Traveller Tips #1: How to keep safe

The most scary aspect of travelling is stepping outside of your comfort zone and away from the boundaries of normal life. It means putting total faith into the hands of strangers, if and when you get lost, and it also means sticking to your gut instinct and using your common sense. I’ve seen travellers get into trouble predominantly because they have let their guard down – either because they were so awe-inspired by their adventure and taking it all in, or they presumed their destination would be the same as where they came from.

As a young woman travelling alone, I have also had to use judgement in deciding whether or not its okay to go out after dark, who I hang out with and having the courage to say no to peoples advances. This sometimes means only having one glass of wine, instead of the three (or more) I would normally have on a night out on the town at home. But I haven’t been a complete prude – a Bridget Jones on the road. I have shared some wonderful nights out with people who were complete strangers at the beginning of the night.

So what do I do to stay safe:

I have a combination lock on my handbag. I don’t always use it. I have only had to use it whilst staying in hostels that did not have lockers. I have also used it in places reknowned for being pickpocket havens, such as Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Montmartre in Paris, and the Marrakesh medina in Morocco. It has been used while travelling on public transport – on the tube in London, but also on long haul bus trips (I have a tendency to be lulled into sleep on buses).  And, I have also used it in places where I felt exposed as a tourist – walking to tourist attractions from my accommodation in Delhi, India and Rabat, Morocco. May I emphasise that in hindsight, this action was completely unnecessary – I wasn’t bothered in the slightest but the old adage of “better safe than sorry” rings true.

A money belt comes in handy when travelling in developing countries and when I may not be constantly requiring access to money. I have seen some tourists wandering around in India with money belts hanging outside of their clothing. Not only did they look a tad silly and unfashionable, but they were heightening their chances of having their stuff stolen by exposing where they were hiding it. The whole point of a money belt is to have your stuff “out of sight, out of mind”.  When using a money belt, I have tended to fold it into my pants, ensure I am wearing a belt and keep the majority of my money in it, while also keeping any spending money in my purse in my handbag, and if the situation has called for it, using my lock on my handbag. I know I sound like a human Fort Knox! But I don’t look like it. I am discreet about how I keep my stuff secure.

When travelling to countries where I am unsure of how safe I am going to be, I lodge details of my itinerary on the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website called Smartraveller. It gives a bit of piece of mind to my parents, and should the unthinkable happen, such as a natural disaster, political riots, or a terrorist attack, I know that my travel details are lodged with people who can help me, when and if the need should ever arise. I also make a mental note of looking up if there is an Australian embassy in the city or country in which I am visiting.  Again, its about peace of mind.

I also touch base with my family when “newsworthy” events occur in the country in which I am travelling. For example, I was in Granada, in the south of Spain when a tragic train accident occurred near Santiago De Compostela, in the northwest, in July 2013.  I wasn’t sure of the extent with which or how the train accident was being reported back home in the news, nor of how well my parents know the geography of Spain. So, I just sent a quick email letting them know I was okay and nowhere near where the train accident was, to give them some peace of mind.

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Wednesday Wonders: Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi

Humayun’s Tomb is the perfect antidote to escape from the cacophony of Delhi’s car horns and tuk tuk drivers. 

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Within the immaculately kept grounds, the sound of birdsong punctuates the air and the surrounding gardens are the perfect place to relax and unwind in.  I spent a couple of hours just wandering around.

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Despite its World Heritage status, it is surprisingly quiet – hardly any other tourists were there at the same time as me.  Perhaps this is due to its location away from Delhi’s major tourist attractions such as the Red Fort.  Humayun’s Tomb is close to Purana Qila and the Delhi Zoo.

The beautiful people of Nepal

Despite being one of the most impoverished countried in the world (in terms of the 2011 UN human development index, Nepal ranked as the 31rd lowest), the friendly nature and hospitality of the people of Nepal seems to bely this statistic.

By the smiles they give, they seem happy. And to be happy means they are rich. They may not have bank accounts full of money, but their sheer joy seems to transcend beyond the materialistic nature of the first world.

They also have all the time in the world. There doesn’t seem to be any rush to make deadlines. Making Nepal my first destination on my adventure, after leaving the world of cubicles, deadlines and stress of the corporate world behind made me realise how narrow minded life can be when you are stuck in the 9-5 corporate rat race.

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The Annapurna Circuit

The Annapurna Circuit is a horseshoe-shaped trek that circles around the Annapurna mountain range. It is not for the faint-hearted but I do highly recommend it as a great introduction to trekking in Nepal.

Each day on the Annapurna Circuit is different – whilst I held the expectation of seeing snow-covered peaks soaring above me, this was not always the case.  One day we may of been walking thru an arid, dusty and bare landscape as if we were on Mars.

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The next day we would be walking through pine forests.

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Then the next day we might have been walking through rainforests.  I was expecting it to be quite chilly, but there was a fair bit of variability in the temperature depending upon what altitude we were climbing at.   Given the physical activity of walking, I would sometimes be wearing only one layer, then on the day in which we were trekking up to our highest altitude – I wore 9 layers on my top half, and four layers on my bottom half!

There were also many spectacular waterfalls throughout the course of the trek – some of which were frozen over as we reached altitude. There were several crossings on suspension bridges across rivers. I would always attempt to be one of the first people to cross, as the more people in front of you, the more bouncy your crossing would be. 

