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What I Learnt in Nepal – Why A Bad Travel Experience Isn’t The End

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So, I haven’t written here for a long time.

For three months, I was away in Nepal with next to no internet access, which is a good enough excuse.

But I’ve been back in the UK for two months now and I still haven’t written a new blog post. Why not? Surely I’d have hundreds of things to write about after three months on another continent?

nepal 1   nepal 3   nepal 2

How could I go to a country with this much to offer and have nothing to write about?

Well, the truth is – I didn’t enjoy it.

There. I said it.

It’s hard to admit. Really hard, actually, because not only did I push a lot of other plans aside for this trip, not only was it my “get out of the UK free” card, but it was supposed to be the trip that affirmed to me, once and for all, that I was on the right path. That long-term travel is possible for me. That international development is the right career for me. That not only could I hack it, but that I would actually enjoy it.

And I didn’t.

And honestly, not only did I not like it, but I spent almost every minute fervently wishing I was back in the UK, experiencing that excruciating homesickness that I always used to scoff at in other people. I spent a lot of my time ranting about the inadequacies of the programme and the charity, but in reality, I was shouting because I didn’t want to spend all my time crying.

We first arrived in our designated districts after three weeks of training that had told us absolutely nothing at all. The road journey had been horrific – I’m sure you’re all aware of how bad Nepal’s roads are, but if you’re not, let’s just say that I’m an atheist but even I took to praying. Half of us got off the bus at a dingy-looking guest house full of spiders the size of my head, a rabid look dog outside and a lovely dirty room in the basement. The other half, including the girls I’d be sharing a room with up until that point, drove away.

We got into our basement room and discovered the horrific spiders, as well as a freaky looking nest of I-don’t-even-know-whats. I wasn’t trying to be a ridiculous western diva, but really, I hate spiders, and I wasn’t going to sleep under them. I went and told one of the charity’s staff, who said, “There are no spiders in Nepal.” Um, yes there are, they’re above my head right now. “There are no spiders in Nepal.”

That sort of denial on the part of the charity became almost emblematic of the entire trip.

All through the training I’d had my doubts, but I’d told myself and told myself that once we got to the district, it’d be OK. So when it wasn’t – when we got there and still had no idea what we were doing – and we went for a walk around in the dark to see our new surroundings, I kept to the back of the group and I just sobbed away to myself for almost an hour.

I know now it was an overreaction, but at the time, I was upset and full of culture shock and something as simple as big ass spiders could set me off. And it’s a pretty big deal to have to admit that, especially when you’re known amongst your friends as the one who likes to travel, especially when you did this for your career. It’s more that admitting you had bad judgement – it makes you feel like a failure.

Let me give you a quick run-down of a few other reasons why, for me, this trip was so bad:

We were in an area where nobody needed us, and where we could make little to no difference. We couldn’t speak the language and had been told beforehand that it wasn’t necessary, so we had next to no input. I felt useless. I was acutely aware that I was there for two reasons and two reasons only: to attract attention, because I am white, and to attract money, because I am white. It was made quite clear to us at the end of the programme that the money the UK government invested in the programme, in return for Nepal taking on UK workers, paid the wages of several of the Nepali staff. They didn’t need me – they needed my government’s money. I spent all day every day being stared at like I wasn’t a person. People screamed at me and interrupted my conversations and crashed their bikes into walls because they were so busy staring (alright, I’d admit that the wall crashing was at least partly funny). I know a lot of people really enjoy this kind of attention, but personally, I felt like I didn’t own myself, like I wasn’t my own person. Over at another placement, two locals got brutally murdered and the staff thought it would cheer the UK volunteers up if they could ‘see the body’. I’m not even joking. And, although this pales in comparison to murder, we ate rice, twice a day, every day, for three months.

If I had to choose between eating rice ever again and starving to death, I would choose starving. Have you ever vomited rice back up? It all gets stuck in your nose and you end up sneezing rice for days. It’s thoroughly unattractive.

