Surviving Nicaragua on a plant-based diet

Nicaragua is undoubtedly the hardest place on my Latin American adventure to be a vegetarian or vegan- the former is a barely grasped concept, and veganism really barely exists. That said, there have been some fantastic spots I’ve been while roaming the country with delicious, healthy food. Unfortunately because it is mostly gringos that go there, the prices are a lot higher than the average food in a local comedor, and I’ve mostly eaten in.

Being gringoville, Granada is an easy place to find vegan food. Although there aren’t any specialist places, most of the cafes and restaurants offer something. The Garden Café is a haven with a vegan salad comprising of cucumber, tomato, onion, leaves, hummus, chickpeas, grains, flaked almonds and pitta. They also do a chunky hummus and avo sandwich. Pita, pita also does a hummus falafel salad plate, though at great expense.

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In Managua, the amazing Ola Verde has a huge range of delicious options including this lentil moussaka with an amazing cashew cheese topping. Portions are a bit small for the price, but they also have a deli counter selling the sexiest tomato hummus, natural peanut butter, tofu, and pots of pre-made couscous salads, marinaded tofu, proper dark chocolate etc. For other staples head to whole food shop La Naturaleza, which is basically the only place you will find a good range of soy based burgers, smoked tofu, and other healthy things.  The bookshop Hispamer has a gorgeous café which is a haven in the city which serves the best smoothies ever and an amazing quinoa salad, which you can ask for sin queso. A bit out of town but near to my house was the Restaurante Andana, worth a cheap taxi ride for a low-cost, local style vegetarian buffet meal, which when I went included the usual gallo pinto, plantains, salad, and a veggie burger. They also do a big range of salads and smoothies.

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If you are thinking of doing Spanish lessons, the beautiful La Mariposa eco hotel and Spanish school is set less than an hour out of the city in the small town of La Concha and includes vegetarian, organic, home-grown food as part of the bundled price.

In Leon head to the beautiful Casa Abierta, the most peaceful eco-hostel with a lovely relaxing vibe. Or if you’re just there for the day, still drop into their restaurant which has an all vegetarian, and largely vegan menu including salads, burritos, pastas, and really unusual smoothies. I had the falafel salad with the best vegan mayo- or if you are a veggie, my friend had the goat’s cheese topped with cashews which was also delicious, especially paired with a colibri smoothie of fresh orange, passionfruit, and basil.

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24172567_10214344485781930_501166124_nThough I generally prefer independent places to chains, Casa Del Café, which is omnipotent in Managua, does an exceptionally affordable lunch menu where you can get a salad, soup, and drink for just $5 which is great when you’re on the run or need an easy, cheap place to go. Their chia pudding is also creamy and immensely satisfying. It’s also worth knowing the supermarket La Colonia does a breakfast for just 45 cordobas (just over $1) which includes gallo pinto and a tortilla (which is vegan) or if you are a veggie, also a fried egg, and a slab of Nica cheese, with a coffee.

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On the whole it’s not easy- I tried to explain in multiple ways not eating meat and still got served ham- but if you can find the right places, there’s lots to choose from in Nicaragua and supporting those business supports a better, healthier, and more sustainable lifestyle- so go for it!

Weird and wonderful things you will see or will happen to you in Latin America

When you travel on another continent long term, you have to expect cultural differences. Apart from the major things- like the Inca ruins, phenomenal mountains, exotic plants, foods etc., here are some of the more random different things you will find when you travel in Latin America.

You will fall down all the time

Health and safety is just not a thing. For once I’ve had to start paying attention to where I’m walking after falling over basically every day for the first two months. The pavement (if there is one) will not just be uneven, it can have random bits of metal sticking out of it, holes, or sometimes be missing completely (I was once texting while walking and fell into a nearly waist-deep hole in the pavement in Bolivia). If people are doing building work above you, you may also get hit in the head with flying sparks. A lot.

People sell random shit in the street

Sure, people sell stuff on the street at home. But usually it’s part of some kind of market place, or there’s some kind of plan to it. Here, people just sell what they can to get by: I’ve met people randomly wondering around selling only teaspoons, selling kitchen scissors, selling women’s bras (who buys these out in the street?! It’s not like you can try them on), llama foetuses (offerings to PachaMama, or Mother Earth,) and once even a man pushing a wheel barrow with a self-pumping shower head attached to a tank to demonstrate his wares worked). In Peru they even sell ayahuasca, an incredibly powerful hallucinogenic drink usually prepared by spiritual shamans in strictly controlled religious ceremonies- just in re-used coke bottles on the side of the road. I would not recommend taking your chances on something that dodgy and mind-altering for less than a dollar…

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Terrifying mannequins

I guess people have to buy these second hand but my god, in Bolivia I was starting to have nightmares about mannequins coming to life like terrifying zombies, Doctor Who style, after seeing these menaces meant to entice you to buy clothes.

Drinks come in bags

Have you ever tried a drink out of a plastic bag with a straw? It’s really common in all the countries I went to. Apparently it’s because the owners of the little pulperias (corner shops) can’t necessarily afford the bottled versions, so it’s cheaper to buy a vat of coke and sell it on like that. Just don’t expect to be able to store it in your backpack for later…

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Corner shops are behind bars

Speaking of puplerias, for some reason they are often behind bars- like a corner shop prison- and you have to peer through (into what is usually the front room of someone’s house) and ask for what you want at the little window (assuming someone is actually there).

Everyone has hearing problems 

  1. At least, that’s the only explanation I can come up with for why the music is blasting out SO BRAIN-INCINERATINGLY LOUD, for no reason, ALL THE TIME!

No one knows how to queue

When you can go into shops, no one knows how to queue, which is a nightmare if you’re British (or also just appreciate good manners). The number of times I’ve stood a respectful distance behind the person in front of me, only to have someone else dive in front is incredible. Or even when you’ve already reached the counter- someone will just butt in front- and the shop keepers never say ‘sorry I’m already serving someone.’ It blows my mind.

