Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tripbod traveller in Rwanda inspired by locals!

Following the research I conducted, I realised I had made some valuable observations regarding African local business.

One major outcome found from talking to these locals was the immense good that the money was doing, as any money made was utilised so efficiently. The first use would always be school fees, because all these people want is an education, which is not state-covered like we receive yet barely appreciate.

The next main point I noticed while interviewing these locals was the selflessness and generosity of them all, as maybe half of the craft shops were set up to raise money for others:
• Some were raising money for a group of orphans, to pay for school fees and general essentials such as food and clothing. The children made crafts to sell, and some money was reinvested in the business to buy stock whilst the majority of the profit goes to the children. I mentioned they were orphans; this came about when some rebels from the Congo came over the border and massacred many of the locals here.
• There were a few stalls, all run separately but for similar purposes, where the majority of the proceeds is given to women, some of them widows, that are caring for their husbands and/or children with H.I.V. They make crafts from home and these are sold in the shop to pay for medicine, school fees and general essentials to survive.
• There were several different organisations set up where the profit goes towards good causes. It baffled me that the little that is made goes straight to bare essentials or good causes. The general ethos is to make something from nothing; maybe this is just a survival technique.
Whilst we were researching and interviewing the locals, Edwin was interviewing the managers at the exclusive lodges and hotels in the area to ask if they would also be interested in making a beneficial relationship with the locals to utilise local resources and build the capacity of the locals, hopefully further educating the population and expanding the ability for these areas to prosper and therefore develop, which will subsequently have a ripple effect across the country... Well, that’s the plan anyway, and so far people were being very receptive; or maybe Edwin was particularly good at explaining that everyone would benefit from these changes.

The afternoon was spent nosing around lodges and cottages, exclusive and very, very expensive, painfully so. Edwin was still discussing business with hotel owners at this point while myself and Doreen pretended we could afford to stay in this $1000 per person per night, fairly average in my eyes, hotel room. The part I would pay for is the view and the local interaction; this we got for the bargain price of $10 per night maximum at the Gorilla Friends guest house – plus an incomparable atmosphere!

Either way, the day ended on a positive note. We all returned to the Gorilla Friends guest house, to the starkly decorated bar, tired, but in that really satisfying exhausted way that the day had gone well.
The next day would be spent travelling back down, traversing the narrow, terrifying tracks out of the mountains in search of a far flung place called Kisoro.

Tripbod traveller in Rwanda interviews local vendors

We are, as it happens, lodging at a humble guest-house called Gorilla Friends; we found this apt and somewhat amusing as we are friends of the gorillas – however the amusement may have been at the giant elephant that was in the room, which was that this guest house was a little basic, and we still had to investigate the long drop loos out in the back! Oh my... all we could do now was to have a few beers, happy days! Oh, and the food was fantastic, who would have thought it, eh?

As I had expected, I awoke and was amazed at the misty sunshine all around, like a winter morning in the Lake District really. Just glorious! Then, off we set to do our research; we were to interview the local people on the craft stalls in Bwindi.
As I have noticed, in Africa the idea of competitive pricing is not really evident and also there is no real knowledge that if you swamp the market then there is no market. Therefore, in towns, villages and jungles alike, if man set up a stall to sell crafts then suddenly, within seconds twelve more would pop up surrounding this man’s humble stall, all selling identical products. This is why in Kigali there are regions in the city only selling hardware or only selling clothes and so on, completely overwhelming the customer. This was evident in Bwindi; on one small stretch of road, maybe 100 metres in length, there were approximately twenty craft stalls. It was our job to interview these locals to ask them if they had any interest in expanding business and maybe diversifying into other areas such as agriculture, or interlinking with the private sector businesses such as the very smart private lodges catering to exclusive high-end clients, and selling their products there.

As expected, many already had been expanding, with any money earned being reinvested in the current shop, used to pay for school fees or invested in land - and maybe even in property building. These people utilise all they have, however small, and make it work for them; they make something from nothing. This was mind-boggling; the entrepreneurship and drive of these people in the middle of this forest was just inspirational!

Blog from an intrepid Tripbod traveller in...Uganda!

