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Shark Attack! (16/05/12)

Getting up at six o’clock in the morning was something I knew I’d have to get used to. This was to be part of our daily routine as volunteers: up at 6am, head to the boat with all of the wetsuits, towels and chum, load it all into the boat and clean the deck. Then we’d meet the guests and help them into their life jackets before heading out to sea. There are two rewards for getting up so early: getting out before the other boats to hopefully see more sharks and being greeted with a beautiful view as the sun comes up.

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Today as I was cleaning the boat I decided to climb up to the top deck, this was my first time clambering around a wet and slippery boat and the cage was blocking my way to the ladder so I had to be particularly nimble (not my forte) and very carefully haul myself up the side of the cage and pick my way over various railings, but I made it and vowed to look a bit smoother next time.

Once we were out at sea we waited about half an hour before our first shark sighting but from then on the sharks just kept coming and they were huge!

During my cage dive a 4.6 meter Great White came so close to me it’s fin brushed along the cage – I was so close to touching it but a moments hesitation and I’d missed my chance. But more close sightings back on the boat gave me the chance to take some great photo’s.

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In total we saw nine different sharks but the best was yet to come. We’d finished diving for the day and stowed the cage back on the boat before heading to Geyser Rock (where the Cape Fur Seals like to sunbathe) to show the guests the cute and cuddly prey of the Great Whites we’d seen.

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The boat was just passing by the rock when our skipper shouted “predation!” We all rushed to the side of the boat in time to sea a huge dorsal fin and the tail fins of a shark break the surface by a rock of seals and next thing we knew it had a seal in it’s mouth.

I couldn’t contain myself and was desperate to get a better view, so I lurched towards the ladder leading up to the top deck but once again the cage was blocking the way. I found myself racing up the slippery and precarious route that I’d taken earlier that morning when cleaning, only this time I had the sway of the boat to contend with.

However this time my desperation had made me bolder and I clambered up like a shot, not really considering the dangers of slipping and falling but it was so worth the risk.

As I reached the railing I looked out and saw a big pool of blood on the surface of the water but as I looked directly below me I couldn’t believe my luck – the massive shark was circling our boat clutching an equally sizable seal in it’s jaws. It shook it around as it was swimming (I was told it was trying to get rid of the seal’s skin that was hooked on it’s teeth). It was such a surreal moment and I felt like I was watching a film or nature documentary rather than seeing this all in real life.

This was an extremely unusual sighting and we were later told that a tv crew from National Geographic had been out on the water for six weeks to see what we’d just witnessed -I felt so privileged and it’s a memory that will stay with me forever – a real life ‘shark attack’.

Needless to say I was buzzing for the rest of the day and although it was only day two of the two week project, my holiday had already been made!

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My Great White Dream Come True (15/05/12)

When my alarm clock went off at 3am and resounded around my pitch-black hostel room I was already awake, in fact I’m not sure I’d even been to sleep. Today was the day that I’d be leaving ‘The Backpack’ and heading for Gansbaai (a 2 hour drive South East of Cape Town). Today was also the day that I would be joining the Great White Shark volunteer project and I was overflowing with excitement and anxiety – although my nerves were mainly down to hoping that I’d get along with the other volunteers and nothing to do with the sharks I was hoping to meet.

That said these nerves were extinguished almost immediately; as I headed to the front gate where the volunteer bus would be collecting me I bumped into another girl called Robyn who was also headed for the same project. We were both alone and instantly seemed to click – already I had a friend and we were both as hyped up as each other, which only boded well. However our excitement and new found companionship nearly came to an abrupt end. As the white bus pulled up with it’s shark logo prominent on the side I could barley contain myself but when the driver got out looking confused I sensed something was wrong.

‘There’s two of you?” …I was right, there was something wrong. Robyn wasn’t on the list and there was no room on the bus for her and all of our bags but after many phone calls and discussions we decided to leave all of our luggage at the hostel where another volunteer van would pick it up for us later. So after grabbing our bikinis and cameras and leaving everything else behind, we set off.

The two-hour drive was enough time to get to know the other two volunteers who were with us and we also chatted to the clients who were joining us for the cage dive that day. As we neared our project base in Kleinbaai the bus fell quiet, in front of us was the most spectacular view of the harbour and the best possible welcome to what would be my home for the next two weeks. The morning sun was breaking and spilling through the many rocks and crags that lay on the shoreline and the sea mist was heavy in the air. I hadn’t seen any sharks yet but already I was elated and so grateful to finally be in South Africa and about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

There was no time wasting as we went straight from the bus to the briefing room where we met the project staff. Twenty minutes later we were out of the door and headed for the boat, the sight of which had me tingling with anticipation as the cage sat invitingly on the back. I’d never doubted for a second that I would have any problems with sea sickness but the boat ride out felt more like a rollercoaster as we peaked and troughed over the choppy waves, my stomach lurching with every motion. But I held it together, wasn’t sick and managed to maintain my kudos with the sea hardy crew.

As the engine cut and all went quite our skipper started to take us through the safety rules, but a cry of “shark!” cut him short and he managed to finish his piece at speed before ushering everyone over to get their wetsuits on. As a project volunteer I let the clients go in first and climbed up to the top deck to get the best view from the boat.

I cannot describe to you how it feels to see your first Great White Shark. For me it was the most captivating sight I’ve ever seen and I found myself staring desperately in it’s wake hoping for another glimpse, which came shortly afterwards. The sheer size of the shark was the main thing I couldn’t get over – any photo’s or videos I’d seen before just didn’t do justice to the scale of these magnificent animals.