Crazy busses

These could merit a whole blog post in themselves. Having travelled the best part of 4000km from Bolivia to Nicaragua by bus, I’ve tried every kind of these. They vary hugely, but all of some things in common.  Jesus is everywhere, sometimes Mary too, with some kind of slogan about mi fiel amigo (faithful friend) or rey de reyes (king of kings). They will be pumping some kind of latino music, full blast, all the way. If you’re on a long distance bus (actually usually surprisingly comfortable) they will instead be blasting badly dubbed versions of old American movies. Don’t count on getting any sleep. The local busses are usually worst- often second/third/fourth hand American schoolbusses, and falling apart doesn’t cover it- I once heard something fall out of the bottom of one in Costa Rica, and then whatever part it was dragged along the road for the next 19 miles. No one seemed fazed by the noise or the smell of burning. They will somehow fit 100 people in a space designed for 40.  And if I told you that the inter-urban mini busses in Nicaragua are locally called intermortales (loosely translated, between-deaths, or as I called it, the death bus) that will tell you all you need to know about them. I usually closed my eyes as we overtook on a mountain bend, and were on the wrong side of the road as several lorries sped in our direction, and tried to pretend I was somewhere else.

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Addresses

In a lot of places, street names or house numbers are not a thing. Nicaragua is the worst offender for this, making it impossible to find anywhere as a non-local because there’s no such thing as a conventional address as we know it. Instead, addresses are descriptions of where things are- mine is ‘from the statue of Monsenor Leszcano, two blocks north and two and a half blocks down, with a green gate’ (not to mention there are several houses with green gates on my street). The worst is when they make references to seemingly random- or actually non-existent things- e.g. I was given the direction ‘from where the tree was  two blocks north… etc. etc.’ Which tree? I asked- it’s a huge city, there’s more than one tree- it turns out ‘where the tree was’ refers to a tree which was destroyed in an earthquake. In 1972. How I’m meant to find out where a tree was twenty years before I was born…?

Directions

So then you ask for directions from people who do know where the tree was. The problem is, people will give you directions even if they have no idea where the place you’re looking for is, so as to save face. This has happened so many times to me I now have a policy of asking three people before going anywhere if two of the directions match.

Men have willies

Like me, you might have taken this as a given, but more than a few (no, not all men)  seem weirdly proud of it, like children at a birthday party, and pop them out in the street to show them off when you walk by. I’ve never been flashed before this trip but it has happened  A LOT. Just ignore them or give them a sarcastic slow clap. They don’t deserve the attention they’re looking for.

Clowns and zebras

It’s not uncommon in Nicaragua to see a clown waiting for a bus, sitting in the back of a cart, or just getting groceries. They come and perform on the busses for spare change, but I love seeing them just chilling in normal situations. In La Paz, Bolivia, the traffic is also directed exclusively by zebras. I’m not quite sure why.

People tell it as it is

You will get called chela or chele  (white woman or man) ALL  the time. It’s not meant to be offensive, people are just literal in their descriptions. If you are a bit fat you might get called el gordo or a bit thin, el flako, and apparently no one gets upset about this.

Humidity

Which doesn’t help when your hair is very affected by humidity and you generally look ridiculous. For the last several months I’ve had to scrape my hair back into a plait every day because naturally it has basically looked like this.

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The sense of community is real

In my barrio, families and neighbours sit out on the street together in rocking chairs, chatting and watching the world go by. They are close in a way that is rarely the case in Britain anymore. Every morning when I walk to the bus stop they call out ‘hello, my friend!’ ‘Buen Dia! ‘Adios!’.

It is this warmth of people that I’m going to miss the most. Although the crazy stuff is sometimes hilarious, sometimes frustrating, and I can’t deny I’m looking forward to life being easier for a while when I go home, I’m sure it’s going to wear off quickly and I will miss the surprise and adventure of discovering new things through travel. Let’s hope the next journey is just around the corner…

Nicaragua diaries: trying to adapt to life the Nica way

On my first day in Nicaragua, the door of my taxi fell off while we were driving. The driver, seeming irritable, got out, forcefully kind-of reattached it, then said grumpily to me ‘you need to hold it’.

Obviously.

Welcome to Nicaragua.

No doubt about it, Nicaragua is the most chaotic country I’ve been to on this trip. Every day seems to have brought new and unexpected challenges, perhaps more so in reality because this time I wasn’t just here as a tourist, I came to stay for three or four months and volunteer, live in a local barrio and try to understand the culture better. It’s a country which has made me feel inspired, bemused, and sometimes just frustrated in turns, as I’ve tried  to adjust to living in a very different culture, and always standing out as an extranjero, or as the locals call white girls, a chela.

I started living in the small town of Ticuantepe, which is on the outskirts of Managua. I was lucky to have been given a home for the first few weeks with a lady who has now become a close friend, and her four cats. I spent three weeks trying to improve my Spanish at the fantastic La Mariposa school in La Concha, a very tiny pueblo which seemed worlds apart from the capital city of Managua I now call home. Every day I caught the local interlocale microbus for the 20 minute terrifying break-neck journey up through the green hills and valleys to get to La Concha on narrow, winding roads. Locally, the busses are referred to intermortales- literally, ‘between deaths’, or as I came to think of it, ‘the death bus’. You hailed it down wherever you were, and it would barely slow to a stop as you launched yourself through the doors, desperately trying to reach a seat before falling into your neighbours lap, and if not, trying to stand up with nothing to hold onto in a bus so small even I, at the height of 5ft5, had to crouch. Sometimes people would have whole vats of produce, mechanic tools, live animals with them- you name it. (In a later adventure with a friend, we brought her two cats on the microbus-  and tuk-tuk- and regretted it.) What was nice was the way people would help each other- they would hold my bag for me if they got a seat and I didn’t- or even hold each other’s babies or children, and pass them forward when it was time to get off. That would never happen at home. When it was my stop, you had to yell out bajar aqui or grab the attention of the guy hanging out of the window, who took the money, to get it to stop, before being somewhat bodily thrown out again.

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Bringing a cat on a tuk-tuk- NOT recommended.

The school was fantastic; sustainable tourism at its best. It was also an eco-hostel, built sustainably into the green tropical valleys, but which uses its proceeds to fund a huge array of community development projects: an animal rescue shelter (these things don’t generally exist in Nicaragua), a school for disabled children, a kids ‘breakfast club’ to help make sure children received adequate nourishment, extracurricular activities for children, solar power initiatives, clean cookstoves for people who lacked adequate technology for cooking,  reforestation, and were also building a medical centre in a very rural region which lacked one.  Apart from that, they had an impressive cultural and political program through which I got to go on trips to get to know the surrounding area, and got a thorough history of Nicaraguan politics. Phew.