I departed from Kigali at 11.30am on Wed. We set off for the border amid beautiful, green surroundings. The Rwandans and Ugandans put every possible piece of land into rotation; I’ve seen people hoeing on almost vertical hillsides! Impressive, but not necessarily environmental; the soil erosion must be massive! I am aware that, similar to the South Americans, plateaus are made into every hillside - no exaggeration; the entire panoramic view as far as the eye can see is a patchwork of greens and browns, ground being cultivated or harvested with massive valleys of tea plantations, hillsides of plantain and banana trees, or little wig-wam shapes across an expanse of hillside which I am told is used to support the beans that grow on vines. The ingenuity and ability to make something from nothing astounds me more and more as I advance further into more rural and more humble communities living in the mountains.

Crossing the border was easy enough; fill in a form, pay some money, the border official looks up to take his 379th passport of the day, looks down…then quickly double takes and suddenly takes an interest as to why this Muzungu would be here. And the questioning begins; ‘How long are you staying in Uganda for?’, ‘Where will you be staying?’, ‘Oh! Only one week?’ All this is asked out of interest and general amusement at the fact that I am there, a novelty if you will; there is no ill-meaning to this questioning at all. I am then – unlike the other people I am travelling with, who happen to be East African residents – welcomed warmly to Uganda; ‘…and please enjoy your trip and you must return to go to Kampala next time!’ All those travelling with me found it hilarious, of course, that they as residents get no welcome or special treatment, whilst I was welcomed. A cynic would say this is because all Africans relate Muzungus with money; I however like to think that it is curiosity which causes an interest in my travelling around this part of Africa.

We arrive at Bwindi, and within minutes of being inside this Tarzan mountain wilderness I see monkeys! Monkeys everywhere; more and more were appearing!

Further on we bounced and skidded along the mountain tracks, inches away from vertical drops of hundreds of feet which stretched down to the valley below. Still we continued, rocketing around this corner, and then the next and then, around the next corner – a truck; we slam on the brakes and skiddddd to a halt…without screams or rude exclamations or noise; we are all transfixed as this beaten-up old wagon, overloaded with people and crates of G-d knows what comes flying towards us…and still nothing was said; we were awestruck into silence! We stopped in time, and all everyone could do was laugh, and one of the boys on the roof of the overloaded truck shouted, ‘Take it easy man!’
Then off we went as before, rocketing off round these mountain passes as if we didn’t just nearly have a head-on collision on the edge of a cliff. At this point I choose to close my eyes and sleep as I’m exhausted at the prospect of watching anymore.

We arrive in the evening darkness; real mountain-jungle, wet, musky-smelling darkness. I cannot wait to awake and see the views I can only imagine are unfolding just in front of me in the dark abyss!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Laura continues her Southeastern Asian adventure... in Laos!

Luang Prabang, Laos

After a gruelling 24-hour bus ride from Hanoi, packed into the back of the coach along with other travellers and so much luggage and rice that it filled the aisle and every possible floor space, I finally arrived at destination number 5: Laos!

I headed straight to the Rivertime Ecolodge 30km out of Vientiane (as in Clean Breaks), where I was shown to my own lodge right on river (the name doesn't disappoint!). I arrived after dark so the next day I got up early to explore the place in daylight; amazing setting and full of 'colourful' wildlife that the manager of the resort kindly showed me how to photograph properly with macro settings (therapy for my arachnophobia?!), after reassuring me that this was definitely the wrong time of year on the river for crocodiles. Accompanied by Juicy, the resort’s gorgeous dog, I was given a picnic lunch and taken down the river by ‘Kim’ to explore the surrounding area, before unfortunately heading back to the bus station.

I woke up on the bus to a breathtaking sunrise over the mountains surrounding the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang, and to the crowing of a cockerel somewhere stowed in the back of the bus which made me smile. Pulling into a new place at dawn has to be one of my favourite things about travelling: it's cool, quiet and you have the whole day ahead of you to explore a new part of the world.