There’s a lot more, but I don’t want this to be a barrage of complaints. Because I did learn a couple of things along the way and I’d like to share them with you.

1). Wishing you could go home and wishing you’d never gone are two entirely different things. Despite being miserable 90% of the time, despite being ashamed of how I dealt with being so miserable, and despite feeling like my work on the programme had no impact whatsoever, I don’t regret going to Nepal. I wish I could have gone to another country with another charity perhaps, but I will never regret having got on that plane and actually gone. Now, whenever anything is hard, I can think, “Shut up Rachel, you got through three months in Nepal; this is nothing”. And I know, deep down, that I had not gone and continued to live here in ignorant bliss, I would have imagined a perfect placement and regretted not going far more than I will ever regret having actually done so.

2). One bad experience should not stop you from achieving your ambitions – whether they are travel ambitions, career ambitions or anything else. I realise now, though it was hard to see at the time, that disliking one international development project does not mean I will dislike them all. Equally, struggling through three months in one country does not mean I would be unable to face a year in another. I know now that if I am passionate about a programme or a country, everything else will fade into the background – but if I’m not, and I’m not really sure why I’m there, then insignificant little details like squat toilets or the heat will become unbearable. It’s just the same at home. My problem was with my charity, not with Nepal itself. Which brings me on to…

3). Don’t blame the country you’re in for the bad times you experience. Honestly, I hated Nepal. I really did. The nature of the people – laid back, no concept of time, never in a rush – combined with the nature of the country – constant strikes, poor transport, poor communication – made the programme I was working on nigh on impossible. But it wasn’t Nepal’s fault, and my anger and misery made it hard for me to enjoy all the wonderful things Nepal had to offer, and that’s something I now regret. I wish I’d be able to push aside my resentment for the programme and just enjoy being somewhere else.

4). Sometimes it takes more courage to give up than to go on. Early on, one of the girls in our group decided she’d had enough and went home. Some people in the group were quite harsh about it, but honestly, I think she was incredibly brave. I didn’t have the courage to stand up and say, “You know what? I’m not enjoying this either.” And because of that, I missed Christmas with my family. I missed my grandfather’s funeral. And I spent three months not only being miserable with my surroundings, but actually hating myself for being so grumpy, for complaining all the time, for bringing other people down with me. Carrying on with that programme wasn’t brave of me. It was cowardly, because I couldn’t face going home and admitting that I had failed. Knowing yourself well enough to know when to call it quits is an important skill to have. Sometimes going back on your words and your plans is the best – and the bravest – thing you can do.

5). It’s OK if you don’t enjoy yourself. I know it’s horrible. I know you don’t want to go home and admit that you were wrong, but really – a bad experience can teach you as much as a good one in the long run. I know now a lot more about the way I like to work, the projects I would like to work on – and the projects I would like to avoid. I know how much I can cope with. And most importantly, I know that I can get through being utterly miserable and come out the other side and actually feel like perhaps I’ve gained something from all of this.

So if you have a bad travel experience, don’t be disheartened. It’s not the end. Travel blogging, travel magazines, holiday competitions – it all makes travel look absolutely fantastic, but sometimes it’s just not. Sometimes you get sick or mugged or simply fed up. Sometimes, there really is no place like home.

If you have a bad experience and it really upsets you, think about why. It’s not just because it’s a bad experience – it’s because you really, really love what you’re doing and you want to do it again. Having a less than stellar time while travelling might shake your faith for a while, but it just means that your next trip will be even more amazing in comparison.

So here’s to that next trip, because God knows I need one.

———-

EDIT:

I just want to make a couple of things clear due to the attention this post has recently received. I wrote this as a sort of justification to myself – to make myself recognise the fact that I really had learnt something from this experience, that it wasn’t the complete waste of time I thought it was when I first returned home, but it’s since been picked up by a couple of excellent blogs focused on voluntourism as a sort of warning against bad organisations.