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When my turn eventually came to get into the cage I didn’t hesitate and climbed straight in – you get in through the gap in the top with your back to the boat and step down the front bars like a ladder – at this point I tried not to think about the chances of a shark biting my toes off as they poked through the bars!

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Once you’re in the cage, you hold on to the bars above your head until you hear the call “shark”, then you grab on to a red bar below you and pull yourself under the water, where you can hook your feet pnto another bar at the bottom of the cage to keep yourself down until you run out of breath. The sharks came incredibly close and to look into their dark eyes (which are actually a very deep blue) was a truly magical experience.

However, there was one encounter that had me very much on edge whilst I was in the cage. As I pulled myself under and scanned the endless waters for any sharks that may be lurking in the depths, I noticed what looked like a rope floating next to me. As I looked closer I realised that it was actually what appeared to be a huge purple eel and it was swimming straight at me.

I shot up to the surface and turned to Robyn all wide eyed. “Oh my god, there’s an eel in the cage!”  I couldn’t bare to see if it had wrapped itself around me, so I stared at Robyn hoping she could tell me where it was. Luckily it had decided to take an interest in another diver and as long as I kept tabs on it’s whereabouts, I was able to keep my panic under control. It was only when we got back on the boat that we realized the irony of my sudden fear, not of the four meter apex predator prowling in the water nearby but of a harmless creature that turned out to be a hag fish!

After seeing seven different sharks and having taken a trip to see the colony of Cape Fur seals that live nearby we headed back to shore, still buzzing from our first trip. We had experienced so much already and it was only lunchtime. Next we were off to help at a local ‘Swap Shop’ for the afternoon, where children trade in their recycling for items in the store, this was an equally rewarding activity but in an all together different way. But I shall save that for a different post as another early morning awaits and I need some sleep!

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My First Taste Of Cape Town (14/05/12)

Ahead of my first solo trip to South Africa I had arranged to stay at a hostel called ‘The Backpack’ and I had also arranged a shuttle bus to pick me up from the airport and take me straight there. This was all in a bid to make my first steps on foreign soil relatively easy and stress free – I figured that once I was at my hostel I could then summon the courage to explore more spontaneously.

The first thing that I could picture going wrong, sort of did. Whenever I walk through arrivals and see the many names held up expectantly by waiting taxi drivers and guides I always imagine myself walking right past my name, missing my ride and having to make my own way. So with this in mind I walked carefully past every name card, making sure I didn’t miss mine. However when I reached the end of the line with my name nowhere to be seen, I wondered if I’d just been unobservant, but a second walk past the names and I was sure I’d been forgotten.

But I didn’t panic, I simply headed to the information point hoping to be retrieved. Luckily a different taxi driver asked me who I was waiting for and told me he knew ‘The Backpack’ shuttle bus driver and just at that moment the driver walked around the corner and we were united.

I had the bus all to myself so I sat upfront and enjoyed a 20 minute introduction to Cape Town courtesy of my driver. I couldn’t wait to get my first glimpse of Table Mountain and as soon as I saw a huge, looming rock face shrouded in an early morning mist, I eagerly pointed it out and asked if this was it. It wasn’t Table Mountain itself but two of the peaks that make up the Table Mountain range – each peak having it’s own name.

The furthest peak from me was called ‘Lion’s Head’ which actually looked nothing like a lion’s head and (as my driver informed me) even when looking at it from the other side of the range and with an evenings worth of wine in your system, it still didn’t look anything like a lion’s head.

‘Devil’s Peak’ however had a much more fitting namesake with a legend to match, which the driver went on to tell me; three hundred years ago an old pirate used to hike up the mountain to smoke his pipe (some say it was because his wife chased him out of the house when he smoked and some say it was because his wife was so ugly). Anyway, one day when he was up on the mountain top smoking his pipe when he was approached by a figure dressed entirely in black. The figure challenged him to a smoking dual – if the pirate won he would posses all the riches in the world but if the figure (or devil) won, he could take the man’s soul. The pirate agreed to the challenge saying that he didn’t have a soul anyway and so the smoking dual began.

As I looked at Devil’s Peak and the swirling mist that surrounded it, I could understand the legend that tells us modern travellers that the mist you see is in fact smoke and the two are still sat up there to this day attempting to smoke each other out.

Shortly after hearing this tale I saw actual Table Mountain but it too was shrouded in a thick mist and it was only later when I’d arrived at my hostel that I got my first real glimpse of it and it was an impressive sight.

The driver had told me that the mountain claims many lives each year as people venture up to it’s giddy heights only to get lost in the mist that can descend within an instant. The key he told me was to sit down and wait for the mist to pass. I made a mental note to remember those words of advice, as I may need them at some point.

Once I’d been dropped off at the hostel and put my bags away I headed to ‘Long Street’ which was a five minute walk from my hostel and was aptly named – a long street lined with lots of shops and cafes.

I found myself a café called YOURSTRULY and ordered a Flat White and an avocado, brie and salami ciabatta – it tasted amazing and was my first meal on South African soil. Now I just needed to get back to the hostel, not least because I’d been told not to stay out past sunset but also because the sooner I went to bed, the sooner I’d be getting up to join my Great White Shark project!

Business Class Backpacker (13/05/12)

“Where are you going miss?” the WH Smiths cashier at Heathrow airport asked me as I handed over my passport.