I dumped my bags in a tiny family-run guesthouse on the main drag and set out wandering the streets. I think I say this about every place I go, but Luang Prabang has really been a highlight of my trip so far and I completely fell in love with this sleepy Buddhist river town. Laos is surprisingly French still; along with all the French translated signs, the elderly guesthouse owner prefers to chat to me en Fran├žais, there are baguettes galore, and I keep catching locals playing petanque!
Luang Prabang itself is also really geared towards sustainable tourism and community development. Together with the 'Green Luang Prabang' pages from Clean Breaks, I also stumbled upon the 'Stay Another Day: Laos' booklets dotted around the town, so decided to make the most of my time there and headed straight for a massage at the local Red Cross centre to realign my back after all the long bus rides!

After, I got chatting to Isabel, the owner of Kopnoi - a sustainable local clothing and accessories shop, which also houses the permanent 'Stay Another Day' exhibition upstairs, and along with her family, run the town's best cafe and club across the road.

She explained that she was also currently organising a permanent fashion show to exhibit the rare ethnic minority traditional dresses, so I got to watch one of the rehearsals from the L'Etranger Cafe which the colourfully-attired girls loved! The little cafe became my base for the week - a haven of books to loan, amazing coffee and walls lined with old copies of National Geographic.

Just went I thought I was one of the only travellers in the town (low season), the slow boat from Chang Mai arrived and the place was flooded with backpackers! Luang Prabang is still very much on the SE Asia circuit so I wasn't surprised to bump into other travellers I had met in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. That evening we sampled some of the bars and, of course, ended up in the town's infamous bowling alley (the only place that stays open past 11pm)! Good fun but managed to loose my flipflops - I guess a sign of a good night! Unfortunately, I had booked myself on the Tamarind cooking course the day before, so we wearily took the 30min xe om ride to the cooking location. The stunning little paradise we arrived at certainly eased my headache! Bamboo huts set over a fish-filled pond, next to a babbling brook, surrounded by vegetable patches. The speciality Laos food was amazing (lots of lemongrass) and I was tempted to sign up to do it all again the next day!

The next morning, a few of us woke up at 5am for the traditional Tat Bak, when hundreds of the town's bright orange-robed monks line the entire length of the main street to receive food offerings from the locals. The spectacle seems so incomparable to anything at home and it was a refreshing display of faith. Afterwards, we spent the morning teaching English at Big Brother Mouse - an informal school / publishing house for Laos/English books. We had great fun chatting to the local teenage boys and learning about life in the town!

In the afternoon, about a dozen of us descended on the Kouang Si waterfalls, a series of beautiful turquoise pools of icy water, and also visited the adjacent Moon Bears Sanctuary. It was great to be in a place where there is so much to do that’s worthwhile and beneficial to the local community – all the travellers I met were just as eager to get involved in everything featured in the Stay Another Day booklet and Clean Breaks, so I really hope the fantastic work people like Isabel are doing in Luang Prabang continues.
I ended my stay in sleepy Luang Prabang with a trip to the top of Phousi Hill to watch an amazing red sunset, before catching the night bus to Vang Vieng.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

This week's interview... Totty from Argentina! By Alfonso Lara Montero

Totty is English but she arrived in Argentina a couple of years ago to write her dissertation and she decided to stay! I became amazed by reading her profile and I thought I had to interview her. She kindly accepted my call and… this is the result! Writing a dissertation in Argentina, amazing stories in a shanty town, socially and ecologically responsible tourism, wonderful countryside…

Do you want to know more? Scroll below. You will not be disappointed!

Alfonso: How are you?
Totty: I am very well, thank you, in Buenos Aires, and the weather is horrible…

Alfonso: Is it?
Totty: It has been raining for 3 days, but it is good because it hasn’t been raining the rest of the year. It has been very dry, so it is good…

Alfonso: It is always good to have some rain, too…
Are you based in Buenos Aires?

Totty: I live between the countryside and Buenos Aires, and I spend around 3 days in the city and 4 days in the countryside. It also depends on the people who come to stay, so if I have guests I have to stay in the countryside. I also have a kitchen garden in the countryside and a cow that I milk, so I have to take care of all these things.

