A Weekend with Nature: Stories from Sooke

Since I was 19, I’ve had a personal “rule” that I should visit a new country every year. Adhering to this was easy when I lived in Europe, but now I’m living in a country only fractionally smaller in square kilometres than that entire continent, not so much. However I’ve come to appreciate that you don’t have to go abroad to find something new and inspiring. I ask myself which is better – to get a vague idea of several countries, or to truly get to know one?

To celebrate my 25th birthday, I spent a long weekend in Sooke, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Although only 38 kilometres from Victoria where I currently live, it’s not necessarily a place one would consider going to for just a short visit. And yet it’s a place where you are suddenly exposed to swathes of tranquil forests, an abundance of pleasant hikes and a bounty of intriguing wildlife. It’s a place that proves you don’t have to go far to find beauty and adventure.

En route, Chum and I stopped at Walmart in uptown Victoria to buy some bedding. It was a hot day and as I tested the side of my face against five different pillows all with marginal variations in style,  the white-walled, air-conditioned environment of the huge store suddenly made me begin to feel restless. Victoria is a cleaner and quieter city than most, but there are people and cars and buildings nonetheless. Having grown up in the rural countryside, I need shots of rugged nature from time to time to rejuvenate myself. It was time to see more green.

On entering Sooke River Campground we stopped by the reception where a large lady sat in a rocking chair on the deck, peering over her newspaper with a suspicious frown. She resembled one of those GI Jane-types you probably wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of. We had booked one of the three rustic cabins…and rustic was a very accurate description. However we seemed to get the better deal as based on the number of Canada geese around, it would have been difficult to find a piece of ground to pitch a tent on that wasn’t speckled with poop. I haven’t been in a campground since 2014 and just being amongst tents and campers got me excited, stirring memories of  childhood holidays and the smell of barbecues and refreshing feel of morning dew on bare feet.

A lovely place for a relaxed evening stroll is Whiffin Spit, just down from Sooke town. The south side looks across the Juan de Fuca Strait towards Washington State and the north faces Sooke Basin. With the latter, it’s just unfortunate that the ugliest hotel you’ve ever seen was built on the water. Its huge white frame stands out in gaudy contrast to the green surroundings. The architect seems to have gone for a European look but a rustic brown would have done nicely.

For breakfast the next morning after a cozy night’s sleep in our cabin, we stopped at The Little Vienna Bakery which had friendly staff and an authentic Austrian decor. We ordered a tasty cinnamon schnecke and a filling breakfast bun to share. The cafe seemed to be a fond favourite with the elderly local population who would sit with their coffee and cakes reading the newspaper.

Then it was north towards the Sooke Potholes, where you can either stick to a gravel path that follows the river or take a wilder route closer to the water’s edge. We chose the latter, clambering over rocks, ducking under branches and darting over gaps in the rock over the water to cross to the other side. While Chum proceeded to free-climb a rock face over the water, I watched a man and his carer tentatively test the clear water in their bathers before I commenced my own climb onwards (above dry land).  Other hikers would peer at us sitting on the other side of the river with expressions of awe, as if thinking, “How did they get there?” I noticed how when crossing over to the other side of the river via gaps in the rock, I would hesitate upon seeing a fast section of the current swooshing below me. Even if I had fallen in, there are many calm pool sections of the river where I, a pretty strong swimmer, would have been able to stop myself going further downstream. I feel like I’ve become more cautious in the past year or so, more likely to reconsider the sensibleness of doing certain physical activities instead of just going for it without worrying so much.

Instead I seem to be developing interests in more static things, such as bird watching. (Is this what happens when you reach a quarter century?!) We observed the routine of a bluish grey bird that would zoom over the water and through the gaps in the rock, only to return to her nest around a minute later to feed her chicks. Then we spotted two birds, with the dad presumably the one perching on a stone in the water as if scanning the area for safety. It brought back childhood memories of when a blackbird once made a nest in my family’s garden wall. Everyday when I got home from school I would eagerly peep through the cracks to see how things were progressing. I remember the devastation and guilt I felt when one day I saw the eggs had been abandoned.

As we left this section of the park and headed southwards, a couple on the side of the road ahead waved us down awkwardly. “Hey! We’re not hitchhiking, it’s just our car’s parked back that way,” the man said, pointing in the direction we’d come from, “and we spotted a bear and her cub on the side of the road.”

“Oh!” Chum and I replied in surprise. How typical that we had been too busy talking about something to notice two bears casually strolling nearby. We invited the couple inside our car and drove them back to the parking area, peering into the bushes in hope that we’d see the animals. No sign.

Nevertheless, it became our de facto duty to warn others of the sighting. When we spotted the men we’d seen earlier bathing in the river walking along the road in the direction of the bear, we wound down our windows and told them to jump in. We would stop oncoming cars to pass on the information, and tell others stood in parking lots. “Oh wow!” “Where were they?” “Were they big?” began a series of questions. It was like being the geek in school who suddenly becomes super popular once he claims to have seen a famous actor in the street. You could say we became quite proud of our services, even though we hadn’t actually seen the bear ourselves. It was easy to imagine a game of Chinese Whispers ensuing, with us by the end having concocted some wild story about how we had to fight off a ginormous bear that pounced on our car and grabbed one of us by the arm, dragging us out of the smashed window…

Further down stream, a gang of four elderly cyclists were taking a dip at the serene beach section. It was lovely to see a range of ages at the potholes, whether it was families with young kids, elderly hiking groups, or even young adults like our friend we spotted showing some visiting pals around.

For lunch we ate in town at Mom’s Cafe, an American-style diner with blue leather booths, black and white tiles and female-only servers. I was torn between the Hawaiian burger and fish and chips, but ended up going for the former. A minute later, a server walked out with a plate of fish and chips and I instantly regretted my decision.

“More water, honey?” I was asked while eating by our server who looked younger than me. I’ve never been one to call a girlfriend “babe”, “hun” or even “lovely”; it just doesn’t feel natural to me, I’ve never felt “qualified” to do it. Minutes later, the same server approached the table in front of us and asked cheerily, “How are you ladies doing here?” only for her face to drop in horror when the mother replied curtly: “This is my son.” Ouch. To the server’s defence, any 8 year old kid with long hair in a ponytail is going to be easily mistaken for a female.

Chum was stuffed after the main, but not me. I’d had my eye on the dessert counter since we arrived, and ordered a slice of the chocolate cream pie. “Two forks?” asked the server, occasionally glancing over warily at the table in front. Chum shrugged a half-hearted response, holding his stomach like a woman in late pregnancy while I sat up excitedly in anticipation. Back came a huge slice of rich chocolatey goodness smothered with whipped cream. Chum conceded defeat after two bites and thereafter watched me in bewilderment with a small hint of both admiration and disgust as I proceeded to clear the plate. I definitely have a second stomach for these things.

When we went up to pay, our server was still in a state over her incident with ponytail-boy’s mum. I told her to keep the change.

Driving along Sooke’s winding coastline is a real treat, offering breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and Washington State’s Olympic Mountain range. It’s beautifully rugged and untouched, and made the plastic, suffocating atmosphere of Walmart feel almost like something imagined. The provincial parks in Sooke are perfectly maintained too; there are pit toilets and useful information boards, but otherwise the nature is undisturbed by commercial projects. We pulled into French Beach Provincial Park and the big lunch finally hit me. I dropped off in the car, mouth open and all. I can never usually nap in the afternoons. Sooke was becoming more and more impressive.

On French Beach I discovered my unknown appreciation for rocks. “There’s… so many, all…so different….so…pretty,” I gasped to myself in awe as I began forming a pile that would later become the source of a stressful decision about which ones to keep and which to leave behind.

