn’t had any of his Coke. We have put it down to cheese or something funky with the pizza. We didn’t eat anything else. We didn’t think pizza would become deadly. It was interesting for us though, because after having 4 meals prepared and cooked on a boat in the middle of the Amazon we had no problems- the food was actually pretty good! Get ourselves a pizza, and it tries to kill us.

Even though we were in the middle of South America, that cold-water shower was one of the best ones I used on the trip. I just remember thinking it was gorgeous, but it probably had a lot to do with the circumstances in which we were using it. The shower was a large, black tiled shower which you could comfortably fit two adults standing next to each other. Regardless of the water temperature it had tons of pressure which, for me, is the key.

I just remember that day, that between me and my boyfriend, we bounced between a very damp, sweaty bed and the chemist, every few hours. We would purchase 2 litre bottles of cold water, and try to drink as much of it before it got warm, almost hot, in our room. We actually found a bottle that we hadn’t finished the day after and it was hotter than any water coming out of the taps.

Unfortunately, for most of the day, water was even passing through us like the Amazonian flood season. I would safety assume we probably had about 15 litres each of water that day. That doesn’t include the half-dozen bottles of electrolyte juice we went through. Dehydration was not the name of the game.

This is where my silly story comes together (I hope!). I was thinking last night, when this stinky guy was sitting in my bar, I was trying to think of what shower I appreciated the most in travelling, and why did I appreciate that shower the most. Living in Europe, hot showers are on demand and you almost forget what a luxury a good shower is. It took me not even 10 seconds to think of what shower I appreciated the most!

Being sick in a place that is 100% humidity was by far, the most difficult thing that I have ever had on a trip. After hugging the toilet, or the river coming out the other way, we would jump in the shower. And while under the shower, even if just for a few minutes, you would almost start to feel normal again. It would feel like a deep cleanse, the stickiness of 43c washing away, even though it’s just a simple cold water shower. When it comes to invigorating showers, most would think of a hot shower after a day at work, or to wait yourself up in the morning, but for me it was that day in Iquitos. I think I had to have been in that shower at least a dozen times that day trying to wash the sickness off and out of me. I don’t think the floor of the shower ever had time to dry. After I would use it, I would slander back to bed, trying to fall asleep and in the meantime my boyfriend would have his ten minutes of fame.

It was just ironic, that out of any bathroom we had to both be sick in, this one had a door that didn’t close. While we have travelled a bit together, travelling for long stints is never 100% smooth sailing. For the 24 hours we were sick in Iquitos, we had to accept each other as humans. There wasn’t any judgement. There couldn’t be, as within 5 minutes it would be my turn to release the Amazonian river.

I fast-forward to last night with the smelly BO guy, and I think, “Mate, you really don’t have an excuse not to of had a shower!”