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Most importantly, I learned to understand better  the reality of people’s lives in developing countries. I’m not going to go all patronising/ Barbie Saviour on you, but even though I’ve seen some of this before through travelling, actually living somewhere which lacks those amenities I take for granted at home has given me a whole new appreciation of privilege, and what a lack of it means. According to one of my teachers, most of the people in La Concha did not have access to running water. Instead they collected water from a municipal source for ‘bucket showers’, and used a latrine-style toilet where waste was collected from underneath (rather than a plumbed system where you can simply flush your- er- deposits- away).  Even now where I live in the centre of the capital city, we only have proper running water in the evenings- in the morning it’s just a dribble, and during the day nothing at all. That’s what a lack of infrastructure means in reality- and my experience is relatively plush compared to others. Power cuts were frequent, sometimes lasting twelve hours at a time. Sometimes the water goes completely: you always have to have some stored in case. Cars are too expensive for a lot of people, and it’s not uncommon to see people using horse and carts as a main method of transport.

One day, relatively early on in my time here, I was sitting in the living room doing my homework when I glanced up and nearly jumped out of my skin. There was a chicken on the coffee table. A real, live chicken, looking right at me.

Where have you come from?  I implored her. As I slowly got up, the cats awoke from their slumber and clocked her. Oh boy.

Then began a frantic chase to see who would get the chicken first- as I and the cats literally ran in circles, cartoon style, around the poor bird while it hopped back and forth out of our way, until I was eventually able to cover it in a bucket (to the utter confusion and uproar of the cats), scoop it up, and deposit her somewhat unceremoniously outside, where I assumed she had wondered in from one of the neighbour’s back yards.

Another time, not thinking about the fact a second-hand clothes pop-up in Nicaragua might be less substantially built than a regular clothing shop at home, in the changing room I leaned against the wall for balance while trying to wriggle out of my trousers, only to discover the walls are made of cardboard when I crashed sideways through three stalls, ending up a sweaty beetroot mess, half undressed on the floor with my ankles still tangled while a gaggle of Nica women pissed themselves laughing and pointing at me. I laughed with them as they helped me up, trying to act as though I wasn’t dying inside from humiliation as well as from the pain.

The pace of life in Ticuantepe seemed very tranquilo and for that reason I felt very safe there, but perhaps this was naive and I was still far removed, because  I was completely shocked when an incident occurred which I only found out the true nature of later.  Coming  back from eating out one night, my friend Judy and I encountered a police blockade in the road.  It was unusual to see police at all.  There was a woman crying, with blood on her face, and two legs sticking out from a motito (tuk-tuk). We didn’t know what was going on so got out of the way.  I’ve since learned that we had stumbled into a murder scene. After a minor collision, an argument had spiralled out of control, and another very young motito driver, who was not even involved, was shot and killed by a drug-dealer. The legs I had seen poking out were the legs of a young man who had been murdered during the time we’d been eating dinner.

In this way, the first few weeks were a good introduction to life in Nicaragua; a place which is full of warmth and fun, but also one in which people’s lives are shaped by the harsh realities of a country which has come out of revolution, civil war, natural disasters, and for many, poverty.

After living in Ticuantepe, I moved to the capital city of Managua, to volunteer with a fantastic local organisation called CANTERA and continue to learn more about Nicaraguan life.

With thanks to everyone who made me feel happy and welcome when I first arrived here.

 

Sexual harassment as a solo female traveller: my experiences in Latin America

Many people warned me that sexual harassment would be bad while travelling as a single girl in Latin America. Pffft, I said. They can’t be worse than the average bloke out on a Saturday night in the UK.

I was wrong. I want to say at the outset of this post that nothing that has happened to me while travelling in Latin America in the last few months is something that has never happened in the UK. However, it is the sheer frequency and ubiquitousness of sexual harassment on this continent that makes it hard to deal with, even if you’re pretty down to earth and used to dealing with shit.

If you’re another solo female traveller you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you are another woman thinking about travelling solo in Latin America, you absolutely should do it and not be put off by this. The fact that you are considering travelling alone means I know you are tough enough to deal with it. However, here is some of the stuff I have experienced while travelling in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama,  Costa Rica, and Nicaragua:

  • Constant catcalling. This is worse where I am living at the moment in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, than it has been anywhere else on my trip. I have not once left the house without being catcalled. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is- it’s happened on the way to work (at 8am), going to buy groceries at 11am, at lunch time, afternoon, early evening- and to be honest I just don’t go out at night alone here. It can happen up to thirty times a day. One time in Colombia, as I mentioned in my blog about that otherwise wonderful country, in one walk to the supermarket in the early evening (ten minutes each way) I was catcalled no less than THIRTY SIX times. It makes no difference what you’re wearing, either- whether it’s a dress, or jeans and a long shirt, it will happen. Usually I tune out and try to ignore it, occasionally I flip out and yell at them to fuck off, but it’s not advisable because they can get aggressive. During a city tour I saw one girl break down when a group of guys started on us and started screaming and swearing and crying at them to leave us the fuck alone. I can’t say I blame her. All the girls in that group had had the same experiences.
  • Following. This one is a bit more sketchy and one to be weary of. As much as, in theory, the idea of being apparently so irresistible (even while wearing a dress covered in three-day-old food stains, and being very hungover), that men feel the need to chase you down the street shouting mi Reina, mi Reina! (my queen) is pretty flattering, in reality it is pretty frightening. Men have followed me on foot, on bicycles, motorbikes, and in cars. Always be aware of your surroundings, and don’t walk around wearing headphones (though it can be tempting to drown out the catcalling).
  • Touching. This thankfully happens less frequently but it does happen, especially if you go out at night (though this is kind of the same as in the UK to be honest). Men, just because a girl likes to party does not mean she wants, or deserves, to be grabbed at. She does not necessarily want you just because she also happens to be there and you find her attractive.
  • Hair pulling. This is a weird new one that actually hasn’t happened at home but has happened a couple of times here. Apparently it’s part of the fascination with blondes. I’ve also had hair sniffing a couple of times. They’re really obsessed with blondes. I think the fact that the only images of white women- and especially blonde women- that you see here tend to be pornographic really doesn’t help.
  • Flashing. Men are so very proud to have willies. God, it’s pathetic, and when you’re with friends, it’s laughable, but when you’re on your own it can be a bit scary- I usually pretend I hadn’t noticed, and have noticed something in a window across the street and walk in the other direction.
  • The police will not help you. I once crossed a street to get away from some blokes that were harassing me, thinking that the police on the other side would keep things a bit safer. More fool me, they yelled out the same comment. Border officials are another one- I have yet to have my passport checked without the guy (it’s always a guy) making some unnecessary comment about by appearance.
  • Taxi drivers. People always advise solo women to take taxis rather than the bus, especially at night or in big cities. They’re usually right. But the taxi driver will very often hit on you too. Sit in the backseat if you can (otherwise they’ve tried to put an arm around me or a hand on my leg). If you’re in a ‘collective’ style taxi (that picks up other people) try to pick one with at least one other woman in it- a girl I know recently had to escape an attempted mugging/assault with three other men in the car she was in.
  • They don’t take no for an answer. To start, I was honest about my single status when asked. I didn’t see why I should have to pretend to be ‘taken’ by another man to be safe. With time it just became easier to pretend I had a boyfriend/husband to put them off, or they’d assume you were up for it. Sometimes, though, they just see it as a further challenge ‘but you know men in Peru/Colombia/Nicaragua have bigger dicks right? Yeah, right.