We drove on towards China Beach, and on the way pulled over to admire another view. Suddenly something in the water caught my attention. I realized it was a seal, powering through the waves with a slow yet defiant bobbing action that resembled the Loch Ness Monster. It was the longest seal I’d ever seen. It stopped in the shallows and we walked down onto the rocks to get a closer look. The seal had attracted the attention of others, as a man followed suit with his dog by his side, phone out to take a photo. ‘What a cute dog,’ I thought, looking at the golden spaniel fondly. Then it started barking and darted towards the water where the seal bathed. Chum and I looked at each other in alarm.

“Hudson, come back! Hudson!” the dog’s owner started yelling. But the dog ignored him, splashing through the waves with barks of naive curiosity.

“That seal is going to destroy that dog,” Chum remarked matter-of-factly. We could only watch helplessly as the dog rushed towards the seal, its owner shouting madly. Then the dog suddenly looked back at its owner as if having had second thoughts and began to return to shore. We breathed out in relief.

Seconds later, it bounded back towards the water.

“Hudson!” shouted the owner desperately. His friend joined him and threw rocks in the dog’s direction, but he wasn’t interested, persevering through buffeting waves to get close to the seal, which was beginning to kick up a splash in panic. I held my breath and prepared to block my eyes as the dog got within 10 feet of the seal, only to once again retreat. The owners turned back and the dog trotted beside them, grinning at them with his tongue hanging out as if to say, “Chill guys, I was just playing with you.”

The Canadian version of ‘Fenton’ in Richmond Park sprang to mind.

We carried on to China Beach, where most of the park’s signs seemed to warn of recent cougar sightings. Despite the bear sighting that was not sighted by us earlier in the day, I’ve been advised a few times that it’s actually cougars that residents of Vancouver Island have to worry about. (And not just the human kind.) Bears are supposedly more reactive in their aggression, only attacking if they feel severely threatened, whereas cougars will apparently just go for you no matter what, leaping down unexpectedly from trees, pouncing from behind etc. And yet when you’re walking along a pretty trail, it’s surprisingly easy to forget about a blood-thirsty predator lurking in the bushes.

At least, it was that evening on China Beach, which was empty apart from two surfers braving the coastal chill. On the Sunday morning we headed to East Sooke and stopped in Roche Cove to hike to Matheson Lake. The trail starts on the famous Galloping Goose bike trail and then descends into forest. Strange noises began to enter my ears. Was it a bird calling…or something else, something bigger? The crack of a twig would send my head swinging to the side in suspicious alarm. The sounds seemed to increase in loudness and frequency. I heard footsteps, they sounded like an animal…coming closer.

Suddenly a brown spaniel bounded over a little hill towards us. He carried a thick piece of branch in his mouth with his head and tail held high in an expression of stubbornness equivalent to a toddler adamant they are going to drag their cot all the way into their new room instead of moving into a “big girl’s” bed. His owner followed suit, rolling her eyes. We watched fondly as the dog struggled to fit through a narrow gap between two trees, all the while never once considering abandoning his new find.

This trail had many ankle-twisting forks, which led on to an interesting debate about many times I’d have to stop and rest if Chum got injured and needed piggy-backing to the car. Later we drove on to the quieter western edge of the park, where there were several plots of land for sale to build houses on. I observed through green eyes the dreamy views anyone building a house here would have. If only my generation could look forward to affording such a piece of property…

Our final hike was an easy 30-minute stroll from Pike Point to Iron Mine Bay. Sweet birdsong accompanied our final few steps down to the small pebble beach, where dogs we had passed by on the road earlier fetched sticks from the water. Glistening blue water stretched out before us all the way to the snow-capped Olympic peaks. I felt truly blessed to have views like this pretty much on the doorstep of a provincial capital city.

I had been spoiled by the weather in Sooke and came away smitten with the stunning coastline I’d witnessed. I returned home to my apartment in Victoria to learn of the terror attacks in London, and suddenly felt a sense of guilt for having spent a peaceful weekend exploring quiet trails and gorgeous beaches while friends and relatives of mine were potentially getting caught up in the horrific events. London and my old life there felt so far away and yet this news hit really close to home too.

No matter how big and busy your city, having a few days away in quiet, nature-filled surroundings will make you feel rested, recharged and even more appreciative of the variety of life that exists on our planet.

Conquering the Current: The Time I Thought I Might Die in Hawaii

Hanalei Bay, on the oldest Hawaiian island of Kauai, is a beach popular with sun worshippers and surfers alike. A standard holiday destination for residents of Canada’s west coast, I was lucky to visit the beautiful island with my boyfriend’s family for Christmas 2015. The islands of Hawaii have a lot of great hiking to offer, but their ocean access is the obvious main attraction. I’ve never actually learned to surf yet (despite having spent time in coastal Australia and Tofino…oops) but body boarding is just as fun an option. That is, when the current is in one of its calmer moods.

Hanalei Bay, Kauai

As a child I was quite a tomboy, preferring to play with cars over dolls. I would run around outside getting my hands muddy and occasionally get a bit too feisty when play-fighting my brothers using wooden sticks as swords. (One brother just had a baby so at least I know he’s still fertile…) I could be stubborn and would sometimes get grumpy  when my brothers left me out of their adventuring activities on the basis that I was too young or not strong enough to keep up with them. In school I loved beating loudmouthed boys on the athletics track. I’ve grown up not as a feminist who disapproves of chivalry, but as one who is insistent on independently using my (sometimes underestimated) physical strength and fitness when suitably required, instead of automatically requesting male assistance.

This ethos has particularly displayed itself on my travels and my trip to Hawaii was to be no different. However I faced my biggest challenge in both mental and physical strength during my time in its waters. I’m a pretty strong swimmer, but I soon learned that it takes more than technique and fitness to cope with Hawaii’s waves. You have to have real nerve. My boyfriend had explained to me previously that if caught in a riptide, you should just tread water and let the current carry you to a sandbank from where you can make your way back to shore. Trying to fight against the force of the current would only tire you out, the fatigue potentially getting you in trouble later on.

We arrived at the beach one morning with the body boards. On previous days the current had been relatively moderate but I hadn’t had much of a chance to get out in the waves, so I was quick to grab a board from the car before the boys took them all. Then I looked out at the water and noticed that the waves were looking a lot bigger than normal. My stomach went a little funny. But I didn’t want to miss out again and told myself it would be a fun bit of adrenaline-pumping activity. The boys darted into the water and, putting on my brave face, I followed.

Paddling out, I immediately found myself drifting to the left due to the unassumingly strong current. Being more used to these waves, my boyfriend progressed further out quicker than me without calling back to see how well I was keeping up. Hmmph. Normally I appreciate his faith in my physical ability, but whilst I hadn’t asked him to wait for me, I’d hoped he might think to keep an eye on me in this unfamiliar environment! (Lesson learned: always ask, never assume.) Suddenly he was no longer in sight. Instead, my view of him was obstructed by a large wave that only seemed to rise further and further up above the surface. “Hold the phone, I didn’t sign up for this!” a voice in my head exclaimed followed by various expletives.

The size of the waves can leave someone unused to them in a frozen state of disbelief. I could only stare up in awe at this gigantic wave of water rising metres above me, before hurriedly diving down into the water to avoid being completely taken out. I curled myself into a ball as tightly as I could to minimize the impact, but my right arm was still attached to the board. Soon it would be flung backwards as the board was battered away from me by the thrashing strength of the current. I would close my eyes at these moments, as if fearing I’d go blind by the force. I could only tell from the scraping of my knee or thumping of my arm against the ocean floor that I’d been sent tumbling down, sometimes for what felt like an eternity. However keeping my eyes closed proved unhelpful. As I felt myself rise up, I opened my mouth to breathe when I sensed I was breaking the surface, only for a rush of water to engulf my mouth. It was then that the disconcerting prospect of drowning entered my mind. I eventually emerged coughing and spluttering madly, with only seconds to prepare myself for the fast approaching next wave. Feeling increasingly vulnerable, I dove down as far as I could and was pushed further away from where I’d started, looking around in a daze when I broke the surface.