Alfonso: It is very nice talking to you because I am very interested in responsible and sustainable tourism. Not long ago, I interviewed Alan from Mexico and now in the same connection I am interviewing you with the aim of giving our readers a sense of what in responsible tourism is being done across the ocean.
I read your profile and it is amazing the fact that you went to Buenos Aires to write your dissertation and then you decided to stay, to set up your own business and to make it socially and environmentally responsible.
Why did you decide to go to Buenos Aires to write your dissertation?
Totty: Because I did Spanish in my undergraduate degree, then I was doing a Masters in which I could go anywhere in the world to write my dissertation. It had to be on a political topic and since Argentina is a Spanish speaking country and there are certain political things going on, I organized to come here.

Alfonso: You worked in a shanty town… How was that experience?
Totty: I worked at the edge of a shanty town for 3 months, and it was amazing. I was teaching English but it was hard to get children to come there because the shanty town was so big that they had to walk a long way to go to the school and mothers were really frightened to leave their children alone and pick them up. However, the children who came really benefited from it.
On the other hand, the children who came to class had many problems and you suddenly may have found out, for example, that your mobile phone was stolen. Then, in the middle of the class you may hear the mobile phone ringing and you realize it is your mobile phone!

Alfonso: Hahahaha…
Totty: I really enjoyed the experience, but unfortunately, it is so dangerous that after a while I decided to leave it. I was told by people who lived in the centre of Buenos Aires “You are mad, what are you doing? That is so dangerous…” For example, if you forgot to get off the bus, you ended up in the middle of the shanty town. It happened to me once when I was with a friend, and we ended up running for our lives to get back to the school, which was just at the edge. The political situation in Argentina got worse, there was more crime and it was more dangerous, so I decided it was not safe. However, I have friends, who are still doing it and they have been fine; they did not have any problems.

Alfonso: Did you feel that your life was at risk sometimes?
Totty: Not when I was in the school. If you got off the bus, someone came to pick you up and take you there, things were ok, but the situation was dangerous and I felt it was too risk to keep on doing that.

Alfonso: Afterwards, you set up your own tourism business… Why did you take such decision?
Totty: I run a gallery for the whole year, I worked for Argentines and I loved it. Then, I decided it was time to have my own business and work with foreigners. I love having contact with people from outside and the gallery was mainly focused on people from Argentina. The other reason was because my partner and I decided to run a business in the countryside, and now there is a total number of 3 farms. Since I love the countryside, I thought it was a good way to combine being in the countryside, being in a relationship and being able to have my own business.

Alfonso: Do you consider your project to be sustainable (ecologically and socially)? If yes, how do you manage to do so?
Totty: I produce lots of the food for the people who stay. I grow my own vegetables, I produce my own milk. We have our own animals; we do not use any non-organic fertilizers.
It is socially responsible as well because those who stay are in constant contact with nature and we help local communities, since we employ locals as well. We also teach them to grow their own vegetables. We also help to sustain the local economy; for instance, we nearly have 2000 cows in the three different farms.

Alfonso: You have referred to the interaction with locals… My next question is twofold:
1. How do you interact with locals?
2. How do you make travellers experience local culture?

Totty: One of our big focuses is to show people the real Argentina and have an authentic experience. We take people to amazing places that we have found in the surrounding areas, such as a bar where all the “gauchos” come and play their guitar, and they are so happy to talk with travellers… We take them to a big gauchos festival where you see the gauchos doing rodeos and there are lots of stands where they sell all kinds of locally made products. The people working with us are always happy to share information about the countryside and The Pampa.

Alfonso: You seem to be fascinated by Argentina… Taking into account that if you wanted to practice Spanish you could have settle in a different Latin American country, why did you decide to settle in Argentina?
Totty: For Europeans, there is something about Argentina… You almost feel like if you were in Paris or somewhere close home. You have good restaurants… They have everything here. They are very civilised in the city, but when you go out there is an incredible countryside, a huge amount of space… I fell in love with the countryside and the city fits really well since I have a flat here, a lot of English friends, I made Argentinean friends… I may have chosen another country but Argentina just happened to be in the right place and in the right moment.
There are also negative things, such as the queues as regards administrative issues “tr├ímites” (pay the bills!), but I also feel there are less rules, which may not be good, but I love the fact that there is less regulation and I feel more free. There is so much to see here that you could never be bored: the mountains, the icebergs, the sea, the lakes…the possibilities are endless!