While that wasn’t the focus of my post, I’m grateful to those blogs – I have been on two previous voluntourism trips which I enjoyed immensely and I now understand completely the importance of researching before you go. I’d be very happy if this post made a couple of people think before they embark on a journey like mine and do a little research first.

However, the intention of this post is not to name and shame the organisation I went with, and there are several reasons for this:

1). They run many, many programmes in many different countries and I have only heard good things about their other programmes. I also think they work for an excellent cause and have had nothing but good dealings and kindness from their UK staff. The Nepal staff were similarly well-meaning, if a little less well-briefed on the programme aims.

2).  This is about my experience and I don’t wish to speak for other people. Although almost a third of the participants left before the end of the programme, many other people actually enjoyed it and felt like they DID make a difference, however small (and to be fair to the charity, they did start off the interview process for this programme by saying, “You won’t make a difference”, though of course I stupidly didn’t believe them at the time – what else is the point of voluntourism?!). That said, I do believe that the  Nepali volunteers alone (we were all placed with a Nepali counterpart) could have done the job a lot better alone, without having to babysit us. They understood their country, its needs and its language in a way we never could. 

3). This was the programme’s pilot year. Everything I have said above, I have said to UK and Nepal staff, complete with suggestions for improvement. We were very much encouraged to give honest feedback and I am hopeful that it will be listened to.

4). I participated in this programme, despite my severe reservations, because it was free. I didn’t have to spend any money to take part. My flights, visas, injections – it was all covered. The charity I went with are not part of some greedy, money-making scam, but rather a new government scheme in its early days. As such, I don’t feel like I have the right to name and shame an organisation that sent me to the other side of the world free-of-charge, and whose warnings about the lack of difference I would make I simply didn’t heed.

Istanbul’s Mystery – The Basilica Cistern

Deep underground below Istanbul lies the Basilica Cistern, a 1500 year old piece of history and a standing testament to the power of building and engineering before the age of machines. The Cistern was used as a water reserve for the city and its palaces during the Byzantine empire and now, more than a millenia later, it’s still possible for tourists to make the trip underground and see the Cistern for themselves.

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Probably one of the most beautiful and understated attractions in Istanbul.

No-one really knows when the Cistern was first built, but it takes its name from a Basilica that once stood above the ground where it lies. Historians have suggested that the original structure may have been commissioned by Constantine himself, before being expanded to its current size and state by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. It’s held up by 336 columns of varying design, all thought to have been brought in from the ruins of even older buildings across the empire, and it is still filled with the very water that emperors once used to drink.

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Although I’m guessing it tastes a bit fishier now than it did back then…

After hugely expensive renovations, the cistern has now been fully unearthed and low-lighted walkways make a path through this massive cavern. Before the 1980s you used to have to get around it by boat, just like James Bond did in From Russia With Love (yeah, not so Russian after all, I guess) – a much more interesting method of transport if you ask me. Bring it back, please, Turkey! For just 10TL, it’s easily one of the cheapest sights in Istanbul and well worth a visit, even if you just use it as an excuse to get away from the blazing sun! Being underground, it’s always wonderfully cool – and being just off Sultanahment Square, you don’t even have to go ten steps from the main attractions to see it.

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The reason I liked the cistern so much was because it was a visible example of Turkish history. Despite its incredible reputation, I felt like Istanbul actually had less history to offer than I had expected, with much of its fame lying in buildings, people and empires that are long dead and gone. Istanbul, for me, was more about the feeling and the stories than the history you could physically reach out and touch – until I visited the Basilica Cistern.

It’s dark, it’s cold and it’s even sort of quiet, with something about its still waters and echoing walls inspiring visitors to talk in whispers. It’s a world away from the Istanbul above the surface (despite the novelty ‘Cistern Cafe’ sitting in a corner under the stairs…), which gives you plenty of time to reflect on all the years that have gone by in the world above it, while the Cistern has simply sat here, unchanged, for a hundred lifetimes. Even though the palaces it served have long since been either vacated or destroyed, the Cistern has never been lost to the world – for years after the end of the empire that created it, local people made holes in the floors of their homes and lowered buckets to pull up the Cistern’s water for their own supply.