It was now that my boyfriend called back to me from about 30 metres in front, as if having just remembered I was also in the water. (He would later insist that he’d begun to feel very worried about me at this point.) Unable to understand him, I could only raise my hand with a pathetic wave.

A few deep tumbles later and I was beginning to become exhausted in my quest to conquer the ferocious current. The challenge was no longer fun and my pride wasn’t strong enough to to feel like I was wimping out by turning back. Seeing another enormous wave loom up in the distance, I muttered: “Screw this” and turned to head back to shore. But just as I hoisted myself onto the board, I found myself suddenly surging forward, and I was then zooming back to shore, clinging for life to the board as it dashed along the surface like a speedboat.

Upon sliding onto the sand I glanced around in pleasant surprise, partly exhilarated by my thrilling ride, partly bewildered by what had just happened, and partly stunned I was still in one piece. I had managed to catch a wave at the perfect time…without even meaning to. There was nobody else on the beach but I still felt a need to act nonchalant as I left the water feeling sheepish about my undeserved success. I ran back to my boyfriend’s dad with a coolly unconcerned smile that completely disguised the fact that I’d been pooping my pants the entire time in the water. “Awesome wave!” he remarked with a grin. “Oh yeah, thanks! I was lucky,” I replied casually, deciding not to completely admit it hadn’t been at all planned.

In the car on the way home we reflected on the strength of the current, the boys excitedly recalling their victorious battles against huge waves. I remained quiet during their chatter, too busy still wondering how I was in one piece. “Well I think Shannon caught the best wave,” my boyfriend’s dad said pointedly after they’d been going on a little too long. The boys went quiet. I smiled.

The moral of this story? Know your own strength, test your own strength, but feel no shame in conceding defeat!

Bodyboarding the waves during a normal current

Body boarding the waves during a normal current

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It’s not only the waves that can be dangerous in Hawaii. Read about one of its daring hikes in Likes vs Lives: Hiking in “Heavenly” Hawaii

Have you ever been to Hawaii? Perhaps you had the same experience in its waters as me!

 

 

Bad Travel Habits We Wish People Would Stop

Have you ever experienced the following?

You’re having a lovely time on your travels, feeling relaxed and rejuvenated in new surroundings, reminded of the wonderful nature of our world thanks to the awe-inspiring environments around you and the memorable interactions with kind locals. Then the behaviour of another traveller suddenly brings you out of your blissful bubble, sending your blood rushing faster than the rivers you’ve crossed and reminding you of the imperfections present on the face of life. Whilst reality will never be perfect, there are things people do that make it less pleasant than it could be.

Some travel habits are only irritating momentarily, with us perhaps even exaggerating their annoyance before the sight of something special waves the memory out of our mind.  Some are one-off incidents that perhaps indicate a lack of experience or background knowledge by the perpetrator that can easily be improved for next time. Other habits are seen more consistently, illustrating unpleasant personality traits that aren’t so easy to change. Certain bad habits pose a serious issue, demonstrating cultural insensitivity and hence creating (or reinforcing) stereotypes of a nation and its citizens which threaten to spoil the experience of other visitors.

I asked some fellow travel bloggers to share the bad travel habits that get them grumbling most. Perhaps those who are guilty of the below could take note for the future!


Too Much Technology 

In August 2014, I hiked up to Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, Utah. Reaching the end of this challenging trail underneath the sweltering sunshine felt like a great achievement. But as my boyfriend and I stood on the cliff top admiring the sprawling views ahead, we were distracted by the boisterous banter of four English boys. “Have you got WiFi?” one of them asked his peers loudly. A short while later he laughed haughtily and exclaimed with a smarmy smile: “I’m Facetiming my mum! Hi, mum!” I detected the faint sound of his mother calling his name in confusion. His friends guffawed along with him and they then continued to make boyish jibes at each other whilst comparing Snapchats and whatnot from their phones.

Zion has incredible features and up here on this summit with the ground far below, technology seemed alien and felt unwelcome. It irritated me that these boys didn’t seem to appreciate the views around them like the rest of us. They just wanted to joke around and show off to their friends and family back home, rather than live in the moment like everybody else around. I found them to be inconsiderate of the other tourists around them who, after a long hard hike, wanted to relax and salvage the peace and quiet whilst taking in the views around them. I understand that people are different, but I wish that people were less craving of immediate contact with the outside world in these out-of-the-world situations. In the words of Justin Timberlake, I’m tired of using technology; can we please put the phones away for a few hours??

Angel's Landing - Zion National Park

Angel’s Landing – Zion National Park


Drunken Disorder

It seems I’m not the only person who gets embarrassed by the behaviour of my fellow citizens abroad. Lauren from The Traveller’s Guide by #LJOJLO has been put off visiting certain places after seeing her fellow Aussies get up to no good.

“We party, party, party, we party Bali style” – Bali Party by Drapht is the song that symbolises what Bali is about for a large portion of Australians. Kuta, the main party drag on the Island of the Gods, is a place most Australians visit and stay while being a tourist on this infamous island. Unfortunately, a portion of Australians are giving the rest of us a bad name while they party it up in Kuta. The drunken behaviour, the drugged behaviour, the stumbling as they walk aimlessly around the streets and not to mention the brawls that occur are far too frequent in Bali. Now, of course it is not always Australians acting like this but sadly we make up a large proportion. When holidaying many feel they are invincible and with the cheap alcohol and drugs within Bali temptation often takes over and sadly too often ends in tragedy. These acts end up no longer embarrassing for a nation but heartbreak for the people, friends and families involved.

For these reasons I no longer stay in the Kuta area and rarely visit while in Bali. I don’t wish to surround myself in a culture so destructive that can end in catastrophe after some stupid decisions. Instead, visit other incredible areas of Bali or enjoy the beach only while visiting Kuta, as pictured below.

Kuta Beach - The Traveller's Guide by #ljojlo

Kuta Beach – The Traveller’s Guide by #ljojlo

For more photos check out Lauren’s Instagram. You can also keep up with her blog on Facebook and Pinterest.


Bad Manners

Sonal of Drifter Planet can’t stand people who drift out of line.

Whether it is the toilet queue or security check queue, nothing irks me more than a queue breaker. They see people waiting patiently for their turns but they are too special to wait for theirs! I never shy away from tapping on their shoulders and pointing them to the end of the queue.

Sonal tweets @DrifterPlanet and you can follow her blog on Facebook.


On a flight from Warsaw to London once, I noticed a lady sat in my assigned window seat but didn’t bother asking her to change back. Even though having the middle seat didn’t ruin my relatively short journey, I later wondered if I should have spoken up for the sake of pointing out her error (and the potentially impolite intentions that came with it). Have you ever called out a person for their bad travel habits?


Lazy with the Language

While SoleSeeking, I’m also keen on language-speaking!