Alfonso: It was lovely talking to you. I do appreciate that you attended my call. Thank you so much!

Totty: All right, thank you, bye.

Monday, September 21, 2009

New Tripbod Charlie on a cleaner, friendlier London

London has for many years been a great destination for tourists and equally a great place to live. Like any big city it’s not without its problems but there are many changes taking place within the local communities and city-wide to create a cleaner and friendlier environment for all. Recently there has been a big drive to get more people cycling around London and I now cycle everywhere; its so easy and often quicker than the underground! The forthcoming 2012 Olympics and Paralympics are already helping to raise environmental and heath issues within the public domain and it’s a very exciting time to be here and see the stadia being constructed!

Delhi by Metro: Interview with Deepa, Tripbod in Mumbai

Alfonso: You define your project as “green and socially responsible”, could you please explain to our readers why the project you are developing in Delhi is both “green and socially responsible”?

Deepa: Delhi by Metro is an off-beat tour of Delhi by students from Manzil, an NGO that works in youth empowerment and learning.

The tour uses the Delhi Metro, as well as two additional forms of 'green' transport that are popular with the common man in Delhi - the compressed natural gas (CNG) powered green auto-rickshaw, and the cycle-rickshaw. The tour provides income for the student-guides, and also helps to finance some programmes at Manzil.

The tour covers both New Delhi and Old Delhi. It starts at Connaught Place, with an introduction to the history of Delhi, and a geographical orientation of the city. From Connaught Place, we take people by autorickshaw on an exploration of 'Lutyens Delhi' - the city of grand public spaces designed by the British, which is now called New Delhi. We drive through the Central Business District, seeing the markets and businesses there. We go to the Lutyens Bungalow Zone, Janpath, Rajpath, and visit the President's House, Parliament House, Secretariat and India Gate.

After this, we board the Metro to go to Old Delhi, where we experience the bustle of the bazaars both on foot, and using cycle-rickshaws. People really enjoy this part of the tour! We visit Dariba Kalan (the silver market), Kinari Bazaar (wedding market) and Paranthewali Galli (Lane of Parathas). This tour is also a cultural exploration of India’s multiple faiths – during the tour, you can see the Jama Masjid, a Hindu temple, a Jain derasars, a Sikh Gurudwara, all standing cheek-by-jowl, a testament to our diversity.

The final stop is at the legendary Haldiram's for snacks (try Delhi’s popular chaats!) and a cold drink. After that, we clamber onto the Delhi Metro again, to end the tour at Connaught Place.

Alfonso: How does this tour contribute to the local community?

The young people who work in this project do not come from affluent homes. So for them, this a great supplement to their family income. It is not intended to be a substitute for a job, but it does help them become valuable contributors to their families.

The price that tourists pay for the trip is 2000 rupees, out of which 750 go to the guide, 250 are for the NGO Manzil and 500 cover expenses such as local transport and the possibility to enjoy real Delhi food in a restaurant. Thus, tourists are getting an authentic experience of Delhi. They are actually experiencing the city on the streets like a local person. Therefore, for the tourists it is a very authentic experience, and for the guide and for the NGO this represents a source of income. Finally, the other 500 rupees is the profit of the trip, and they are for me. I am not doing any charity, this is the profit that I make myself.

Alfonso: In any case, I see that the accountability of the project is quite clear…

Deepa: The price and profitability structure is very clear. Initially, I invest some money, for example, for training sessions that I hope to recover afterwards so long as the project develops.

When we started this project, the guides were not familiar with the history, architecture, etc of the places we visited, so we wrote a tour script and did a three-month training program.

The training sessions were fun!

You can see photos here, and there are more photos on the Delhi Magic Blog:


We first launched this tour in 2008, and it did well, so I am hoping that by next year, I will break even on this project as well.

I did a similar project in Bombay (called Mumbai Local) and that’s doing very well. I have recovered all my initial costs and it is profitable. It helps that I have very good Google rankings for my websites, so we get a lot of enquiries.

Alfonso: It seems that we have pretty much covered the part on social responsibility, but now I would like to ask you about the fact that this project is environmentally responsible, could you please develop a bit on this aspect?