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Seriously.

And it’s far more than the rather unflattering name of ‘Cistern’ would have you suspect (I’ve got to be honest – I was expecting some kind of giant toilet at first). This isn’t just a boring underground pit full of water and some pillars – it’s a cathedral-like hall with a high ceiling and ridiculously effective mood lighting. Today, it’s sometimes used for underground concerts and classical music events, the water and the huge, empty space lending itself well to impressive acoustics.

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And here I was thinking mood lighting had to be tacky by default. Well done, Istanbul – you might have been wrong with the cafe, but this was a pretty epic view.

It’s full of intriguing little details, like the single pillar carved with tear drops, possibly a memorial to the many slaves who died in the building of this underground palace (for that’s what it looks like, really – a palace, not just somewhere the city used to dump its water, and its name in Turkish, Yerebatan Sarayi, even means the sunken palace). There’s also the two Medusa heads at the base of two pillars right at the very back of the Cistern, one upside down and one lying on her side. Why? Has Medusa been employed to protect the Cistern – and if so, why place her the wrong way around? One argument is that she simply fits the pillar better that way, but I’m sure a bunch of normal bricks would have done the job just as well if that’s the case.

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The Medusa heads are just the Cistern’s little mystery. What about the biggest mystery of all? Why does it look like an intricately designed palace when no-one would ever have seen it, when its function was hidden from the sight and mind of all in Constantinople? And if you were going to build a giant underground reservoir, why on earth would you make a huge portion of it out of limestone, a rock that dissolves upon contact with water – not only destroying the building’s support structure but also possibly contaminating the water a whole empire relied upon? Why does it need two Medusa heads protecting it from intruders? And how, with its pitted and damaged limestone columns, is it still standing today, 3000 years later, if it really has always been full of water?

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One of the pitted limestone columns.

Nobody knows, and you know what? That’s the best thing about it.

How to Sleep in Hostels – My Top Ten Tips

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The first ever time I stayed in a hostel, I could not sleep for love nor money.

I was ten. I was in York on a school trip. It was a ridiculously hot night and I was sharing the room with four other excitable ten year olds. There were noisy drunk people downstairs. We had to help make breakfast in the mornings and mop the bathrooms (remember those days?! Somehow the boys got out of this. Sexist much, YHA?), which at ten I simply didn’t understand. I’m paying you. Surely you make my breakfast?

I was also on a top bunk without bars. Sleeping entirely still is a technique you eventually develop after staying in hostels for a while, but at ten it was the equivalent of the world’s biggest rollercoaster on the fear-factor.

Have I ever mentioned how much I hate rollercoasters?

Needless to say, I didn’t leave with a particularly good impression of hostels.

The next time was in Marrakech, and if you’ve been reading for a while then you’ll know how well that turned out. If not – a couple of gossipy Europeans and a broken air con system eventually led to the worst travel experience of my life so far.

I was a little bit apprehensive, then, when I booked myself into a London hostel last year. I was staying there because I had an all-day interview for my dream job the next morning, but it was a long way from home and I couldn’t afford a proper hotel room, so you can imagine how worried I was about sleeping properly.

London Eye at Sunset

Let’s be honest here – I have no photos of hostels. I’m just throwing in a picture of London so you don’t get too bored.

At first, my roommates weren’t particularly noisy, but the sounds of them moving, coughing, even breathing drove me up the wall. It was a little awkward as I had come in at 6pm and they were already asleep with the lights off, meaning I had to sit around doing nothing for a good few hours before I could even try and sleep, which clearly didn’t help.

And then the others arrived.

It was maybe three or four in the morning and I had just got to sleep.

When they first barrelled in, they whacked the lights on, loudly realised there were people sleeping and then apologised, even more loudly. Now, I appreciate the gesture, but here’s a quick friendly tip if you ever feel like apologising to a sleeping person – you do not actually have to shake me to make me open my eyes and verbally confirm with you that I have heard your apology. No, really.