These are the more typical things. There have been other incidents that have been more frightening- a bus conductor who trapped me in the toilet on a night bus and tried it on until I was forced to fight past him and escape (and didn’t dare go to sleep for the rest of the night). An Ecuadorean guy who I thought was my friend, but when adding me on Facebook stole all my photos and fabricated a relationship between us.

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A guy on a bus just today asked why my husband hadn’t ‘beaten my ass’ for travelling on my own (he was not joking), said that travel and working in other countries was ‘not for the woman to do’ and when I said I wasn’t interested in husbands or anyone telling me what I could and couldn’t do, said ‘oh, so you’re easy then’, told me girls wouldn’t travel alone unless they were up for it, etc., etc…

It wears you down. You deal with it and you cope, because that’s what women have always done. Some days you laugh. Some days you flip out. Some days you cry.  It’s not just Latino men- like I’ve said, everything (except the toilet and weird facebook stalking thing) is something that has happened at home, too. But at home, although it’s not infrequent, it’s unusual to be harassed more than once in a day, and it’d be something I’d actually remark upon. In Latin America, if I had a pound for every time I was harassed, I’d be able to come home and buy a nice sized house outright in central London. And I wish I was exaggerating but I’m not.

Women the world over have a very long fight ahead of us to get to a point where we’re actually treated as equals, and as human beings, as a given.  That is all the feminist movement is asking for: to be able to exist as a person, and not be harassed, assaulted, and in extreme cases, killed, because you happened to be born female. Women in Latin America, where sexism is insipid thanks to the extremely machista, patriarchal culture, have a considerably more difficult time than we do in Europe. I will always stand in solidarity with them: it is why I came to this continent, to volunteer with an organisation which works on violence against women. However, we also need to work with men. To talk about masculinity and what it means, and what it has the potential to mean. So that men don’t think they need to assert their dominance over women to prove their sexual prowess; their worth as a man. So that the men who know already that it is not okay to assume you have ownership over, harass, or threaten women, actually will stand up and support us when they see things happening, rather than staying silent and staying part of the problem. So that men who don’t realise their behaviour is harassment understand how it feels to be treated in that way. How it makes you feel like you’re not even a person.

Women are tough. Female travellers in particular have to be badasses. But it’s not easy. So to my fellow travelling ladies- keep doing what you do. You rock. But we all know we can’t take our safety for granted, and that travelling as a solo girl is very different from travelling as a solo guy. So let’s all just be wary,  while living life to the full. Let’s support each other. Let us change what it means to be a woman in the world. Let us also help men challenge what it means to be men- for the better.

Swimming with starfish: Panama is paradise

Imagine the perfect paradise island: soft white beaches shaded by palm trees, cool, crystal clear water lapping the shore, starfish bejewelling the ocean floor, and literally no one for miles around…. except the Panamanian ‘pirate’ that has just cracked open a fresh coconut with his machete for you to pour your rum into.

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You spend your days lying in the sand, drinking, chatting, reading, taking dips in the sea to cool off. You scuba-dive for an hour or two and see what the ocean is hiding: a beautiful array of corral, and millions of brightly coloured fish. In the evenings you share food and cold beers with people from around the world, and spend your nights sleeping in hammocks. This is how I spent four days meandering by boat from Colombia to Panama with San Blas Adventures.

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Panama was another surprise for me. I nearly didn’t even bother going, because I’d heard how the culture was totally Amercicanised, how expensive it was, and how uninteresting Panama City is (except the canal).

However, I needed to get from Colombia to Central America somehow. I didn’t want to fly, and it’s impossible to take a bus because the Darién Gap is too dangerous: if the gangsters and drug traffickers don’t get you, you’ll probably just get killed by something in the vast jungle.

It was way out of my budget, but I have no regrets, because sailing through the San Blas Islands was my second-favourite experience travelling in Latin America, honestly just because it was another chance to be completely secluded from civilisation and be absorbed in totally natural beauty without distractions.

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It wasn’t all idyllic: being that remote, there’s obviously no plumbing, and so it was several days of latrines over the sea. The first island wasn’t too bad, I just felt sorry for the fish you could see darting about below the drop hole, and wondered what they must think of the impending shit bombs crashing into their tranquil homes out of nowhere. Later days were worse: when the wind was strong, sometimes the sea water washed people’s…  deposits back up at you when you perched on the edge of the seat. Mmm. We also had bucket showers, which I find actually kind of refreshing in the heat, but nevertheless after four days of island life there was a part of me that was glad to return to a proper bed and a decent shower in Panama City. I also never wanted to drink rum again in my life. If you’ve ever been horrifically hungover on a speedboat in tropical heat you’ll know what I mean.

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In Panama City, the canal museum is far too expensive to visit (at least for me) but if you get a free ticket for the restaurant (also absurdly expensive) you can just buy a drink and watch the boats come through. It’s worth doing but not life-changing. But after one day of recovery from island life I was desperate to get back to it, and so took the worst night bus of my life to get to Bocas del Toro.