Is it really a tour by metro? Does the metro cover all areas that you visit in the tour?

Deepa: The metro doesn’t yet go to every part of the city that we visit. Therefore, there are also parts of the tour that are covered by cycle rickshaw and autorickshaw, and others that are covered by walking, such as the different city markets that we visit.

Alfonso: May I ask you how have you defined the tour?

Deepa: Typically when you look at Delhi tours that are covered by most travel agencies, these tours cover 2 parts: Old and New Delhi. In our case, we do cover both, but we do it in a smarter way because we use public transport, not a private car. We do get a lot of queries of interest by non governmental organizations or foundations who would like to do this kind of tour in India. People seem to be ready for such innovative ideas, and that is why it is functioning so well. Hopefully, it will be even better in a couple of years.

Alfonso: Are there similar projects in India that are already being developed? Will there be in the future?

Deepa: In Jaipur, I support an NGO in the area of water management and local self government in rural villages. These villages do not have external funding from international organizations such as the World Bank, the UN, but they have improved their water situation going back to traditional water management systems, and we want to show that to tourists. Again, the model is the same, I take a certain amount of money, a part goes to the guide, part to the NGO. In Udaipur I support a women’s organisation called Sadhna which basically provides livelihoods for women… so people can buy products directly from the cooperative and the cooperative also gets publicity – more people come to hear about them and they make more contacts.

Alfonso: Are these projects running in parallel?

Deepa: Yes, all these projects are running in parallel, so next time we can talk about another of these projects because it is difficult to fit all of them in one interview.

Alfonso: Definitely, one of these or one of your future projects could be the theme for another interview. In order to finish our interview, could you please tell our travellers why they should come to Delhi and participate in your tour?

Deepa: Delhi is a very old city with a very rich history. It is also like a microcosm of cultures and religions, because all peoples from all communities and religions live in Delhi and in our tour we cover all of them – in one road, one after the other you may see all types of temples, a mosque, a church, etc., and we also talk about the way India lives in diversity. Therefore, it is an introduction to India’s history and culture, and most people who have taken the tour say very nice things about it. After this tour people have a better understanding of Delhi because they have experienced Delhi not as a tourist but as a local person, since the guides are not professionals but local students and volunteers.

Alfonso: Well, actually this is the motto of Tripbod!

Deepa: Yes, the tourists can ask the guides directly what their life is like, and they hopefully understand the country from a different perspective.

Alfonso: Deepa, thanks a lot for such an interesting chat. I hope to talk with you about one of your projects, maybe next month? Meanwhile, I wish you success in your professional adventures!

Deepa: Thanks a lot!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Oklahoma makes a great tourist destination (from our new Tripbod Hugh)

One thing I like to impress on people about Oklahoma City is that it is not strictly Cowboys and Indians. We do not ride horses, unless it’s for pleasure. While our western and Native American heritage is definitely visible, the state, and Oklahoma City in particular, has a rich history.

The city’s “Deep Deuce” area produced some of the most influential jazz musicians of the 20s. Following the Vietnam War, we were a major destination for Vietnamese immigrants, and today the city has one of the highest per capita Vietnamese populations in the country. These and many others parts of our history still thrive, and make the area incredibly diverse.

In the past fifteen years, Oklahoma City has undergone a vibrant revitalization. The newly renovated Bricktown area, previously old warehouses, is now the home to a popular entertainment district. New additions in this area, such as a professional basketball team, quality conference facilities, and new hotels have brought in previously lacking tourists. Beneath these highly visible improvements, local artists and musicians are finding new support for their work, with many small venues and galleries opening or improving. This has allowed for a vibrant emerging nightlife with entertainment of all kinds every day of the week. Even with these developments, Oklahoma City still remains one of the most affordable cities in the country.

The more I’ve left Oklahoma, the more I realize how welcoming and helpful the people are, and I know visitors find the same. Situated next to Norman, home of the University of Oklahoma and 30,000 students, more excitement is just a short drive away.

Oklahoma City does lack a public transport system of any note, and is limited to buses. Despite a metropolitan area population of nearly 1.2 million, the city never seems too crowded. This is because it also has an area of 622 square miles: more than Houston or New York. While I and many others find this one of the most refreshing aspects of Oklahoma City, it also means we are tied to the car. Unless someone is ready to spend a fair amount of money on taxis, a rental is absolutely necessary. Fortunately, traffic is very rarely a problem.