I thought that would be the end of it, but no – the light stayed on. I lost count of how many times they came in and out, slamming the door, talking at full volume. I kept my eyes closed through all of this, so it was a while before I realised they were actually having a 4am underwear party in the middle of my room.

I left London exhausted and convinced that there must be some kind of secret formula for sleeping on hostels. Some people do it for months on end; there just had to be a way. I can normally sleep anywhere – on the bus, on my desk, standing up, even in the shower once – but hostels? I just couldn’t figure it out, and with a three week European interrailing trip looming, I knew I had to get it sorted. I Googled and Googled, but came up with absolutely nothing concrete.

And you know why that is?

It’s because there is no magic formula (unless of course you count sleeping pills as a magic formula…).

Despite that, I have picked up a few habits and learnt a few lessons over the last few months that might help those of you who, like me, often spend the wee hours of your hostel-based mornings plotting ways to murder snorers.

1). Firstly, you need to make yourself really, really tired. Not through a lack of sleep before you go, but physically tired because you’ve run around and seen so much during the day. If you’re away sightseeing, this shouldn’t be too hard.

2). Then get to bed at a sensible time, say 10 or 11. It hopefully means you can be totally zonked out by the time the nighttime revellers come tumbling in.

3). Alternatively, become a night time reveller – get so drunk that you’ll sleep like a baby and not care about the room’s resident snorer because it’ll be you. Just don’t host any underwear parties. Please.

4). Bear in mind that the first night will be the worst. This is just one of the many, many reasons why it’s a good idea to always have at least one full day and two nights in each place you visit. Even two nights is enough to set up a tiny bit of a routine and help you sleep better – and by night two or three, you’ll be well used to sound of eight other people moving around in their sleep and it shouldn’t bother you so much. In other words: hang on in there.

5). Take headphones. Not earplugs – I’m yet to find a pair that work that don’t cost half my weekly wages. You can easily pop some soothing music on your iPod and the sound will drown out other’s voices in a way cheapo earplugs simply cannot manage.

6). My worry with headphones is that I’ll sleep through my alarm the next morning – but no-one else will, and I’ll wake up an hour later in a room full of pissed off Europeans hunting for my phone. If you can, set an alarm on your phone instead of a clock (does anyone actually travel with alarm clocks these days?) and keep it under your pillow, set to vibrate. It’s less disturbing for everyone else, you’ll still know it’s going off and you can still wear your headphones/earplugs to drown out the sound of ten other people breathing.

7). Invest in an eyemask. And when I say invest, I mean it (although I am a student, so for me, ‘invest’ means £5 or above) – don’t just buy the first eyemask you see. Try it on. Make sure there are no gaps above or below your nose where light will seep in. Make sure it’s comfortable, not sweaty, and has a firm-looking strap that won’t break after two nights away. I got mine from good old Marks & Spencer for just over £5 and it’s honestly the best travel-related product I have ever bought. Even on nights when everyone in the room was snoring or partying, I could still drop off as long as I didn’t see that blinding light flick on and off.

8). Ladies – if you can, get yourself in a girls’ only dorm. I hate to say it, but it’s true – girls are far less likely to snore (or, if they do, it won’t be quite so loud). Bear in mind though that in girls’ only dorms, there tends to be stuff EVERYWHERE, and I mean everywhere.

9). If you can, get to know everyone in your room before you go to bed, even if that just means saying hello to them. I don’t know about you, but I feel much more secure sharing a room with someone once I’ve seen their face, especially if I’m travelling alone.

10).  Take natural calming tablets (my mum swears by Dr Bach’s, but there are a million brands out there). If, like me, being trapped in a room with a noisy snorer literally makes you tear your hair out, pound on your pillow in frustration and invent new ways of smothering a person to death, then you’re never going to get to sleep. Even if it just works as a placebo, taking something to calm you down – or even just calming yourself down, if you’re less angry than me! – is going to bring you a whole lot closer to sleep.