It was worth it. Bocas Del Toro is an archipalego of the most stunning Caribbean islands on the north-east coast of Panama. The vibe is muy tranquilo and the islands, which you can visit by water taxi from Bocas town on Isla Colon, are further secluded little paradises tucked away from reality. Opportunities for scuba diving and snorkelling are abundant, and there is even a ‘sloth island’. Red Frog beach would have been the most perfect beach I’ve experienced, had I not just experienced a week living in paradise.

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So, on Panama: don’t miss it. Skip the cities and get down with island life. It doe s mean adapting to ‘island time’ where anything can occur within a couple of hours of when it’s supposed to, and if you order lunch prepare to waste your whole afternoon waiting for it to show up: but a slower pace of life was exactly what I needed to recover as I was just over the halfway point of my travel, and it prepared me for the culture of pura vida when I crossed over the border to my next highly anticipated destination: Costa Rica!

 

 

Cool as Colombia: a country in rebirth

What do most people think of when they think of Colombia? Cocaine, Pablo Escobar, gangs, civil war, fiery women with boob jobs…. Most likely. Throw away all your stereotypes and misconceptions about Colombia (well actually the last one is partially true)- but Colombia really has undergone a remarkable change in the last years and, particularly since the signing of the peace agreement has become THE up and coming place to travel- so you’d better get there while enough people are still scared of it before it becomes the next over-sold tourist trap. While my family at home worried about Colombia, everyone I met travelling since I arrived in Bolivia had done nothing but rave about it- so what is it about Colombia?

Colombia has an insane, irresistible and infectious energy. It emanates from the people, who are, without a doubt, the warmest, most excitable, passionate and positive people I have ever met in my life. I don’t believe there is a single shy Colombian. Considering everything the country has gone through in the last decades, they are just so positive minded, and excited to see you, and welcome you, as a gringo, because as more than one of them told me, our presence there is a real mark of how much the safety situation has changed for the better since the dark years in the past.It is also incredibly beautiful, has several waves of fascinating history to unearth, phenomenal landscapes and very cool, modern and metropolitan cities.

4I arrived in Cali, the city of salsa! To be honest, there isn’t much to do here except go out and dance salsa, which the locals seem to do every night of the week until five in the morning. Colombian men seem to be constitutionally incapable of seeing a woman not dancing for more than about four seconds before addressing the outrage and hauling you to the floor, however much your stiff and awkward British limbs protest. I am convinced that Colombians must just have more joints than we do because with however much enthusiasm I try I cannot for the love of God imitate their swirling, shimmying grace- or keep up with the tempo!DSCN8900.JPG

 

From Cali I went to Salento, which may be my favourite place in Colombia, it is so breathtakingly beautiful. People come here for two things: hiking and coffee. The mystical ‘Valle de Cocoras’ is a cloud forest with deep,  beautiful sloping landscapes shadowed by wax palm trees. These are not any old palm trees, but skyscrapers reaching between 45 and 60m high. I’ve never seen a view like it. To get there from the town you hitch a lift on a car called a ‘Willy’ (yes, seriously, queue a day of willy-based jokes) which they cram with more people than you think should physically fit in one vehicle- we ended up standing on a small ledge on the back of the truck, desperately clinging on to the roof bars as we were flung around corners and went flying over bumps on the off-road track. The other thing here to do is visit the coffee plantations and see how it’s grown- which I didn’t have time for- but I can verify that, as a Brit that generally prefers tea, the coffee here is delicious.

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Medellin. I liked it so much I seriously looked into the feasibilities of living there. Everything here is brilliant. The vibe is bursting with friendliness and warmth. The climate is perfect- hot but not too hot, and cool at night. It’s seriously modern- you can easily live here with all the luxuries of a developed country. There is street art everywhere, music pumping from every corner at all hours of the day and night, loads of veggie and hipstery restaurants, cafes, and bars, and, if you’re going to be the tourist, the best walking tours I have ever done. They also have a wicked nightlife.

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If you like street art, definitely visit Communa 13- a formerly notorious and dangerous barrio which, like the rest of the city, has undergone a drastic transformation in the last few years. Modern escalators carry you up the sheer hill where you can wonder around the colourful narrow winding streets in which every surface is covered in street art. Every piece tells a story.

It’s hard to choose favourites, but I particularly liked this one- which the artist told us represents the diversity of the Colombian people, and the regenerative energy of a city in transition.

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This one represents the sadness of the community’s past on the gloomy and grey right, the throwing of dice the actions of the government that gamble with the people’s lives, and the left, the colour and life that has flourished since Medellin has come into its own and become a safe and flourishing city.

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Cartagena is a city of contrasts between old and new: the historic old town is like walking back into the colonial past, with it’s colourful winding streets, little houses with pretty verandas, and looked over by the castle which has a fascinating history of battles, sieges, leprosy, and pirates.

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But from here you can look over the modern metropolis that has replaced the Cartagena of the past: skyscrapers dominate the landscape, along with modern shopping malls.

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The only thing I didn’t really like about Colombia was the men. It’s a shame but their attitude kind of spoilt the overall amazing atmosphere. When you are travelling alone as a solo blonde chica in Latin America you tend to attract a bit of unwarranted attention, and though harassment in general has pretty bad in most of the countries I’ve been through, it was nothing on Colombia. I’ve never been pestered, catcalled, followed, sniffed (!) or made to feel as uncomfortable anywhere in all my exploring (even in India). I didn’t feel safe walking alone at night- and in one walk to the supermarket in the early evening (ten minutes each way) I was catcalled no less than THIRTY SIX times (I started counting when I became seriously fucked off after about three minutes of this happening). Usually I overlook this kind of thing but there is a turning point where it goes from being pathetic and contemptible to- as much as I hate to admit it- actually a bit intimidating just existing and walking around as a woman. And that isn’t cool.

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On the whole though, Colombia felt safe, full of life, and is amazingly cheap to travel in, and I would go back to it and recommend it in a heartbeat. No doubt there are still remnants of the past around (if you get a long distance public bus expect it to be stopped while police search everyone’s belongings at least once). A lot of people are happy about the peace agreement, a lot of people still believe there should have been harsher punishment of those who were responsible for so much death (depending where in the country you are and the extent to which people were personally terrorised  by it). However, on the whole, even those who disagreed with it said how much safer- and happier- they feel now compared to ten years ago, and are looking forward at last to a flourishing Colombia. And everywhere I went they had the same message- tell your friends to come and visit us too! So what are you waiting for?