For more information about Hugh and to book his Trip Planning service for Oklahoma, visit: http://www.tripbod.com/expert-184.aspx

Tourism in South Africa (from New Tripbod Jonah)

Tourism in South and Southern Africa is an incredibly important sector of the local economies here. The U.N. Millennium Development Goals identified and marketed the idea in South Africa that eight tourists equaled one job. With an unemployment rate around 40% (and the majority of those with jobs are informally employed), jobs are scarce and in demand. This problem was compounded by poor governmental planning and the massive influx of unskilled persons from sub-Saharan Africa who complete with the poorest South Africans for the most difficult and least paid positions. The government’s inability to deliver on wide ranging promises has forced it to find a scapegoat for its failure, the issues of race and immigration. Still South Africa has loads of potential and has the best infrastructure in Africa by far.

Note that in Southern Africa, patience is a virtue often lost on Westerners. If you turn sour, instead of being helped faster, you will be ignored. As for sustainable tourism, there are a number of options.

Outdoors adventure activities are plentiful and township tours should not be missed (there are many companies, it is important to choose a good one). There are many family run bed and breakfasts throughout the country, and now there are even some in the townships themselves.

Luxury items like petrol are not necessarily less expensive in South Africa, but necessities like food are discounted significantly. A few luxuries are cheaper however, such as gold, diamonds, and platinum; and best of all, none of them are covered in blood.

For more information about Jonah and to contact him for Trip Planning advice, visit: http://www.tripbod.com/expert-187.aspx

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tea; the basis of Chinese culture

Tea growing was perfected in China as early as 1,100 years ago during the Tang Dynasty. The Ancient Chinese quickly discovered that the tea trees only grow well in warm, slightly damp climates, with indirect sunlight, and they also knew that planting tea trees along hillsides with loose, acidic soil produces the best quality tea leaves.

The Ancients believed that the processes of picking tea leaves, preparing teas, drinking tea, and writing poems and songs about tea, formed the basis of Chinese culture. Today, many Chinese families still customarily use tea to greet guests.

Chinese teas fall into four categories: green, black, Oolong, and scented teas. These four types are distinguishable by their place of origin and their genus, but more importantly, by their methods of baking. Green tea retains its green color after baking, and the tea made from it is of a fresh green shade, making it a suitably refreshing drink for the summer. Black tea is baked until it is dark all over, and its flavor is more distinct; it is a winter beverage, preferred by older people. Oolong tea leaves are dark brown at the edges, and the tea has a more pronounced flavor. Fujian province is a major producer of this tea, so the local people are very biased in its favour! Scented tea is baked together with various aromatic flowers. The people in northern China, where tea is not produced, have a special liking for this type of tea.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Laura continues her Southeast Asia adventure in... Hanoi

Destination number 4: Hanoi and the wonderful homestay with Lily's family and visit to her community development organisation!
I spent just over a week with Lily from GEF e.v., a German / Vietnamese NGO which works with orphaned children throughout Vietnam, and was given an amazing introduction to this great country.

After my long journey from China, Lily picked me up from the hostel and took me to the GEF office where I was introduced to the whole team and made to feel really welcomed! GEF have a large base of volunteers from the local universities and many of them came down to meet me and eagerly practice their English!

Next I was shown GEF's main project, the 'Second Home' where around 10 orphans from various provinces are housed, schooled and cared for by the GEF team in Hanoi. I was given the opportunity to teach a couple of short English lessons to help with their pronunciation, and was totally shown up by their beautiful handwriting when I began to scrawl the alphabet for them! Really great bunch of kids and there is a strong family-feel and community framework for them there.