The highlight of the trek was climbing Thorung La pass. At 5416 metres, it was a tough climb we required a few days of acclimatisation. The day we climbed it required a 4 AM start, and we commenced the day climbing the mountain in very cold, very dark and very windy conditions. The driving wind was so intense that I really had to anchor myself into the ground sometimes so as not to fall over.  But, it was all worth it once we reached the top!

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Some of the others had their water supply freeze but I decided to wrap some socks around my bottles to prevent that from happening to me. Those socks came in handy (literally) at around the 5000 m mark for me when I decided to substitute them from bottle earners to gloves. So, my photos on top of the pass include me stylishly wearing socks as gloves. It was awesome to reach the top, but then followed a 1900 m descent down. I decided to invest in a walking stick (named Peggy) and she was well worth the 450 rupees I paid for her in that climb down alone. 

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Accommodation is in teahouses along the route, most of which had squat toilets and solar-powered showers.  Therefore, if we were staying in a teahouse in a valley, and the sun had disappeared behind the mountains at 2 PM, the hot water supply was limited to perhaps the first 3 or 4 people in the shower queue having hot showers, with the rest forced to grit their teeth with cold water, or forgo a shower until the next day.  Here is a teahouse aptly titled the Hotel Shangri-La!

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The food and hospitality along the Annapurna Circuit was wonderful.  The staple meal is dhal baht, a curry served on metal trays with rice. The menus had a wide variety of food including soups, fajitas, enchiladas, pizzas, vegetable fried noodles and on occasion deep-fried Mars and Snickers Bars. Naturally, tea is also available – my favourite tea was masala – a lovely, spiced tea quite similar to chai.

WWOOFing

WWOOFing – do you mean the sound a dog makes, I hear you ask. Yes, but it also stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. WWOOFing is a fantastic way to learn new, practical skills whilst also visiting areas of the country which are off the tourist trail. It is important to note that WWOOFing is not a holiday, per se. You are expected to work an average of 6 hours a day, 5 days a week. After touching base with a few potential hosts, I waited with much trepidation at Welshpool train station for my first host to appear. Note to potential WWOOFers – always find out from your host what they look like. I tried to figure out if the man sitting on the park bench next to me could be him. As it turned out, my host was running late and eventually we put two and two together and off we drove to my first WWOOF farm.

WWOOFing is not for princesses. Tiaras and high heels won’t win any awards whilst you are WWOOFing. BUT, it is important to know your level of comfort whilst WWOOFing. I made the mistake of underestimating my level of comfort when I signed up for a 3 week stint at a WWOOF placement where there were no showers and I was living in a caravan in the middle of the British winter. Whilst, I grinned and braved the cold, shivering my bits off. I was seriously concerned about getting chillblains or frostbite on my feet. You also need to dress practically rather than attempt to win any fashion awards. Wellies (gumboots for Australians), hardy work gloves and clothes you are prepared to get covered in animal poo and/or get torn from getting caught in barbed wire or jumping over fences are imperative.

Why would anybody sign up to WWOOF? For me, personally, I decided to join WWOOF last New Year’s Eve, having spent the previous two months travelling and finding myself slightly jaded from moving from place to place every couple of days and fitting in the major tourist attractions at each destination. There didn’t seem to be much purpose behind where I was going other than to say that I had been there. WWOOFing would allow me to have my cake and eat it – I would get to see various parts of the British countryside but also my days would have a fulfilling purpose.

I was happy to be WWOOFing at last, but didn’t quite realise what I had gotten myself into by volunteering in the winter on a fairly remote farm. I didn’t realise I would be traipsing around in snow-encrusted mud (or is it mud-encrusted snow?) trying to convince the small herd of highland cattle at the farm to change paddocks. Nor did I realise there was such a precise method to planting onion seeds in the cloch (I didn’t even know what a cloch was before arriving on the farm for that matter!). But, I did also have a lot of fun – including building my first snowman, and having snowball fights with the kids.

After a couple of days between hosts, I headed to Cornwall to my next farm – a community farm based on the outskirts of St Just. Having lived with a family of 5 on a remote farm in the Wales countryside for 3 weeks to all of a sudden being ensconced in a dynamic community farm with people always coming and going, it took me a while to adjust. Although some of the tasks were similar at both farms (such as convincing pigs, rather than cows, to change paddocks), I have been constantly learning new skills from each host. This has a “pay-it-forward” effect, where I now can use these skills I have learnt at previous hosts with current or future hosts. For example, I learnt how to fence (not the Olympic sport, unfortunately) at the farm in Cornwall, and my next host in Worcestershire was literally rubbing their hands with glee that I could help them build a chicken enclosure using these fencing skills.

Whilst each host has different circumstances, the size of the land and its topography and what they hope to achieve in the season and long-term, fundamentally, they are all doing battle with the weather. Imploring the wind to stop howling, more rain, more sun, less snow, less frost. When I first started WWOOFing, the “horse meat” scandal was working its way through the media and the various “big” supermarket chain outlets one-by-one were being outed. One of the managers at a farm I was WWOOFing at put it most succinctly when he said, “We shouldn’t be competing against each other, we should be working together to reduce the profits of these big supermarkets”. This has predominantly been a recurring theme at all of my WWOOF farms – there is a want to increase the public’s knowledge about buying locally grown food and reducing food miles. Probably the most rewarding aspect of WWOOFing has been seeing customers come to farmers markets or buy a veg box with vegetables that I picked and salad that I harvested with my own hands. It is such simple pleasures that have made WWOOFing in the UK a wonderful and insightful experience.