“Cape Town” I replied. That was it. That was the moment when it finally hit me that I was about to board a plane all on my own and head to South Africa to do something I’d been dreaming of doing for years. I was going on a two-week volunteer project where I’d be cage diving with Great White Sharks and assisting with the field research into these amazing animals.

So now that I’d experienced my first goose bump moment and accepted that yes, this was actually happening, I headed to the bag drop with my luggage. I had so wanted to travel to South Africa the proper way – with nothing but a backpack on my back. But my original plans had transformed from a simple two-week trip to South Africa, into a two-week trip to South Africa followed directly by a week of work in Korea. As a result I ended up needing a bigger bag, on wheels, with a handle…effectively a squashy suitcase and a far cry from the humble backpack that I’d envisaged.

Anyway, once I’d checked in my ‘bag’ I went to find my friend who happened to work for the airline that I’d be flying with and who’d happened to get me a business class ticket! However, there was a problem. One look at me and my denim jacket, flat shoes, shorts and tights and my friend looked worried – I had completely forgotten to dress for anything other than economy class and as such would probably not get my business seat after all.

I started weighing up my options – should I panic buy an outfit at the airport where my choice of shops were all top end, designer stores with price tags to match? Or should I just admit defeat and accept an economy class ticket? I’m useless at decision-making (and clothes shopping) at the best of times but today I had a very serious time limit, one hour to be exact and it wasn’t looking promising.

Five outfit changes and £600 worth of clothes later (not bought but tried) and I still hadn’t found anything and to be honest I found myself wondering what all the fuss was about. I knew that I’d be perfectly happy in economy with a good book and my iPod and that although it would be nice, I wasn’t overly fussed about the added extras an upgrade would get me. But upon delivering this verdict to my friend I was met with a disbelieving stare and the words ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ echoing in my head.

So it was on to Ted Baker and Reiss with my friend in tow to continue the upper class costume hunt. Eventually we found the perfect solution; a pair of cream, Parisian style, cut-off trousers that when teamed with my black top, fake pearl necklace and flowery pashmina, looked just right. We also got two huge REISS carrier bags to hide my ugly laptop bag and WH Smiths carrier in. I have to admit that as I was striding towards my gate clutching two massive designer bags I did wonder what had happened to my aspirations of playing the humble backpacker! But I quickly reminded myself that I was only going to do this once…for ‘journalistic purposes’.

As I got to my gate I saw that my seat had yet to be called so I made some last minute phone calls (the ones I had meant to make instead of panic shopping). Then as I hung up I realized that my ticket would let me jump the queue, so I picked up my bags and went straight through.

My seat was on the upper deck and as soon as I sat down I was offered a glass of champagne, which of course I accepted. Sat opposite me was a lady who I later found out spent half of her time in London and half in South Africa. We wasted no time and got chatting about our destination and she gave me hundreds of recommendations of places to visit – many of which weren’t typical tourist hot spots.

There were so many suggestions that I knew I’d forget most of them, but after only chatting for a short while she gave me her contact details and offered to meet up and show me around – I was extremely grateful and I was sure I’d be in touch, as a friendly and knowledgeable guide could be a great comfort in a country where you know no one.

So, business class treats. Well, the menu was amazing and I enjoyed a crab terrine and salad for a starter, four cheese gnocchi and bread for main and a lemon meringue pie and chocolates for desert all washed down with drinks from the free bar. After indulging on all the food I discovered that the seats could tilt back all the way into a reclining position and I found myself drifting off for most of the flight.

In fact the eleven hour flight felt so quick that I was shocked when we were told it was forty minutes until landing and I found myself thinking that I could very easily get used to flying business class. That is until a passenger tapped me on the shoulder as I was looking through my bags and kindly whispered to me that there was a price tag hanging out of the back of my trousers. That brought me back to reality pretty swiftly.

Trading Metallica For India’s Golden Triangle

The ‘Golden Triangle’ is a popular tourist route encompassing three of the most visited cities in North West India: Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. You’d think a tour of the three big hitters would be top of anyone’s list when visiting North India for the first time, but for us it was more of a plan B… 

I’ve been to India only once so far and have talked about my maiden voyage in a previous post, but having done so much whilst I was there one mention seemed barely sufficient. So I thought it might be useful to talk a little more about some of the places worth visiting. I know when I was first planning my trip, sat on my bedroom floor with maps and guide books spread out all around me, I felt slightly overwhelmed as I read about the countless temples, museums and markets all of which came highly recommended. In an attempt to narrow down my options I started writing a shortlist (complete with addresses, map references and all colour coded). This out of character organisation seemed like a great idea at the time, but five minutes in and I had already filled up a good ten pages of my notebook. My priority list had become a guidebook of it’s own and was no smaller than the one I was referring to. So in the end I decided to leave it up to the gods and the friends I was travelling with, to make the decisions when we got there and we could use my notebook as a back up.

So naturally, the decision to tour the Golden Triangle was actually a very last minute one. We had originally journeyed to India not just because it was somewhere we’d all wanted to visit, but also because there happened to be a Metallica concert taking place there (the first ever Metallica gig in India). As lovers of rock music, it was an opportunity we weren’t going to miss and I could only imagine what a rock concert in India would be like. In all honesty when I first booked the tickets I wasn’t a huge Metallica fan. In fact I’d only heard a few of their songs and couldn’t even name the members of the band, but after dedicating my ipod to Metallica for a whole week on the lead up to our trip, I knew it was going to be an epic concert and I couldn’t wait to see them perform live.