Whenever I visit a continental European country, I am normally embarrassed by the native English-speakers who make no attempt at the local language, instead rambling on quickly in their own tongue, assuming that everyone understands them and getting grumpy when they don’t. Brits already don’t have the best reputation abroad, often mocked (“nil point”, anyone?) for their weak foreign language (and football!) skills. And following the controversial vote to leave the European Union on the basis of high immigration levels, it seems unfair that they should expect to walk into any country on the continent and have everyone they meet speak English. Having a fairly decent understanding of French and German already, one thing I love about travelling is the opportunity to pick up a few foreign phrases. It makes the experience more interesting and, even if your pronunciation isn’t perfect and your vocabulary limited, the effort is appreciated and often means you’re more likely to be treated well and get what you ask for. I always make sure I know a few basis phrases including: “Please/Thank you”, “Excuse me/Sorry” and “I don’t speak…/Do you speak English?”

Read about the beauty of Communicating Through Different Languages.


Eroding the Environment

The team behind Don’t Forget to Move also say don’t forget to pick up your litter!

One thing that really annoys us with travelers is when they don’t respect the local environment they visit. There’s nothing worse than exploring a beautiful beach, tucked away in paradise, and finding the remnants of the last tourist who visited. Not only is it annoying, but it’s super disrespectful to the country you’re visiting. While spending time on the islands of Koh Rong in Cambodia it was so disappointing to see other travelers who had come down to the beach to have bonfires and parties, and then just left their trash there. Just because you’re on a holiday, it doesn’t mean Mother Nature is!

Trash in Cambodia - Don't Forget to Move

Trash in Cambodia – Don’t Forget to Move

Find nicer pictures of Cambodia by Don’t Forget to Move on Instagram or you can follow their movements on Facebook and Twitter.


Defying Dorm Etiquette

Two Scots Abroad have advice for those guilty of making nighttime noise in dorms.

Tip: if you check in late, don’t drag your rucksack into the hostel dorm room where others are sleeping, especially if your bag has more zippers than Michael Jackson’s leather jacket. Roaming romancers! A multi-bed dorm room is not the best setting to instigate or consummate any relationship, check out Airbnb for cheap private rooms. Finally, if you weren’t lucky enough to pull him at the bar crawl, it’s unlikely he wants you to try and get into his bed…and neither does the guy in the bed next to him! If the tables were turned, this would be sexual harassment. I (Gemma) have experienced all of the above, all while backpacking in Colombia (regardless of hitting 15 other countries during that 17 – month trip!)

For more stories and tips, follow Two Scots on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.


Boastful Behaviour

A lot of travellers proudly state how many countries they’ve visited, but The Thought Card thinks this encourages unhealthy competition.

One traveler habit that irritates me is when I’m asked how many countries I’ve visited so far. Since I’ve traveled to over 16+ countries, I think it’s so annoying and obnoxious to share the entire list. It’s also insensitive if the person I’m talking to hasn’t had as many opportunities to travel as me. Instead, I always try to turn the focus of any travel conversation towards the other person. I ask questions like: “Where have you been lately?” or “Where to next?” Travel isn’t a contest my friends!

Something Danielle does encourage is hiking the Cotswold Way! You can find more thoughts on Facebook and Twitter.


Whatever our background, budget and style of travel, anyone who gets the opportunity to see a different part of the world is lucky. On this note, is travel blogging about showing off or helping others? There is a fine line between inspiring and alienating.


Invading Personal Boundaries

Hannah of Getting Stamped gets stomping when beach-goers disregard privacy and don’t make use of available space.

Imagine sitting on a gorgeous white sandy beach in Bali that goes on for miles. It’s one of my favorite things to do in Bali BUT I can’t stand it when another traveler literally puts their beach towel on top of me. When there is an entire open beach why must people be right next to you?!? It’s even worse if they bring a speaker a play loud music – don’t people believe in headphones anymore?

Bali's Beaches - Getting Stamped

Bali’s Beaches – Getting Stamped

Getting Stamped are on Facebook and Instagram or you can follow their adventures on YouTube.


More Than Enough Music

Playing loud music irks me too. Hiking the Chief in Squamish, British Columbia, I heard ‘Mountain at my Gates’ by Foals ringing out of someone’s phone several metres away. Perhaps the listener felt the song’s lyrics encapsulated his struggle with the thigh-burning gradient and challenging rock climbs. Sure it’s a great song, but not everybody else wants to hear it during an idyllic hike!

Views from the Summit of The Chief

Views from the Summit of The Chief


A Lack of Respect for Loss of Life

In a world increasingly obsessed with social media and the fame that can come with it, The World Pursuit highlights the growing issue of uncompassionate selfies.

One thing that is sure to annoy me while traveling is tourists taking selfies at sensitive spots. It’s okay to take a photo at a memorial or other places where tragedy may have taken place, but to take a photo with yourself smiling – happy as can be – tends to annoy me. Two incidents that happened recently were at Auschwitz and in Istanbul. At Auschwitz young girls were going around having a model runway photo shoot on the infamous train tracks. We flew out of Istanbul Ataturk one day after the terrorist attack there, and we found some people taking selfies in front of where blood was spilled. Very heartbreaking and insensitive.

Auschwitz, Poland - The World Pursuit

Auschwitz, Poland – The World Pursuit

More observations by The World Pursuit can be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


Needless Nudity

The Aussies are at it again! Weeks after the ‘Budgie Nine’ were arrested in Malaysia for “public indecency”, Lauren vents some more about travellers who strip down overseas.

When in the Austrian winter you would expect people to be covered up, wouldn’t you? Well in typical Australian form the mentality was the fewer clothes, the better, and as an Australian, this irritated the s*&t out of me. Why, do you ask? Well, I just can’t comprehend why people can’t just keep their clothes on in public, and for some reason, Aussies are always getting their kit off. So anyway, while backpacking around Austria and staying in an Australian-owned hostel there were copious amounts of Aussies getting the gear off. Whether it was in the hostel in the evening or skiing down the Alps with their pants around their ankles, there were Australians getting naked everywhere. Bits and pieces that shouldn’t be witnessed were viewed, and let’s be honest no one wants to see that, or I don’t anyway. 

Aussies Getting Naked - The Traveller's Guide by #ljojlo

Aussies Getting Naked – The Traveller’s Guide by #ljojlo


Some travellers prefer staying in a hostel popular with people from their own country for the familiarity aspect. Others avoid this at all costs to prevent falling into the trap of limited mingling with foreigners and locals. What do you prefer?


Cultural Insensitivity

On the topic of clothing (or lack of), Gabriela from Gabriela Here and There is one of many people annoyed by travellers who do not research a country’s requirements and wear appropriate clothing.

This is something I’ve witnessed many times before: travelers not wearing appropriate clothing. Whether it’s a temple in Thailand, church in Italy or just any public place in a Muslim country, there will always be some tourists running around in mini-skirts, shorts and tank tops. Show some respect for the culture and find out how to dress properly! It’s also easier for you because you avoid people’s stares and judgments.

For more views and photos, check out Gabriela Here And There on Facebook and Instagram.


Does this behaviour indicate a one-off lack of preparation, or do some people simply refuse to temporarily abandon their usual norms to meet another nation’s standards? And on the social media attack again, how much is this attire problem caused by the desire of people to “look good” for photos?


Airplane Divas

Enough moaning about Brits and Aussies; some Americans are also guilty of bad conduct in foreign environments…and I’m not just talking about former/future presidents. The man behind SkyeTravels wishes his fellow citizens would follow the rules when they fly.

I don’t like to be disrespectful of my home country, but some Americans can be so disrespectful. Too many times in my travels I see an American trying to correct a local of another country on something, shouting too loud in a holy or sacred location, getting drunk in a culture where that’s frowned upon, etc.
Last year I was on a flight from China to Los Angeles where a stewardess was telling an American he needed to turn his phone off and not just on airplane mode. Instead of just complying, he was shouting viciously at her that she didn’t understand English and asking to see her superior. Why?!