Inspired by stuffyourrucksack.com, I brought with me a bunch of pens and colouring pencils and donated them to the Second Home as I could see they would be clearly appreciated. The organisation has plans to build 2 more 'Second Homes' next year: one more in Hanoi and another out by Ha Long Bay, so I'm sure they will require as many volunteers as possible to help build them!
That morning, Lily and Chau treated me to the Vietnamese staple, pho, (a light beef noodle broth) for breakfast and now I am hooked! For lunch, the whole office eat together around the meeting room table, with mixed meals that get delivered each day - couldn't have been more different to my jacket-potato-at-my-desk lunches back in London! Everyone was very impressed with my now-honed chopstick skills, and after lunch, when I thought things couldn't get further from my daily office routine, Lily rolled out a couple of wicker mats and we had an hour's nap - a kind of SE Asian siesta! This is definitely something I will suggest at home!

To get to Lily's house after work, we jumped on the back of a couple of motorbikes and entered the noisy sea of Hanoi's rush hour traffic. This was my first experience of the city's roads and I spent most of it white-knuckled, eyes closed, simultaneously laughing and swearing, truly believing these would be my last moments on earth; my driver weaved through the dense tide of beeping motorbikes and crossed main highways with nothing but the 'just go' attitude! After a couple more rides I was somehow used to it and by the end I looked forward to the 30min suicide-ride each morning!
Back at Lily's house, I was introduced to her family, and again, was made to feel so welcome in their home. They are expecting another addition to the family in December with recently-married Lily 5 months pregnant! I had such a great week here, really enjoying being part of their daily life, and her mother's fantastic home-cooked dinners which we all ate together each evening. Although Lily and the volunteers tried their hardest to teach me as many Vietnamese words a possible, I think the most valuable one was 'nhar' (I have no idea how this is spelt!), meaning 'full' - crucial when fed by such a generous family! One night, we all went for karaoke and hotpot - neither of which I had experienced in Vietnam before so had no idea what to expect but had an amazing night out with everyone! Karaoke is an institution there and everyone is well practised - after a few beers, I was singing some MJ classics with Lily, and by the end, nominated to duet with any song with English subtitles, regardless of whether or not I had heard it before! Lots of fun, finished up with a 'lau' (hotpot) supper; about a dozen of us sitting around a couple of burners on little plastic tables and chairs on the street corner, while a huge plate of meat (at least 15 different kinds of red, white meat, fish, offal, shell-fish, and things I couldn't even hope to identify) was served up for us to cook in the wide-rimmed bubbling broth on the table, along with noodles and greens. Definitely the most fun meal I've had yet!

Feeling slightly ropey the next morning, I accompanied Lily to an annual national symposium on Alternative Care for Vietnam's Orphaned and Vulnerable Children. I was so grateful I had the opportunity to attend this as I learnt so much here about the current situation of foster care in the country. The next day Chau and Bao from GEF and some of the volunteers took me to visit Bat Trang village, famous for it's ancient ceramics heritage. We all made little clay pots and painted them, which everyone had a great time failing at! I have optimistically sent mine home so fingers crossed, it will be there when I get back! Being with the volunteers was like having my own exclusive tour guides, telling me about the history and culture of the place, plus I got to hear about what the kids here get up to and what they all do. I was even given a personal tour of the city, combining all the big tourist attractions with the best ice-cream parlours, street snacks, and local hangouts where they like to drink cool pure sugar cane juice (way too sweet for me!). They wanted to hear all about London, what and where I studied, what I ate, etc, and I received peels of giggling when I pulled out a couple of passport photos of my stubbly boyfriend! For my last meal with the family, I shared a beer and dried squid (traditional accompaniment I'm told) with Lily's father and husband, and thanked them profusely with 'cam ong's (thank you) for their hospitality. I previously asked one of the volunteers to translate a small thank you message which I wrote out and gave to Lily's family with some small gifts from Bat Trang so despite the language barrier, I hope they knew how thankful I was!

This was such a fantastic introduction and insight into Vietnamese culture, family life, history, food and day-to-day living, plus all the great things GEF are doing to help orphaned Vietnamese children. GEF's future projects sound like they will continue to find homes for these children in small, family and community orientated 'second homes' and will definitely require lots of extra hands to help with building them in the coming months! I greatly appreciate everything Lily and GEF did to welcome me into their fantastic country; I thoroughly enjoyed myself and I'm sure this will be the most memorable part of my trip. I wish them all the best of luck with their future development.

Become a Fan

Tripbod on Facebook