But we never did get to see Metallica play. We got to the venue in Gurgaon early in the day to pick up our tickets and were armed with our confirmation emails and not much else (we were in gig mode and didn’t want to burden ourselves with lots of bags). We got into the already heaving queue and waited for approximately four hours under the intense midday sun, as a couple of concert officials sat at laptops checking bookings whilst a small team of helpers united concert tickets with their owners. You’d think that anyone who’d booked their tickets online and received a confirmation email would be guaranteed a ticket, not so. Lots of people were turned away, being told their booking couldn’t be found. As a result the four hour queue was more than a long wait for us, it was two hundred and forty minutes of agonising uncertainty, as we didn’t know if we would actually get what we were queuing for.

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Standing amongst hundreds of sweaty rockers, who were getting very impatient and probably quite badly sunburnt, it dawned on me that we should probably assume the worst to avoid major disappointment. As if to reinforce the hopelessness of our situation, a roar would erupt from the crowd every so often to signify that someone had actually managed to get their hands on a ticket. You may think this was a positive sign but when I say every so often, I mean very occasionally – it’s as if they were the lucky ‘chosen ones’ as they walked back through the crowd to high fives and back slaps from the other hopefuls who were still waiting.

Much to our surprise we were successful in getting our tickets, emerging from the crowd to a roar of our own as we clutched the precious brown envelope and headed straight for the arena. When we got inside we were greeted with a near empty stadium, which we quickly surmised was because the majority of the audience were still trying to get in! We spared a thought for our fellow Metallica fans waiting outside before congratulating ourselves, as we realised we could now get a spot right at the front.

I’m aware that this post is meant to be about the Golden Triangle and not a doomed Metallica concert, so to cut a long story short the gig never went ahead. The news was broken by a poor soul recruited as spokesman, who took to the stage clearly nervous, as he addressed a raging crowd of metal heads – us included (I wouldn’t call us metal heads but we were certainly amongst the raging crowd.) The organisers of the concert had breached some major safety regulations and had subsequently been arrested. Promptly after being told the gig was cancelled a riot kicked off and people started surging forwards, setting fire to banners and  attempting to storm the stage. Needless to say we didn’t stick around.

The whole point of telling you this was to put our trip to North India’s big hitters into context – we were bitterly disappointed that the gig had been cancelled and felt that we deserved something special to go in it’s place, thus the Golden Triangle road trip was born. I want to mention here that our hotel did a great job of organising everything for us, it was actually the hotel staff  that suggested the trip when they heard what had happened. They arranged for a driver to pick us up at six in the morning and drive the five hours to Agra where we would see the iconic Taj Mahal, before driving a further four hours to Jaipur where we would check in to a hotel for the night. The next day would be ours to explore ‘The Pink City’, as Jaipur is also known. I believe many of the hotels in Delhi offer variations of this trip and all roughly within the same price bracket, but our deal was made all the better by our driver, who added an extra special something to our tour.

Johny, who was more of a driver and a tour guide rolled into one, was a very interesting character. He had an impressive cultural and historical knowledge of his country, which I tested to the limit by asking countless questions which he seemed happy to oblige with enthusiastic and detailed answers. But my education didn’t stop there, I was also treated to a lesson in Indian music for which I’ll be forever in Johny’s debt, as I can now say that I am a big fan of Bollywood remixes. We spent most of our journey listening to what I can only describe as the best home made compilation CD I have ever heard. It contained a whole variety of bangra music from club tunes to love ballads, which when combined with the amazing scenery rushing past my window, made for the best possible theme music to accompany our drive. I’ll never forget one particular high energy, effusive song called ‘Lucky’ which fitted perfectly with the sight of precarious motorists zipping by, whose vehicles were piled high with people hanging on for dear life from all angles.

To document our tour in a logical order I’ll start with our first stop off – a dusty, run down roadside cafe. We’d been on the road since 6am and were getting quite hungry so when Johnny asked us if we’d like some breakfast we eagerly agreed, we also eagerly agreed to go for the ‘cheap’ option when asked if we’d prefer to eat in a ‘luxury’ or ‘basic’ establishment. At the time I very much regretted making this hasty decision, but on reflection it was worth it for the comedy value. I can still remember the dread I felt as I saw the same roti bread we’d just eaten being beaten down on a dirty and fly ridden surface, before being tossed onto a plate and served up to the the table opposite us. Immediately I was certain our luck had run out on the ‘Delhi Belly’ front and that we’d be subjected to some awkward and embarrassing emergency stops on the motorway. However to our credit and my never-ending gratitude, our stomachs must have been made of stronger stuff than I’d thought and I can happily say that no emergency stops were made!

As we finally neared Agra and the legendary Taj Mahal we started to get fidgety, partly because we’d been squashed up in the car for quite a while but mainly because we couldn’t wait to see one of the seven wonders of the world. But before we got out of the car we were heavily cautioned by Johny. He insisted that we should be extremely wary of pick pockets and rogue souvenir sellers, that we keep our heads down and keep walking until we got safely through the gates and into the main grounds. This was a trait we learned to love about Johny – every time we got close to doing something exciting he would scare us with a story…all with good intentions I’m sure and I believed what he was saying, but I also took it with a slight pinch of salt.

Anyway, cautions aside we were itching to get our first glimpse of the mausoleum. As we approached, I parted from my three friends to join the female queue as they headed for the male line, this is something I had become accustomed to since first encountering gender queuing at the various security points in the metro station. I was especially happy with this queuing system as I always seemed to sail through mine, while the boys would be kept waiting behind a backlog of other male queuers.