You can follow Skye’s tracks on Facebook and Instagram

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We’ve probably all experienced some of the above habits on our travels. Thankfully, many of them can be remedied. In writing about travel, bloggers set the standard for sensible, sensitive habits. The above habits may seem insignificant when considering other events currently taking place on the planet, but in a world that is increasingly economically globalised yet also becoming more violently divided across cultural, political and religious lines, mindful travel has the potential to ease unnecessary tensions and remind mankind of the value that comes with thinking about others and the planet we all share.

Have you witnessed another bad travel habit that hasn’t been mentioned? Please share below.

Nudity and the Solo Traveller

‘Tis the season to lose one’s clothing. Out come the bikinis and boardies, Pimms in the park and strawhats on the sand. The combination of summer heat and fewer clothes changes people. They become more cheeky and flirtatious. Van drivers whistle from their windows, runners cast sneaky glances at the others they pass, and Facebook becomes filled with bikini-selfies. Flesh makes people frisky. When it comes to actual nudity however, something happens to Brits and their flirty chat remains to be just that. In Britain, our ‘stiff upper lip’ appears to display itself at the sight of a naked body, particularly towards one whose owner isn’t exactly in their prime. Naturists tend to be mocked as tree-hugging hippies who are an embarrassment to society. By contrast, my experience of other areas of Europe so far suggests that attitudes towards nudity in these countries are a lot more relaxed. I’ll never forget kayaking past a beach in southern France during a school trip ages 13, an old man’s legs spread wide open bearing all. Rarely in Britain would you see such sights.

If you’re ever in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, make sure you spend a day bathing at Bodensee, near the Swiss border. It seems like the region’s entire 18-25 year old population descend on the town of Konstanz on a hot summer’s day. Boys jump off the bridge into the bright blue Rhine in attempts to impress the line of ladies lounging on the side of the river. Further along on the Strandbad Horn, the noise gets quieter and the people fewer. Sun-lovers sunbathe behind bushes on the edge of the lake, sometimes in the nude, or at least topless. I found myself lying metres from a tall tanned hunk with dark hair and black shorts. Jimi Hendrix played from his speakers as he read a book. I peeped sneakily from under my sunnies as he rose to his feet and dived into the water. Ahhh.

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I like to think that I’ve put myself out of my comfort zone a few times whilst travelling, and that I would continue to try new things. In previous posts, I’ve been writing about how travelling alone makes you more likely to do things that you otherwise might not consider in your home country. Looking back to that day, I felt completely comfortable being surrounded by sights of nudity. The area wasn’t very open, the bushes being a useful cover. Everybody was just doing their own thing and it didn’t feel like one was being perved on (well, apart from Jimi Hendrix guy by me). Those who wanted to bathe topless could do so and not feel like all eyes were on them, and those who didn’t feel like undressing could carry on as they wished. It was difficult for me to think of places in Britain where one could sense so much tolerance towards nude bathing. Whilst I didn’t feel any inclination to be pursuing this activity myself, I thought that I was totally cool with public nudity.

Go forward a year to my trip to Iceland. Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach was opened in Reykjavík in 2001. It’s a small and cosy haven of golden sand and warm water. You won’t get the temperatures of Bodensee, but the same sight of people bathing. Another key difference from Bodensee is that no chemical cleaners are used in the heated water, so visitors are expected to wash beforehand, naked. Ignore this expectation and you will not be too popular with the Icelanders. It’s a bit like the offence caused in Britain when a Yorkshireman moves to London – you’ll never be viewed with the same amount of respect again.

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I arrived at the beach and saw a large group of people sat in the hot tub, chatting with each other. They all seemed to know one another. Suddenly, shyness enveloped me and I couldn’t walk any further. I spent five minutes waiting near the entrance as men and women – mostly 50+ looking – passed me to enter the changing rooms. I was pretending to look out into the bay, but really I was psyching myself up to shower naked in public. I imagined myself stood among old ladies in a communal shower, and I was petrified. ‘Just walk in and scout the area – the showers might not be communal, and you can always walk out,’ said a voice in my head. ‘No!’ retorted the other, ‘If you walk away, they will know you were afraid of getting naked.’

I paced from one foot to the other, weighing up the options. It wasn’t like it would have to be awkward. There needn’t be any judging. All I had to do was be naked in front of other women for about 20 seconds. I would never have to see them again. We were all in the same boat. I was 21 years old, I needed to stop being a pansy. The place was free, it wasn’t like I was paying for potential cringy-ness. Surely it would just be like the many other things I’d done after originally being nervous about them. Afterwards I would look back and laugh at my anxiety, right? Was I really going to miss out on this new opportunity just because of feeling bashful about potentially seeing an old lady’s vagina? Oh jeez. Just the thought made me shudder.

There were a few large rocks around the edge of the beach. They signaled safety, and I tactically decided to take a long walk around the perimeter towards them, my sense of relief increasing the further away from the changing rooms I went. I sat and looked back at the building. It looked so innocent and inviting, yet so sneaky and devious at the same time. The close proximity of the changing rooms to the hot tub meant that nobody would be safe from stranger’s eyes. It wasn’t like at Konstanz, where nudity could be a lot more inconspicuous.

Nearby, a few ladies swam in the bay, grimacing as the cold water first touched their skin; the price they were paying for perhaps also being reluctant to shower naked in front of others. I decided that I would rather be in the warm water, and therefore take the plunge and have that shower…But really, would I? ‘Yes! Don’t be a loser. Go get naked,’ the voice said. I hesitated again.

Suddenly, music began to play from the changing rooms. It was the Baywatch theme tune. The distinctive sound of that thumping piano brought a smile to my face as I was reminded of Wednesday sports nights in the student’s union bar – drunk rugby players pulling off their tops and waving them around wildly without a care in the world. That was the attitude I should have. I quickly made up my mind – I was going to do it, I was going to shower naked in what was potentially a public place.

I rose from my hiding place and began bounding across the sand towards the changing rooms purposefully, determination surging through my veins, arms swinging resolutely, my heart beating faster with the adrenaline. I felt good. I was ready. Bring on the nudity! As I approached the facility, I saw a few people leaving. ‘Perfect! Even fewer people to shower with,’ I thought to myself happily. Then I noticed a sign with the word ‘Closed’ on it. Oh. So that song was the cue for the lunchtime break. I’d missed my chance, just as I had finally prepared myself to get nek’ed. I looked at the changing room entrance and shrugged my shoulders in defeat. Then I breathed a sigh of relief and strode out of the exit feeling content.

Of course, looking back now I think of how silly I was to get all shy about the prospect of being naked in front of a load of random women. I had both surprised and slightly disappointed myself with my bashfulness. But nudity happens to be a particular subject that can make even the most confident-sounding people blush. Was my behaviour inspired by the British outlook towards nudity that I’ve grown up witnessing? Or are there just some things that it’s not so easy to do when you’re alone? Afterall, as stated before, familiarity is a comfort in strange situations. This scenario highlighted the potential restrictions one may experience travelling alone. But hopefully this is a lesson in how letting timidity determine your decisions will only lead to regret. I would like to put my hands up and say that one day, I hope to visit a beach like this one and shower naked with lots of ladies.

 

10 Reasons to do a Help-Exchange

When planning a trip, I tend to split it into two sections – part of it involves true hostel-loving backpacking, the other a help-exchange. We’re living in a day and age where students and ‘gap yah’ kids will spend huge amounts of money to volunteer in an orphanage in a developing country for two weeks, in an attempt to boost their CV with extra credentials. Personally, I’m not a fan of this organised travel; partly for the reason that I believe it does little to encourage independence and travelling skills; partly because I’m not convinced that continuously passing young children onto different groups to be ‘cooed’ over and have photos taken with is beneficial for their mental well-being and social development. (This article sums it up brilliantly). Students may also be lured into paying extortionate amounts of money for holiday package tours, where they only mingle with fellow tourists and essentially see the country for five minutes.