Peru is a plant-based paradise

Peru is vegan heaven. There’s a sentence I never expected I’d write. I ate better vegan food in Peru than I’ve eaten in my whole life. It may not be the traditional fare, but veganism is a well understood concept, at least in most of the towns on the backpacker trail, and there are vegan versions of most of the typical dishes- even vegan ceviche! Everything is plentiful, delicious and healthy. In Peru I was in foodie heaven.

The surprises started in Puno. Puno is a nondescript town that most travellers use just as a gateway to Lake Titicaca. It’s big, ugly, and uninspiring- so imagine my surprise when I found the best vegan restaurant (at that point) on my trip- The Loving Hut does a ridiculously cheap set lunch menu for 15 Soles (about £3.50) that includes salad, soup, main dish and pudding. Usually with these set lunches the portions are small- but here the main was so mammoth that I broke my principle of always finishing every meal. The best thing about this place is the tofu fish and meat substitutes. I’d really missed healthy protein and realised how much I rely on Quorn  and tofu at home, but here they have vegan ceviche, vegan prawns and rice, tofu chicken, burritos, and much more.19883542_10213030267887304_1678444243_n.jpg

The owner was so friendly and told me about the next surprise of the trip- that in Arequipa there was a vegan festival on the weekend I was arriving! With ridiculously good luck, I went straight to check it out- and it was phenomenal. I ate about three meals worth of food and finished with the best cake of my life- an amazingly rich, vegan, dark chocolate and passion fruit cake- the picture can’t convey the foodgasm.

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In Arequipa I also had vegan ceviche in El Buda Profano (pictured below) which was delicious but unsatisfying compared to the Loving Hut version.

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For extremely satisfying fare, head to Burger Chulls, where I got a vegan lentil burger with sweet potato fries and a passion fruit drink for just 15 soles again! (£3.50!) and couldn’t move for the rest of the evening.

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Crepes are everywhere in South America, surprisingly, and have been the biggest test to my attempt to be vegan most of the time (sorry, I caved for nutella). But Le Petit Francaise will treat you to an incredibly delicious vegan batter hummus and roast vegetable crepe that is to die for. They are so nice they would probably also do you one with lemon and fruit if you asked.

Huacachina is an incredibly small town in the middle of the desert, so imagine how shocked I was to eat the best falafel of my life- in a hostel! Bananas has an incredible menu and these sexy bastards were melt-in-the-mouth delicious, and came with hummus! (I think I’ve had hummus deficiency since arriving in Latin America so I was too excited about this). La Casa de Bamboo is another hostel with an exclusively vegetarian menu, including Thai curry, falafel and incredible large breakfasts. I went three times in my two-day stay.

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Lima is meant to be the best place for food, but was less inspiring for me (but I hated Lima in general). However, here I did get a vegan version of a very traditional dish called causa– avocado layered with potato, and vegetable (usually with tuna or chicken). It was creamy, salty, and very satisfying.

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If Peru is vegan heaven, worship at the altar of Cusco, where a quick search on Happy Cow revealed more veggie restaurants than it was physically or financially possible for me to visit in my time there. The crown for best veggie food was removed here from the Loving Hut and rewarded to Green Point. I’ve never been so happy from food, and I get happy from food often.  Again, for 15 soles, a lunch menu included salad, rich and sweet pumpkin soup, a moderately spicy and fragrant chana masala, topped with yukka (god I’ve missed curry) and a delicious banana and chocolate mousse (all vegan!). The evening options are also incredible- I had a portion of vegan lasagna as big as my head and packed full of fresh veg, while my friends had dumplings and courgetti spaghetti. In spite of my fare I got extreme food envy for the people at the next table who ordered sizzling hot tacos, my god.

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Here I also enjoyed El Encuentro, which offers mainly meat substitute versions of traditional Peruvian food (which to be honest, is a lot like Chinese- meat, rice, soy sauce). And I had the best salad I’ve ever eaten in a shamanic raw vegan restaurant- which was so large it took a full forty minutes to eat!

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More than these, in Cusco, vegetarian food is advertised everywhere, even at mainstream restaurants, and you can get vegan cakes at bakeries. I’m sad I didn’t spend more time in Cusco for many reasons, but the food is a large factor.

So vegans and vegetarians- don’t fear South America- go to Peru!! And add to this list of amazing, healthy, and satisfying food. Nom.

A hostel made of salt, volcanic geysers, and a night on Lake Titicaca…. my continued adventures through Bolivia and Peru

An endless expanse of blue sky, and white so bright it burns your eyes, there’s literally nothing for miles around… and it’s bloody cold. The Uyuni Salt Flats are the main reason so many travellers (including me) are keen to include Bolivia in their travel bucket lists. I’ve been lucky to see some mind-blowing places in the last few years, but the landscapes of Bolivia are like another planet.

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If you’re going to go, there’s no point doing the one day Uyuni tour that only includes the Salt Flats. Like so many of these things (like the Taj Mahal for me in India), sometimes when you have seen a dramatic picture a thousand times, the main event is actually less exciting than the surprisingly incredible side-show. So it was on the Uyuni tour, where, fantastic as the salt flats are, for me they were overshadowed by the spectacular lagoons, crazy cactus island, wildlife, and volcanic geysers.

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Getting the famous mind-bending perspective shots on the salt flats is actually harder than it looks. Our lovely guide Herman, while thankfully not a drunk-driver (apparently a common problem on these tours- so beware!)  was also the world’s worst photographer, and it was kind of hilarious as much as it was frustrating that between all of us we found it literally impossible to get both us and a plastic dinosaur/beer can/hat in focus at the same time. Here are some terrible examples:

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Never mind. I was never going to be the type to get insta-famous anyway. We watched the sun disappear into the salt flats, and then drove on a few more miles to our hostel… which was made of salt. The floor, the walls, the table and chairs… one of the weirdest places I’ve ever stayed.

There are so many mind-bendingly beautiful lagoons in Uyuni, surrounded by mountains, each glowing their colour namesake ‘azul’ and ‘verde’, reflecting the minerals that are rich in their make-up.  Without a doubt the highlight is ‘Laguna Colorado’, the red lake. Inhabited by flocks of flamingos, it really was other-worldly, and I had to stop for a long time to remind myself it was real.