Once we were inside I was surprised by my own reaction. I’m not sure if I should be ashamed of what I’m about to say, but I will be completely honest. The sight of the Taj Mahal was magnificent and it was a real privilege to be able to see it first hand, but after that initial feeling wore off and we headed closer, I have to admit that I found myself feeling like I’d missed something. Don’t get me wrong the way the brilliant white marble dominated the landscape was impressive, enhanced even more by the romantic story behind it’s construction, but I think perhaps I had built it up too much in my head. Maybe I can liken it to the feeling of finally getting to meet your idol and although they are still brilliant, the encounter reminds you that they are not gods and are in fact still only human.

I can’t have been the only one with this thought because as we were wandering around the grounds, countless people were asking us for photographs and turning their lenses away from the main attraction to take our picture. I’m not for one minute suggesting that we were a better sight than the Taj Mahal, but it was amazing to see the extent to which people (mostly school children) would go to get a  good shot of us. Some even planned it all out, waiting in the wings until we got level with them before jumping out and signalling to their friend to take the photo. At one stage we were so used to posing for other people’s photos that when a couple called us over and pointed to their camera, we laughed and headed over for yet another shoot only to realise that they wanted us to take the photo of them and not to be in it ourselves. Highly embarrassed and quite rightly reminded that not everyone wanted an everlasting image of us on their cameras, we took the photo for them and walked away rather sheepishly.

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After strolling around the gardens and looking at the little museum that was open to visitors we decided to head back to the car, where we knew Johny would be waiting to whisk us off to the second point on our triangular tour – Jaipur.

Jaipur was an unexpected gem that I would recommend to anyone wanting a bit of everything. After a nights stay in a lovely hotel we got up at 8am to be the first in line to ride one of the kings elephants, all of which were decorated in brightly coloured paints. We rode the elephants at a steady pace up a reasonably steep hill atop of which stood one of my favourite buildings to date – ‘The Amber Fort’. I could have got lost for hours within it’s ever winding and ornately decorated walls, each twist and turn revealing yet another chamber to explore and every room I entered had some unique quirk or feature. It was easy to leave the other tourists behind as you wandered from one rampart to another and a glance out one of the many windows or over the fort’s walls would grant you a view that you will never forget.

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Personally, I think the Amber Fort puts the Golden into Golden Triangle; gorgeous elephants – check, historical and architectural magnificence – check, spectacular views –  check, what more could one of the oldest forts in Rajasthan possibly offer us? Well, there was live music being played in the main square, whose heavy drumbeat and Indian pan pipes could be heard from anywhere within the fort. There was also plenty of shopping opportunities with lots of souvenirs to haggle for. One particularly persistent seller actually followed me all the way down to the very bottom of the hill, in the hope that I would agree to buy a hand carved ornament from him. Of course I ended up buying the item, not least because I was very impressed with his determination to secure a sale.

Before we left the fort for good, there was one more treat in store – snake charming and we’d be the ones doing the charming. This was all very entertaining as we took it in turns to put on a  hat and attempt to play an instrument we’d never seen before, whilst eyeing a dangerous looking cobra. That is until I crouched, camera poised, in front of my friend and the snake he was attempting to charm, only to see through my view finder that the cobra was making a beeline straight for me! I have attached a photo as I happened to catch the moment perfectly before fleeing to the other side of the square.

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After visiting the Amber Fort we had the chance to shop to our hearts content as we perused the many family run stores that sold teas, spices and musical instruments. However the real highlight of our retail therapy was the silk shop that Johny took us to. It sold everything from scarves and quilts to tailor made suits – all of which we bought and all of which had been made on the premises. I think it’s enough to say that even the boys were excited, even more so than me, as they spent nearly everything they had before getting out their cards to spend even more. I think we got a little caught up in the moment but it was worth it to be able go back to England and sleep wrapped up in an enormous, deep blue, silken duvet, adorned with hand stitched golden elephants.

Once we’d bought enough gifts for loved ones back home we bundled into our faithful car and hit the road for a final time. We were headed for Delhi with music blaring out of the  car speakers and us attempting to sing along, as by now we’d got the hang of how each song went. At one point our merry sing along was cut abruptly short; we were driving at speed through the night when a white figure shot out into the road and collided with our car. We had hit one of the many stray dogs that stalked the motorway and it was killed instantly by the impact. We observed a long and solemn silence for the animal as we slowly recovered from the shock. After a while Johny attempted to lighten the mood by turning the volume up once again and filling the car with the now familiar songs we’d grown to love.

My friends will lay testament to how well the music went down (collision aside) as we listened to our favourite tracks on repeat for a good remainder of the drive home…in fact at the end of our journey Johny gave me the CD as a gift and it was the best souvenir I could ever have asked for. I can remember thinking at the time that I was happy to trade in a live set from Metallica for the songs on this homemade CD, which held so many wonderful memories.

…I still want to see Metallica play live though!

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THE BEST EXOTIC MINDSET

My first ever trip to India did not teach me how to ‘find myself’, it taught me how to find adventure, or rather, how to let adventure find me.

We’ve all heard the cliché’s about visiting India for the first time, and just to get it out of the way I’ll tell you now that yes, it is a heady assault on the senses. But contrary to the other big stereotype, I will not tell you that I ‘found myself’ whilst I was out there. What I did find was a formula for adventure that will get you results no matter where you are and I’m so glad that I discovered it in India.