If you do a help-exchange in contrast, you’ll spend so much less money, yet probably get so much more out of the experience. The system is simple – you register with a website, pay an £18-£20 membership fee that’s valid for two years, and create a profile for yourself. You can then scout the website’s host listing, or hosts can contact you. The idea is that you do four-six hours of work a day for your host in return for free meals and accommodation, so that you’re both doing each other a favour. In your free time you’re free to go off exploring on your own. A help-exchange can be done in any country on any continent, with an incredible range of options on offer – from helping an Eco camp in Africa build a school for six weeks, to looking after huskies in Norway for one week. Below are ten extensive reasons why you should consider doing one yourself!

1. Develop social skills & independence
The process of organising a help-exchange requires the sole effort of the applicant: you yourself have to find an appropriate host decisively but considerately, noting their requirements whilst taking into account your relevant skills and other travel plans. Instead of filling out an application form, you have to contact the host directly either by phone or email, ensuring you come across as friendly, coherent and suitable in a few sentences without referring to your ‘exceptional’ A level results. You have to organise how you get to your host – sometimes you might be asked to turn up at the door – in which case you need to plan travel arrangements. And finally, you have to introduce yourself to your host using communication skills that convey your genuine personality rather than the one you might use to impress someone in a job interview, and conduct yourself aptly for a guest. The process is like a less formal version of applying for a job – there are fewer competitors, no strict deadlines and no daunting interviews. Help-exchanges are also a great way to boost one’s confidence at meeting new people.

 2.  Save money & recuperate
A help-exchange is budget travel at its best. Even staying in hostels that only cost £17 per night starts to add up if you’re on a long trip. The particularly great thing about a help-exchange is how spontaneous it can be – you can contact somebody even when you’re in the country having commenced your travels – ideal if you’ve suddenly found yourself short of funds or there’s been a problem with your current accommodation. Staying in one place for a while also allows the weary traveller to rest their body and mind – it’s nice to have some time off lugging a backpack around everyday, or constantly thinking about public transport timetables and hostel bookings for the day ahead. Saving money on the practicalities of food and accommodation also means your pennies can be put towards more exciting activities in your free time. Plus, being given free meals in return for your help makes a nice change from a cheap ‘on-the-road’ diet of cheese-sandwiches, bananas and biscuits…

3. Develop new practical skills
The wide range of jobs that hosts advertise for help with means that you can guarantee learning a new skill, ranging from knitting to carpentry. Sometimes I’ve not contacted a host whose description sounded perfect in so many ways, just because I had no experience of the specific work they needed help with. But one occasion where I didn’t let this feeling of inadequacy put me off was with a family on Vancouver Island. They owned a vineyard, and as much my mum might have tried to encourage me over the years, I had no experience of pruning. As I was shown what to do on my first day thoughts of: ‘Oh crap, I’m totally going to ruin this guy’s vines, he’s going to be annoyed with me!’ filled my head. Then I remembered that it wasn’t a test, and I wouldn’t be judged for asking questions, but was actually more likely to be respected for trying to ensure I did a decent job.

Even when you’re not working, you can still learn new skills in your free time from family members. The first time I went fishing was during a help-exchange in southern BC (I wasn’t very successful). On another exchangeI learned the basics of lacrosse and after a few attempts (and one fall) had (almost) mastered the art of longboarding. It’s unlikely I would have accessed such activities so easily when travelling around alone.

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4. Inspire youth
Being the youngest of five children, I’ve never had much of an opportunity to be a ‘big sister’ to anyone, but taking part in help-exchanges has changed that, as I’ve been able to become a confidante to those a few years younger than me. Being trusted by an adult you’ve never met to take a position of responsibility over their children is a humbling gesture, and as a result makes you determined to live up to the duty and set an example. In my case this has mainly involved listening to problems, sometimes of an everyday form and sometimes more serious, and using my experience to give advice for the short or long term. With young teenage girls I think, being female myself, that it’s a particularly rewarding process. They’re going through a stage when older authority can be resented, and being a good role model without alienating them can be quite challenging. But if you get the balance right, you’re likely to see reserved body language become more confident and bored facial expressions develop into expressions of curiosity and familiarity, as they realise that the new girl in their house is actually not that bad, even though she travels by herself/is single/wearing scruffy clothes and no make-up/into running/a bit of a geek. I hope that as a result of this, most of the girls I’ve stayed with have decided that they too would like to embark on their own independent travel adventure one day. Help-exchanges demonstrate that you don’t have to be in a less-developed country (or pay lots of money) to have a strong impact on someone’s life.

5. Expand human knowledge
Taking part in help-exchanges has made me become a better reader of both individual people and families, reminding me in the process that despite any cultural differences, certain human emotional dilemmas occur universally. As a result I feel like I’ve gained greater maturity and sensitivity, which can be applied to everyday life. It’s something that can’t be taught, only obtained through observational experience. An example is from Canada, where I lived with a 15 year old girl whose life, at the insistence of her mother, revolved around horse-riding and ice hockey. Most of the time she was reserved around the household. Then at the end of the week the two of us went to the cinema and I saw an excitement in her that I hadn’t seen before, realising that it was simply because she wasn’t used to going out for social events. Away from her normal routine and slightly domineering mother, she felt freer and more open. Meanwhile on an exchange in Germany, the 18 year old daughter started tearing up as she said goodbye to her parents before they left for their holiday. She wouldn’t see them when they got back as she would be on holiday herself. “I just feel bad because by going away and doing my own things I see them less, and they’re only getting older,” she explained to me after they’d gone. I could completely empathise with her, having experienced similar feelings of guilt in relation to my own parents. It was an irrational feeling that I hadn’t considered might be felt by others. Doing a help exchange can make a ‘foreigner’ seem more familiar, while also giving you something to take back to your own family; be that a greater appreciation of or the inspiration to change its dynamic!

6. Practise a language
The best way to learn a language is through immersion – visit the relevant country and spend time with native-speakers, listening to their conversations and attempting to initiate ones yourself. Even if you’re not planning to learn the language (mastering Icelandic in two weeks would have been asking a bit too much), it’s nice to simply listen to the different sounds and watch people interact through it, sometimes being able to guess what they’re talking about from their actions. While staying with a small family in Germany, I would carry a notepad around with me, at times randomly asking the daughter, “How would I say this?” or “What does that word you keep saying mean?” She would also ask for clarification that her English was okay too, so that both of us were benefitting. I was then able to use what I’d learned after I moved on from the family. It makes a nice change from hostels and charity volunteering camps where, on the whole, English is the international language. And even better: the tuition is free.

7. Learn about other cultures
Living in a family’s home creates an intimate environment where you can witness the everyday native lifestyle – it’s the best way to learn about the values and norms of the country, either through conversations or general observation. Whilst on my Icelandic help-exchange I was told about Christmas traditions (including a detailed description, involving a picture book, of the 13 different Santas), as well as the less obvious and random traits of the country’s culture. For example: when trying to establish ages, an Icelander will always ask for year of birth over the actual number; a wife doesn’t take her husband’s surname – instead it is always the father’s name, ending with the prefix ‘dottir’ for girls and ‘son’ for boys; names of all residents are written underneath the house number next to the door; dried haddock is a popular snack, and so forth… Staying with locals gives one a greater awareness of and access to the signature brands and dishes of that country, such as ‘Tim Hortons’ in Canada and Skyr yoghurt in Iceland.