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The place we stayed that night was pretty bleak. It was so far in the middle of nowhere, and they only get electricity for two hours a day. Having worked for the last three years at the awesome international development charity, Practical Action, which amongst many things seeks sustainable solutions to ensuring off-grid electricity access in rural and impoverished parts of the world, I finally got a genuine glimpse of what that means for the reality of people’s daily lives. People were so poor here they apparently couldn’t afford plates from which to eat breakfast, and there was only one place in the village that evening that had heating… a bizarre little shop/pub in the middle of nowhere. We bought an incredibly bottle of disgusting Bolivian wine and tried to warm up around the wood-burner…

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On the last day of the tour, you wake up at 3 am. I’m not generally happy to do this for anything, but the chance to see volcanic geysers at sunrise is a good incentive. I feel like I’ve said this a lot about Bolivia, but it was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen… getting out of the car felt like landing on Mars, if Mars smelt like the unique evil of  post-egg curry farts. The ground was alive… literally belching and rumbling underneath us. As we peered, fascinated, into the bubbling pits, we were warned not to breathe too much sulphur and to walk on the right side of where wind was blowing boiling steam into the atmosphere, or risk being burned.

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Bathing after in a hot spring fuelled by the volcano has to be the best view I’ve ever had while taking a bath.

After briefly returning to the city of La Paz, and stumbling into the Gran Poder carnival (picture below) I continued towards Peru and Lake Titicaca, ‘the world’s highest navigable lake’.

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From the Bolivia side, you can visit the lovely but unremarkable ‘Isla del Sol’ from the little sunny town of Copacabana. The experience from Peru, in my view, though, is much more exciting.

Most visitors come for one day and experience only the Uros ‘floaitng islands’. Here, 1200 people live on 87 floating islands that are literally made of reeds. Three metres of reeds are constantly replaced as the bottom rots away, and they use sticks to anchor themselves in position. These people fled the shores of Lake Titicaca to form this bizarre existence in order to escape colonial violence, and have been there ever since, now living only from hunting, fishing, tourism, and selling textiles. They have been adversely affected by climate change, as our very wet experience of the ‘dry season’ demonstrated, but even there they have made attempts towards a better future- with solar panels installed in the reeds in order to power the radio. It’s an awesome thing to see, but no doubt somewhat Disney-ified, and incredibly touristy.

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If you have more time and want a more authentic experience, take the boat a further three hours to Amantani Island. Here I stayed, with two friends, with an Amantanian family overnight on Lake Titicaca. Staying on this unspoilt island is like stepping back into the 1950s, and provides excellent hiking opportunities, if you can hack the altitude, to the shrines on top of the hill to ‘Pachamama’ and ‘Pachatata’. In the evening there was a live band playing Peruvian music, we were encouraged to dress like the locals (see Mel and I looking bangin’ below), and spent one of the most bizarre nights of my life with about 50 people (locals and tourists) doing a kind of high-speed sideways conga to Peruvian pipe music, fuelled by local beer… we slept well.

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Watch out for my next blog as my adventure continues through the west coast of Peru!

Cholitas, Pachamama, rock bands and protests… my first impressions of urban Bolivia

Swooping into Laz Paz from the Telerifico (cable car) is the best way to experience a city for the first time. The lives that are somehow built into the jagged rocks of the dramatic mountain face that frames the city spill out beneath you… the shanty areas of El Alto, the millions of rows of little houses stacked on top of each other, the winding streets, the larger, gleaming buildings, the little green plazas that are dotted around all over the place…

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The markets are where you really find the heart of life in the city. In the main market in the centre of the city, piles of fresh fruit and vegetables in every colour under the sun are stacked high, gleaming red, green, orange, purple…. . Tables of eggs, and cheese, and spices, are everywhere… and toys, and books, and rip-off dvds, and beauty products, bras… They don’t have supermarkets as we know them, because everyone comes here to buy from their cholita.

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Cholitas are the indigenous Aymaran and Quechan women that come to the market to sell their wares. Ever seen the typical postcard picture of a lady in a wide skirt, bulky knitwear, a small bowler hat perched on her head, and long thin plaits that end in pom-poms? She’s a Cholita, and yes that is how they dress day-to-day. Allegedly, the position of the hat signals their relationship status to passers by: straight on means married, no chance- on the side of the head? Single, potentially ready to mingle. Perched on the back of the head? In a relationship, but it’s complicated…

If you really want to buy everything you could ever need, you should head up the mountain to the El Alto Sunday market. It’s said that if you have your phone stolen you’re likely to be able to find it in this market. The biggest market in Bolivia, you can find everything from cheese graters to car parts.

The more touristy, and probably best known market, is the so called ‘Witches Market’. There aren’t really potions sold here anymore, though there is a powder that is supposed to cure the difficulty men sometimes have er… rising… in the high altitude, as well as a ‘love potion’. The main curiosity for most are the dehydrated llama foetuses that hang ominously from stands along the winding street. These are an offering to ‘Pachamama’, the goddess worshipped by the indigenous Andean communities, a fertility goddess or ‘mother earth’.

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At night, there is a thriving live music scene in La Paz. I was fortunate to meet with Monica, who works in the La Paz office of the charity I had been working for before my trip, who was an incredible host, showing me the coolest local places to go out, and how to party like a Bolivian. La Costilla de Adan is the height of hipster-cool, a speakeasy bar in the bohemian area of Sopocachi (where I was staying in a great hostel called The Greenhouse). There is no obvious entrance to get in, so you have to know where it is, or be lucky enough to have friends to pull you through the un-assuming door… into a bar which is an oasis of antiques and nick-nacks from all over Bolivia including dolls, books, record players, old signs… everything you could ever find in a flea market. They sell wicked-cheap cocktails, too.

From here we went to see a gig at Equinoccio by the local band ‘Atajo’, which Monica described as ‘a Bolivian fusion group against hegemony and domination, its lyrics are questioning everything all the time, with great rhythm, like cumbia/reggae/blues/rock’. Always down for resisting hegemony, I was well up for it. The energy in the place was insane, so although I wasn’t able to understand a lot of the lyrics (though Monica tried to translate in breaks) it was an incredible night out, the band supposedly in their last ever show returning for encore after encore as the audience screamed for more. We even got a sweaty hug with the lead after.