I knew that a trip to the sub continent would present me with an adventure of some kind – it was inevitable. I was about to step into a country renowned for it’s vibrant and utterly unique culture, a culture that’s said to engulf you the moment you set foot off the plane. In short I was about to face a barrage of new experiences and it would be near impossible not to come back with some worthy tales to tell as a result. However it turned out that the most memorable chapters of my journey may never have happened and it was thanks to my open mind and the shedding of my instinctively cautious skin that they did.

I was visiting India with three friends for ten days and it just so happened that we would be touching down in New Delhi on the opening night of Diwali (a Hindu festival, otherwise known as ‘the festival of lights’). We’d heard all about the deafening fireworks, bright lights and party atmosphere that accompanied the festival and were slightly bewildered when we took our first hair raising tuk tuk ride into the centre of town, Connaught Place, to find nothing.

When I say nothing, I mean the streets were near enough empty, many restaurants were closed despite it being 8pm and there was no sign of the infamous fireworks and colourful illuminations we’d been told to expect. When we asked our driver why there were no such celebrations, he informed us (with a trace of amusement) that we’d landed on what was the equivalent of Christmas day – not in the religious sense but in the sense that everyone would be celebrating at home with their friends and family. Now, whether it was the look of disappointment on our faces or just an excuse for our driver to clock off early and join his own family for the night I don’t know, but what happened next was my first introduction to open minded, adventurous, reckless abandon and what followed that, was a brilliant night…

Our tuk tuk driver, a perfect stranger, asked if we would like to join him and his family for the evening’s festivities and insisted that we would be most welcome. Instantly I was torn. I’m ashamed to admit that my first thought was to avoid what sounded like one of the many cautionary tales found in guide books warning of conmen taxi drivers or worse, but my other thought was that this could be an opportunity of a lifetime – a chance to immerse ourselves in the ‘real India’ by celebrating with a local Indian family and start off our trip with a bang – literally!

So after some deliberation we accepted his kind offer and sped off into the night, heading for an unknown destination and with a dizzying mix of anxiety and excitement.

It turned out that this one dubious decision transformed our first night in India from a potentially steady introduction to the country, into a loud and breathtaking encounter that we’d all secretly been hoping for. As we approached the small town that our driver called home, we were met with the warming glow of hundreds of candles adorning the windows and balconies of the many houses that jostled for position there. Overhead and hanging from the walls were cascading fluorescent lights twinkling and flashing – as you can imagine we were wide eyed and open mouthed as we took in the festive scene. That is before a sudden and ear-splitting crack shook us out of our ‘oooohhhing and ahhhing’ and had us ducking for cover. We had just encountered our first Diwali firework and true to legend it was as much a mighty sound to be heard, as it was a beautiful sight to behold.

Before we knew it, we were being ushered into the family home to meet brothers, sons, wives and daughters. They accompanied us to the village temple where we made offerings of fruit to elaborately decorated shrines, we then returned to the house for countless glasses of whisky and endless trays of fruit and nuts, before joining the family for candlelit prayer. Now, I must add here that the cautionary voice in my head quaked at the thought of eating food and drinking from glasses that may have been washed in tap water, as a result I did exercise some caution (avoiding some peeled fruits), but I did enjoy the whisky and certainly didn’t live to regret it!

After prayer we headed out onto a small green, where we joined the rest of the community for the dangerous and thrilling activity of setting off fireworks. The technique is simple: hold the firework in your bare hands, light the worryingly short fuse and throw it into the air just before it explodes. I say the technique is simple, but one of my friends gravely mistimed the throwing of his firework and subsequently suffered extreme tinnitus for the rest of the evening. However this wasn’t a problem, as the rest of the night consisted of dancing in the street to full – volume bangra music, which managed to penetrate even his shell-shocked eardrums. The night ended with us piling into a taxi and surrendering ourselves to yet another nail biting ride through the streets of India and back to our hotel.

This impulsive and exploratory approach to new experiences continued for the duration of our trip and led to many more memorable moments. One such moment saw the same tinnitus stricken friend of mine, giving a rickshaw driver a ride of his own (much to the shock and bewilderment of many a bystander unaccustomed to such a sight). He made a valiant effort, tackling the gruelling ride despite the intense heat, but eventually he ground to a halt and returned the handlebars to their rightful and highly entertained owner.

Our new found boldness also saw us part of a crowd that stormed a line of armed security guards as they attempted to hold us back from a car race we had paid to see (which happened to be the inaugural Indian leg of the Formula One Series). I hasten to add that we were not the instigators of the charge but were happy to be swept along with it, feeling childishly rebellious as we sprinted towards the race track, arriving just in time to see the all important start.

I would love to recount each and every fleeting yet unforgettable encounter, but all good things must come to an end.  In fact, my trip to India ended as it had begun – with an exciting journey into the unknown, invited by a near perfect stranger who promised a further glimpse of ‘the real India’. My friends and I had met a young (and rather good looking) café owner on our last night who I got on with very well. I returned the following day to say goodbye and was offered a ride on the back of his motorbike to see the side of India tourists don’t see and he also wanted me to meet his family. Of course I accepted, but not before nipping over the road, back to my hotel, to tell my friends where I was going. Of course they were nervous about letting me go alone but given our track record thus far, they knew that I was unlikely to be perturbed and didn’t’ try to stop me.