Doing a few help-exchanges in different areas is even better, as you get to witness the variety of the country for yourself, just like someone travelling to England would notice changes between London and Yorkshire. For example, I could sense varying attitudes towards immigration, marriage and careers in different areas of BC which, as a History student, I found really interesting. What’s more, if there are other foreign helpers staying at the house, you can learn more about their culture too. The first time I had a proper conversation with someone from China was during a help-exchange in Canada, while meeting a few Germans there partly inspired my decision to travel there the next summer.

8. Integrate into a family and community
In previous posts I’ve written about the overwhelming effect of being welcomed into a host’s life so warmly. Sometimes the ‘click’ won’t happen, either inevitably from significant differences in outlook, or as a result of events during the exchange. But when it does, especially in such a short period, it’s a very touching experience. This, combined with getting to know the local area well, can make you really feel ‘at home’. Doing errands for a host in Germany such as going to the post office and doing the shopping required me to familiarise myself with the area, making me feel like part of the community by the end of the exchange. By the end of my week with a family in Reykjavík, I was on greeting terms with an old man who walked his pug at the same time as I walked my host’s border collie. At family dinners or parties, I’ve been involved in the conversation almost, at times, like a member of the family. Such moments can lead to a bond with a family – a long-term bond that hasn’t been formed through the influence of alcohol and consolidated by the desire for a companion to provide temporary convenience and security, as is quite often the case with volunteer-travel friendships.

For me having no younger siblings, forming a bond with a child or young teenager is particularly special. At first introduction they are often quite shy and making conversation isn’t so easy. My Icelandic help-exchange also involved babysitting an eight year old. His English was exceptional, but there still seemed to be a barrier as we sat eating breakfast on my first morning. After getting a shrug in response to “What’s your favourite subject at school?” I asked if he wanted to walk the dog with me: “Nahhh”; or go swimming: “No thanks.” Hmmm. ‘It’s going to be a long week,’ I though despairingly. “Maybe you’d like to play a game?” I asked hopefully. The boy said nothing. Then suddenly his eyes lit up: “Do you like Star Wars?” Ermm… “Yeahhhhh!” I replied enthusiastically. I know nothing about Star Wars. The next two hours was spent playing a game with no idea what I was doing. But it was worth it, because by the end of it the boy was interacting with me more. Within the next few days I was making him laugh as we played toy soldiers or football, and chatting animatedly with him. Then came the day when he asked “Will you be here this time next week?” followed by a sad “N’owhh” when I said no, and upon hearing that I welled up.

One might say that the same emotion can be experienced after looking after an orphan as part of a charity project, but I would disagree. A charity scheme essentially requires a bond to be formed, by expecting volunteers to devote complete attention to a child who is not already emotionally attached to a regularly-present biological relative. In contrast, children from a host family are less likely to require or crave a new bond, simply because they already have a strong and satisfying connection with their family.  The process of forming a bond is therefore more contingent on both characters involved, which subsequently makes it feel more treasurable.

9. See incredible places & do amazing activities for free
They say that guide books shouldn’t be relied on as source for travel ideas, and help-exchanges prove it. A key reason I’m such a big fan of them is because of their potential to help one discover a phenomenal area of the world, or be given a rare opportunity to do something wonderful. For example, one of my help-exchanges in BC involved working on an Andalusian horse farm, where I helped care for and exercise the horses. Being allowed to ride such beautiful animals as ‘work’ made me feel so lucky, as I thought about what some people would give to be in my position. Another family took me tubing down the Similkameen River, and on my final night with them we drank beers and ate ‘smors’ around a campfire in the Okanogan forest, giving me a true rural Canadian experience. This was an area that I would probably not have considered visiting had I been touring the area independently, because of both the lack of tourist accommodation and lack of attention given to it in my guide book. On Vancouver Island, my hosts lived five minutes from the beach, from where I could admire some of the most enchanting sunsets I’ve ever seen. I was given a tour of Victoria and taken out on the family’s boat for an evening cruise. Meanwhile in Germany I was taken on an afternoon sight-seeing tour of Frankfurt with all the benefits of local knowledge, and in Iceland I got to experience the brilliant Culture Night celebrations with native company. For just a few hours work a day, you can receive something back in return that no salary, no matter how big, could buy.

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10. Form special memories & valuable contacts
The sense of accomplishment after discovering or arriving at a stunning place completely on my own is what makes me love travelling alone…but I’d be lying if I said that some of my favourite and strongest memories from trips haven’t come from help-exchange experiences. Some of them are from the examples stated in #9, while some weren’t necessarily so treasured at the time but in hindsight have provided extraordinary tales of great humour that, without a help-exchange, I probably wouldn’t have experienced. Take the time I went to a house party in Canada, only to find myself constructing a sling out of a tea towel for a guy who broke his collarbone after falling off his quad-bike whilst riding under a very very large influence; or the time a host asked me to give her daughter a lift to a bonfire party in her car (as if having to quickly adjust to driving in an opposite way to what I was used to without damaging her car wasn’t enough, I then had to reverse half a mile along a dyke in the dark after we took a wrong turn); and last but not least was the time one family’s 12 year old daughter jokingly drove a lawnmower towards where I was sunbathing on a downhill slope before parking up, only for someone to start screaming at me to move (she’d forgotten to put the handbrake on…)

Then of course, there are the friends that can be made from a help-exchange, either host’s children or fellow helpers, who themselves account for many of the memories formed. I’m still in regular contact with many of those people I’ve been fortunate to stay with, one of whom I visited in Germany after meeting her in Canada, and one of whom I travelled around the USA with three years after first meeting. These people provide a travel contact either for at the time of the exchange or in future, and meeting them has inspired me to become a host one day myself, in the hope of meeting even more special people and creating even more special memories.

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Being involved in a help-exchange is beneficial for a range of reasons: the potential to help a person develop for the better whilst allowing them to have an impact on someone else; the potential for new knowledge, exciting opportunities and significant experiences; the potential to form strong friendships; and simply for the potential to produce a fulfilling sense of knowing you’ve done someone a favour, whilst also feeling extremely grateful for what they’ve done for you. And the best thing about it is that these elements can be attained without having to spend thousands of pounds.

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Been convinced? Check out some of the websites below and get your own help-exchange adventure started!

http://www.workaway.info/
http://www.helpx.net/
http://www.wwoof.net/

Disappointing Travel Experiences: When Materialism and Travel Collide

We’ve all had those anti-climactic experiences where we’ve been really looking forward to seeing something, or had high expectations about it, only to feel slightly disappointed afterwards. It’s a common case when travelling – guide books marvel about how wonderful a place is and the websites only show photos taken in the sun. But I’m not just talking about realising that the sights aren’t actually that impressive; sometimes your experience of the people around you can tarnish your views.

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I experienced this feeling after visiting the Blue Lagoon in Iceland. Possibly the country’s most famous place to visit, I decided to go and check it out en route to the airport. My bus left rainy Reykjavík at 9am and we drove through a barren black sea of lava fields, until about 50 minutes later the bright blue water appeared in sight, bringing instant energy to a bleak morning. In a building situated next to the car park, one could store their belongings for a non-returnable fee of 500ISK. The receptionist said “Enjoy your stay” with the same upbeat tone to every customer, as if programmed like a machine.

A return bus journey and ticket to bathe in the hot springs costs 9800ISK from Reykjavik Excursions, but being low on cash and uncertain I’d have enough time to get sufficient bathing value for the price, I decided I would just pay 1600ISK for the Visitor’s Pass once there, which equates to around £8. “You can keep this,” the receptionist said, sliding a loose blue rubber band onto my wrist as the lady next to him patiently dealt with a ditsy customer. “And just come back if you change your mind about bathing.”