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Politics, and resistance to it, is a strong theme in the city of La Paz. The clock on the government building has time seemingly going anti-clockwise as a mark of resistance against the historical dominant influence of the northern hemisphere over their country…  because the clock has evolved from the sundial, and while sundials in the northern hemisphere show shadows going one way… in the south, they go the other. It is a mark of resistance, and independence, and about returning to its Southern roots. And I can’t help but respect that.

Another form of subverting global dominant powers is that Bolivia refuses to have any McDonald’s restaurants…. one of the few places in the world! It seems, locals would rather buy their fried snack-goods, like their groceries, from local traders. And for that they have a huge piece of my heart.

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Though there have been protests in the last few years, President Morales seems on the whole to be respected in Bolivia. He has made huge progress in increasing education and prosperity in the country, and it seems that people love him for that. However, he is not free from controversy. Apart from staying in office a term longer than is customary… with no sign of moving anywhere in the future, he has had some wacky ideas. He apparently warned against eating chicken, because the hormones might make you gay… and Coca Cola, because it makes you bald… and was spotted in the same week eating chicken with Coca Cola. Go figure.

More seriously, though, in an effort to increase the low population of Bolivia, he suggested introducing a tax on condoms, to make them unaffordable to the average person. Needless to say the health minister stepped in highlighting why this would be a potentially catastrophic idea… thankfully it is still possible to buy condoms in Bolivia (though the brand name Masculan makes me chuckle).  I also heard tell on the street that Morales put forward a proposal to tax childless women, who weren’t pregnant, in order to try to solve the same problem. Women, naturally wanting to be treated as people, rather than reproductive machines, took to the streets to protest until he was forced to retreat on the issue.  However, Monica disputes these allegations, and says that the system now is rather to give tax breaks and benefits to women with children, in order to encourage motherhood.

One protest that can’t be disputed, however, was a huge uprising in support of our favourite yellow family, The Simspons. When The Simpsons was taken off the air in Bolivia and replaced with a reality TV show, thousands marched in the streets, some even dressed as the Simpsons themselves,  and as bottles of  Duff beer, to demand they returned to the television! And you know what- they were successful. Now The Simpsons shows in Bolivia three times a day. So who says political protest doesn’t work?

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It was an incredible, vibrant and varied first week in a new continent. In my next blog I will share my experience of the other side of Bolivia-  the wilds!

New beginnings

This winter I finally did the thing I had thought about for so long: I handed in my notice at work, told my housemates to put a vacancy ad up for my room, and bought a one-way ticket to Bolivia. In May I will be embarking on a solo adventure through South and Central America with just my plane ticket and my backpack, and vague intentions to be back by Christmas, but really, who knows? I have a map of the region and a vague route planned through Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, but I am open, and for once have the flexibility, to just see what happens.

I have always wanted to get out into the world and travel long term, but at the usual gap year age of 18 I was far too shy and anxious (and too poor), and like everyone else, as soon as I got into work (finally) after university I had debts and needed financial security and the stability for a while, and to gain experience. I was never able to travel with work but I did always make a personal commitment to saving a large chunk of my income each month and managed a couple of longer holidays; one in India, and a safari tour through Southern Africa, but it was never long enough and I never felt able to really get to know other countries, people, and cultures properly.

This time it will not be rushed. If possible I will spend a month in each country, learn Spanish, and integrate with locals as much as possible. At the end of my trip I hope to spend a few months in my final destination, Nicaragua, rent a room and find a volunteer position within a women’s/human rights organisation, and maybe teach a bit of English or do freelance work to keep my savings from dwindling too low.

This was the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life. I’ve had to make heart-breaking sacrifices in my personal life, give up the job that I had always wanted (working in publishing within a charity), the home I shared with friends, the town I’d become settled in, and to sell or give away a lot of my possessions, including my beloved car, Poo-Jo. It’s the first time in my life I feel completely uncertain about what the future holds.

As scary as this seems to me, though, the opportunity to travel in this way is, I am very aware, a privilege, and one that I am extremely fortunate to be in the position to be able to choose to take. While more people are moving around the world now than ever before, most do not have the luxury of being able to leave their home by choice. War, terrorism, political instability, discrimination, and climate change have forced seemingly more people than ever to flee their home countries and there are now an estimated 20 million refugees worldwide. It is a matter of shame and outrage to me that my own country, ‘Great’ Britain, has utterly failed to meet its human rights obligations to provide adequate shelter and protection to people desperately seeking refuge, particularly unaccompanied minors. So before I fly to Bolivia, I’ll spend a month volunteering at the Women’s Refugee Centre at the Dunkirk Refugee Camp in France to try to offer whatever help I can give.

I have thought about this a lot, and in many ways I have wondered if it is a failure on my part, and selfish, to be moved by this and yet to  still offer only a month, relative to the time I will spend travelling for personal enjoyment and development, and realistically it probably is. I have justified it to myself on the basis that I have worked and saved hard to be in the position to do this. Not being particularly well paid working in the publishing/charity sector, I have often had to skip social activities I really wanted to do with friends, mostly live off cheap food like rice and beans, avoided ever buying new clothes etc. and have lived in a small shared house that is falling apart in order to save money for a long time, because travel is the thing that has always meant more to me than all of that. I hope that, by travelling with good intentions, favouring eco-tourism and local companies, and offering whatever volunteer help I can to small local organisations working on issues I care about along the way, I will at least be making a fair attempt to enjoy this privilege with as much responsibility and care for the places and people I will meet as possible. Apart from the travel experiences, my end goal with this trip is to gain volunteering experience in human rights work, before doing whatever else I have to do to be able to nudge my career over in this area. This is not because of a (potentially patronising and self important) desire to fight on behalf of others, but simply to be able to offer whatever support is needed to people that have been discriminated against in their own fights for justice, and for the same freedoms we should all be able to enjoy as equal citizens of the world. Idealistic? For sure. But well intentioned, and better than doing sweet f/a? I certainly hope so.

As I travel I will be writing about my adventures, the people, the wildlife, the landscapes, as well as political issues I care/am learning about (particularly in the areas of human/women’s rights, LGBT issues, refugees, labour rights, the environment, and sustainable international development), inspiring work I have seen, maybe some veggie/vegan food recommendations for other travellers, and anything else.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading my blog and get in touch if you have any ideas, thoughts, recommendations, or if you happen across this and are also travelling in this region in 2017 and want to meet up, please do send a message! I am not sure what the next year will bring, but I am very excited for the adventure that is ahead.

Peace and love,

Helen