What followed was the perfect reward for my ‘risk taking’ – a thrilling and disorientating ride through the narrow and ever winding back streets, of which my escort evidently knew like the back of his hand. I was whisked past low hanging lines of laundry, women in colourful saris going about their chores and rowdy children playing ball amongst a scattering of stray dogs.  After this whistle stop tour I was welcomed into his house to meet his family and his soon to be married niece, before heading up, up and up onto the rooftops where I was greeted with a vast and spectacular view that spread out before me.

I could go on endlessly about the many experiences we had during our short stay but what I’d really like to do is impart one thing – the importance of being open and willing to seize an opportunity, because that is when real adventure can be found. All sorts of things can happen in a playground as culturally rich as India, but as I said before, many of my personal highlights were not a given just because I was in India; they were offered to me and I took them. It may sound like I’m encouraging you to embrace reckless behaviour and disregard any sense of danger, surrendering yourself to all kinds of risks but I’m not. I’m simply saying with good judgement and a good dose of open mindedness you may get that much more out of a place.

Adventure is a mindset – be open to new experiences and adventure will find you.

Whirlwind Weekends: ISTANBUL

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Istanbul is generous to us whirlwind travellers; it lays out all it has to offer within a short and accessible distance, so that you can fill up your itinerary without needing to rush from place to place to fit everything in.

As the only city in the world to be spread over two continents (Istanbul is divided in two by the Bosphorous strait – a river which marks the boundary between Europe and Asia), it offers a truly diverse and cultural experience.

A quick trip to Turkey’s largest city can be filled with everything from sightseeing and shopping to culture hunting and clubbing without leaving you weary, but it is equally as accommodating if all you want to do is sit on a rooftop drinking Turkish coffee and taking in the view.

My friend and I decided to head to Istanbul for the first weekend in August and as a result were greeted by blazing sunshine when we arrived. We’d booked into a reasonably cheap hotel where we opted for a twin room that included breakfast. The room was decent and we didn’t feel we had compromised on comfort for the price.

Our first stop, the moment we’d dropped off our bags, was one of the many rooftop cafes that looked out over the city and across the Bosphorous to the Asian quarter of Istanbul. The view was truly breathtaking as we were immediately greeted with the sight of the striking Blue Mosque to our left and it’s competition, the Aya Sofya, poking out of the trees to our right. But before we joined the throngs of sightseers, we wanted to sample some Turkish cuisine; an array of tapas (complete with complimentary flat bread) and refreshing herbal tea set us up for the day perfectly.

During our two days in Istanbul, we really made the most of the sight seeing opportunities available without going into overkill; we were selective about what we saw and we weren’t disappointed.  For those that love to marvel at architectural magnificence, head to the aptly named Blue Mosque, which proudly boasts more minarets than any other mosque in Istanbul. For those who are interested in religious history take in the Aiya Sofya and learn about the turbulent past that saw it transform from a church into a mosque, before finally opening up to the public as a museum. Personally I think both buildings need to be seen, not least because they are famously in competition with each other (the Blue Mosque was built in 1603 – 1617 to rival the Aiya Sofya and as a result boosted the economy of the surrounding area).

The Basilica Cisterns also deserve a place on the hit list. Deep underground, the impressive arches and columns are surrounded by fresh water and ghostly fish that can be seen swimming amongst coins that have been tossed in for luck.

Back above ground there are plenty of green parks as well as old buildings and landmarks that make a simple walk a treasure trail for both the cultural enthusiast and the curious tourist.

That said, some of the best sight seeing can be done without you even realizing it. A lazy stroll down the cobbled streets led us to a small, independent art gallery almost completely hidden away, we were tempted in through the narrow, ramshackle alleyways by a hand sprayed message on the wall stating  ‘Art Gallery, don’t be scared…you will like!’  Inside we were greeted with a treasure trove of original artworks depicting mysterious portraits, cheerful flowers and colorful landscapes. Naturally we loved this precious little find and came away with some beautiful prints of the pictures we liked and at a very good price.

       

This leads me nicely onto the exhilarating and enchanting experience of shopping in Istanbul. If you love a good bargain and enjoy the thrill of haggling with the shopkeepers then head to the Grand Bazaar. Here you can barter to your hearts content over all sorts of souvenirs, jewelry and clothes. The bazaar can get very crowded but it all adds to the atmosphere and you can always retreat to a nearby café afterwards to review your purchases and take in the surrounding hustle and bustle.

My trips always seem to fall on a national or religious holiday by pure coincidence and this trip was no exception. It just so happened that it was Ramadan while we were in Turkey and as a result we were delighted to find a festive atmosphere each night with food stalls, night markets and fireworks. The other perk of visiting at this time was the sense of cultural immersion you got as you saw families sitting at tables with a feast of sumptuous dishes all untouched, as they waited for the sun to go down so that the feasting could begin. Of course, you do not have to join in with the daytime fasting, but it is best to be aware of those who are observing Ramadan and be discreet when eating and drinking in public areas.

During our stay we didn’t venture into the Asian part of Istanbul and I will have to return to do just that. The Asian quarter is meant to be one of the best places for some serious, high end clubbing and offers a different and less family orientated experience of the city for those that want it. A quick trip could easily be incorporated into a whirlwind weekend either for an evening, a daytrip or if preferred, take a cruise on the Bosphorous for some leisurely, hassle free sight seeing of both continents.