As I walked onto the viewing deck and looked over the huge pool, I nearly did. The large baths of blue water sat amongst the mass surroundings of dark lava fields like a rose amongst thorns. The heat radiating from the water was so inviting and there was plenty of space to lounge around daydreaming. The perfect end to a trip, surely? There wasn’t really much you could do with a Visitor’s Pass apart from watch other bathers enviously from this deck, feeling like a bit of a pervert – a sly method to get you paying more. I stood watching the shoots of steam in the distance, the constant swapping of my weight from one foot to the other reflecting the constant changing of my mind.

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Then I was suddenly distracted by the sound of haughty laughter, and looked down to see a whale of a man conversing loudly with his friends in the water about some sort of business matter, waving his champagne glass around carelessly. Right then something told me that my original decision had been the right one. I averted my gaze from his large belly only to see other people behaving in a similar fashion – talking loudly and uttering fake laughs that seemed to epitomise money and privilege.  I found myself asking, ‘Is this what coming here does to people, or is it just these people that it attracts?’

Unfortunately the man’s arrogant laughter continued to fill the air, just as the rain continued to fall. I couldn’t stand hearing anymore, but the ‘Yorkshire Lass’ in me was determined to get as much value out of my entry fee as possible, so I headed downstairs to the cafe to read.  As I purchased a smoothie that would taste purely of diet, the staff stood around looking fed-up. I soon learned the cause of their moods, gritting my teeth as the abrupt deliverance of the question “Is there WiFi here?” continually flooded my ears. Women and teenage girls in designer clothes would then proceed to stare non-stop at their iphones for their remaining stay.

Whilst I don’t own an iphone myself, I’m able to realise how in this day and age, Facebook updates to show off the really cool thing so-and-so just did can’t wait. And of course, working people need to check their emails regularly. But there was something so empty about these people, as if they literally had no essence of human inside them – only a piece of technology for a soul and bank for a heart that constantly churned out money like oxygen.

A few minutes later a member of staff around my age looked bewildered as a customer explained to her that she must make her own latte. The lady finished reeling off her special recipe instructions with a patronising “Thanks, honey.” I looked at her, feeling both stunned and repulsed as she ran her hands through her perfectly conditioned hair, nose in the air as she looked down to scrutinise the finished product. Suddenly her face turned in my direction and I looked down at my scruffy jeans and walking boots, make-up free face reflecting in the window, realising just how odd I must have looked compared to everyone else here. As I stood up to deposit my empty carton in the bin, immaculate women looked me up and down with a facial expression that seemed to suggest I should be apologising for something, as if my clothes offended them.

And yet how ironic that a few years ago, my outfit would have been regarded as completely normal. Only now in an era of advanced social technology did it matter to these people that I wasn’t carrying a Louis Vuitton handbag and wearing a cream blazer. The ability of people to stay in constant contact with friends and colleagues while travelling across the globe, by updating everyone and his wife about their every move with tweets and photos, means that nobody is free from judgement about how they look, or what possessions they own. As a result, travel has started to become less about backpacks and dog-eared journals, and more about luxury hotels and strong WiFi on buses. Where’s the sense of adventure and escapism gone?

When I think of genuine backpacking, I think of counting waterproof mascara as ample make-up; wearing my cheapest, scruffiest clothes and not caring if they get torn or muddy; accepting that I may have to go a couple of days without a shower; checking my emails every few days on a slow computer in an internet cafe; and spending my food budget at the supermarket on biscuits and bread. But now it seems that even budgeting backpackers are expected to constantly conform to high standards of appearance, financial expenditure and socio-technological mobility.

It is common that people will stop in Iceland just for one night, en route to a destination in Europe or North America. Being situated only 20km from Keflavík airport, the Blue Lagoon therefore makes sense as a place to visit for some pampering time. Many of the people who come here will not be interested in learning about or seeing anything else of Iceland. It is simply another place for them to spend their money in and post a photo to Twitter from, before heading back to their hotel for a fancy dinner and spending the evening in their suite browsing the internet. The boost to Iceland’s tourism industry that comes from the bulging wallets of such people means that unfortunately, the strong presence of businessmen and bankers; trophy-wives and spoilt children, is set to linger on in the Blue Lagoon as the features of the resort continue to be catered towards their ostentatious demands.

One consolation is that the heat of the lagoon isn’t a natural occurrence, instead being produced by geothermal energy usage, so at least an innate wonder of the country isn’t being contaminated by such a pompous bunch.  However at the same time, one can argue whether native Icelanders would even want their country’s energy to be used to feed the hungry desires of such strong representatives of capital, especially when this is something they themselves can relate little to.  As debate grows (in the context of proposals to build more hotels in Reykjavík) about whether Iceland’s government is neglecting its public expenditure in favour of developing the tourist industry, it is not surprising to note that few Icelanders themselves seem to visit the tourist-haven that is the Blue Lagoon, especially if this is the kind of snooty atmosphere they’ll be greeted with.

Before I start sounding like a boring draconian, let me clarify that I’m not at all immune to the idea of sipping champagne in a relaxing hot bath outdoors. Who wouldn’t enjoy that? But you can enjoy such pleasures without trying to make other people feel inadequate for the simple reason that they aren’t sporting the latest materialistic goods and designer names. I could have told those snobs the names of all the renowned natural wonders of the country that I’d seen during my travels. Then I realised that in this day and age, I wasn’t actually sure which names would be regarded with higher value.

For a moment I wondered if it was just a case of me feeling intimidated about bathing amongst these people with all their commerce-and-capital-orientated chat. But actually, it was simply that I didn’t want to be amongst these people with their plastic cards and plastic faces, lending my support to their arrogantly flamboyant lifestyles. Like any girl, I of course like to look good, but whilst I’m travelling the tomboy in me would rather I spend my day lifting my feet up a notorious mountain than having them rubbed in a resort’s spa. I could do the latter in my own country. And yet evidently because the habits of the image-obsessed celebrities women ‘follow’ on Twitter would disagree, the ‘outdoors’ aspect of the former is becoming viewed as an unattractive activity for the female traveller.

As I walked towards the exit past ladies sauntering around in their white robes, I felt immense relief that I’d decided to come here last on my trip. Had I visited the Blue Lagoon first, it might have damaged my expectations of what was to come for the remainder. But luckily for me, I knew this brief experience was an exception to the real Iceland that I’d been fortunate to see for myself.

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I disliked the Blue Lagoon not because of its purpose or how it looked, but because of its association with high socioeconomic status.  To the majority of the people I saw there, the pool of water mayaswell have been a pool of money. This is what their minds were purely drawn to – the acquirement of it; the spending of it; and the display of it. Just like demand for five-star hotels leads to the chipping away of old concrete, the Blue Lagoon represented how materialism has begun to chip away at the old values of travel. Young people are now growing up influenced by implications that travelling is about exhibiting their clothing collection and taking photos of a popular place on their iphone, ready to show off straight to their friends back home with the click of a button. Travel money is spent on expensive perfume at the airport, not cultural mementos from the country they’re visiting. In ten years will young people even be using backpacks?

Located in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but lava fields, the Blue Lagoon has sadly become trapped in a spider’s nest of capital-fixation, with little choice but to please wealthy foreign visitors if it wishes to help liberate the economy, in a land where the high cost of living is lamented. As a result, the Blue Lagoon for me unfortunately represents the negative effects of the modernisation of travel.

So if you decide to visit Iceland someday, please don’t make seeing the Blue Lagoon your priority. There is so much more this country has to offer, often for free and often in unexpected places. It is, of course, a cruel irony that you will however be doing the country’s economy a favour if you do go. In which case, please wear your backpack and walking boots with pride.

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