However that’s not to say that there is any shortage of night life on the European side – we spent our two evenings (Friday and Saturday) sampling an abundance of cafes and bars serving an array of food as well as teas, coffees and shisha pipes, all were enjoyed whilst listening and dancing to a live band and watching the traditional Twirling Dervishes in action. We also had many entertaining conversations with staff and fellow Turkish people, who overall were very friendly and welcoming.

So I’d rate Istanbul as a highly recommended and thoroughly enjoyable trip for a whirlwind weekend, which offered us so much despite our short stay.

Cape Verde: An All Inclusive Encounter

Flying low over Boa Vista – part of the wider known Cape Verde Islands off the West coast of Africa, I was instantly struck by the vast lack of greenery that stretched out below me.

I was touching down for a week of forced relaxation and it was something I had been both looking forward to and slightly dreading. I was excited by the idea of stretching out on the sand with a good book and soaking up those precious rays of sunshine, but it was what I would do if the sun decided to take a vacation of its own that worried me…

It was February half term and I was tagging along with some family friends on a ‘let’s just go and do nothing for a week’ type of holiday, which at the time appealed to me greatly – what could be better than starting the year with a golden tan and my batteries fully recharged.  I’m also a big fan of new experiences when on holiday and an all-inclusive hotel was definitely a first for me.

The 10 minute coach journey from the surprisingly small and very welcoming airport to our resort offered yet more sandy horizons dotted with the occasional palm tree. When we reached our hotel its size and grandeur was quite a contrast to the empty landscape surrounding it.

As we stepped off the coach we were met by an enthusiastic entertainment team, who welcomed us with a high-energy dance, complete with African percussion and what I assumed to be authentic Cape Verdean choreography. We’d yet to set foot inside the hotel and already I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from our stay – an injection of Cape Verde culture (they even had an evening performance telling the story of the Islands and their history) and an overall African slant on the conventional package holiday.

I was impressed with the décor of the hotel, which was all woodwork and wicker furniture, which felt very safari like and gave a nice authentic feel. The open plan complex had lots of areas for eating (including three themed restaurants), two outdoor swimming pools, a stage for daytime activities as well as evening performances and a vast expanse of beach, perfect for long runs or hours of sunbathing on the obligatory sun beds.

A typical day started with breakfast, which could be anything from a selection of fruit, pastries or a traditional English fry up and being new to the delights of an all inclusive, I enjoyed piling my plate high, safe in the knowledge that there was no extra cost (except the pounds that I would inevitably gain on my waistline!)

Next on the agenda was a very short walk to the beach to bag a well-situated sun bed, by which time the summons to a morning exercise class on the beach would resound out on a megaphone; ‘Takka Takka, Wakka Wakka, Jiggy Jiggy. No Stress!. Take it easy, No stress!” It was an entertaining way of revving up those that enjoy morning stretches, but at the same time it was a self-assuring mantra to those who couldn’t be bothered to get involved (i.e. me after an already guilty morning of eating pastries and toast!).

After the class, the day’s activities were announced, which were of course optional and ran throughout the day. Rifle shooting, volley ball on the beach or aqua aerobics in the pool were just a few of the things on offer and there were plenty of options for kids too. I have to admit I didn’t feel the urge to participate massively in these activities but I did give the aqua aerobics a try and I don’t think I was the only one who appreciated the toned and ‘motivational’ instructor, as I star jumped and flutter kicked along with what felt like every other woman staying at the resort.

Without wanting to sound prudish, I wasn’t a huge fan of the ‘organised fun’ vibe (which I’m sure is part and parcel of an all inclusive resort, at half term, filled with kids). That said, I could certainly see the merits of having optional activities on offer everyday, sparing you the stress of having to plan something for everyone in the family. I can also see the appeal of being able to relax on a beach knowing that your kids are off doing their own thing whilst being safely supervised by a very friendly and fun loving team.

I may not have minded all of this if I was able to take advantage of the ‘unorganised fun’ options available, such as swimming in the sea, body boarding or taking a scuba diving trip. But it just so happened that during our stay we encountered very strong winds that whipped up some huge waves, as a result we were only able to venture into the sea once during the week we were there.  I have since found out that strong winds and rough seas are to be expected here and should be taken into consideration before booking, especially if you’re hoping for a daily dip. This is a shame as, generally, I think the sea and all it has to offer plays a key role on these holidays – it provides an element of adventure in an otherwise easy going yet structured environment.  That said the conditions were perfect for experienced windsurfers and kite surfers of which there were many and of which, unfortunately, I am not (although lessons were available).

So in a nutshell, this is a great trip if all you want to do is lie down in the sun for a week with the mantra ‘no stress’ fully engrained in your psyche before you leave.  It’s also great if you have kids and crave a family holiday where everything is taken care of. However there are possibly places closer to home that could do the job just as well…although, travelling in February, you could be compromising on the high temperatures with places like Morocco or Egypt not being quite as hot. If it’s a bit of culture you’re looking for, this resort offers a sample of it but not necessarily enough to justify the long and expensive flight.

So going back to my original expectations, I did come away with a tan and a nicely renewed energy supply but ironically, I seem to find ‘stress free’ resorts a hard place to relax in and perhaps should wait until I have kids of my own before I can fully appreciate all that they offer. As a pursuer of all things new I did enjoy my experience but have certainly learnt a few things from it, including a little more about myself.

Stayed at: Club Hotel Riu Karamboa, Boa Vista Island, Cape Verde, Booked with: Thomson Holidays, Travelled during: February half term 2011, Remember: Visa required but can get it online.