So there you have it! Remember these few basic tips and hopefully next time you go to a hostel, you’ll just about manage to cram in a few hours of sleep – even if you do meet those underwear-party-holding over-apologisers I had the misfortune of staying with in London…

My #1 London Travel Tip

When I’m stuck at home or in a dead-end job saving money up to travel, I tend to spend a lot of time daydreaming about where I might go next.  If you’ve ever spent your days behind a till or waiting tables daydreaming about visiting London, you’re not alone.

Telephone Box

But what if you’re really going? What then? London is one of the most expensive cities in Europe, certainly the most expensive in the UK, and the attractions are spread out across miles and miles and miles of land. How are you ever going to be able to afford to see everything you want to see and actually eat and sleep all during the same trip?

One of the best and easiest ways to save money in London is to invest in an Oyster card.

Oyster Card

What exactly is an Oyster card?

The Oyster card is basically a travel card – a little piece of plastic that essentially stores and replaces all the paper tickets you would otherwise have had to queue to buy. You simply load it up with money (anything from £5 to £90) and get on your way, using it wherever you would use a ticket. The card figures out the fare and deducts it from your balance – much like a pay as you go phone figuring out the cost of a call and deducting it once you’ve hung up.

How much does it cost?

You pay a £5 deposit and then any money you subsequently load onto it goes straight onto your ticket fares. There are no extra or hidden costs.

Why should I get one?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. I was skeptical at first. Until last year, I didn’t see the point in getting a travel card I would probably only use once or twice a year – and that’s with me living only a few hours away! Why, then, should you – in Paris or America or Brazil, making a once in a lifetime trip to this incredible city – get one?

I got myself an Oyster card a few months ago and now I couldn’t do without out it.

Firstly, the ticketing system on London public transport is horrifically confusing (probably even for Londoners themselves, although they’d never admit it). The beauty of the Oyster card is that you no longer have to try and navigate through this quagmire of a system. It brings spontaneity back to London travel – you can just hop on a train and you’re on your way. You don’t have to worry about which zone you’re in, if you want a single ticket or a return, a day ticket, if you’ve got the right change in your pocket. You don’t have to figure out how many journeys you’re going to make before you pay for your ticket – you simply touch your card to the bright yellow readers on the ticket barriers (if ever in doubt, just watch what the locals do – that’s got me through a lot of uncertain moments on London transport!) when you enter the station to start your journey and when you leave your final station to end it.

Secondly, it’s incredibly cheap. Transport for London have deliberately made it cheaper than travelling on paper tickets in an attempt to get everyone, even tourists, to use these things. Not only is the fare for individual tickets lower with a card than it is when you buy a ticket from the machines, but the card actually works out the cheapest possible fare for your entire journey – a completely invaluable feature if you’re new to London and the transport system is a still a little overwhelming, meaning you could easily buy a more expensive (or incorrect) ticket by mistake. It’s a bit like carrying a Londoner with extensive tube knowledge around in your pocket.

Thirdly, this is not a disposable card. You don’t have to throw it away like you would a ticket; it pretty much lasts forever. You don’t even have to worry about leaving money on the card at the end of your trip: quite apart from being able to top up from as little as £5 a time, you can use it again and again without the money or card expiring – and even keep it for the next five years in the back of a dusty drawer until London starts calling you again…

Not enough? Here’s a few more benefits:

  • It’s ridiculously quick – no more queuing to buy tickets, no more fiddling with change and rearranging all your bags just to pay, no more waiting for your ticket to pop out of the other side of the barrier – simply swipe and go.
  • All the locals have them – you’ll look like a proper Londoner in no time.
  • It’s environmentally friendly – just think how many paper tickets were being thrown away before the card was introduced.
  • It works on pretty much every method of transport available in London – underground, overground trains, the DLR, buses, trams, even some boats.
  • Sure you’ll never use it again? You can get your deposit and any unused credit back.
A quick note
This isn’t a completely foolproof system. There are apparently a couple of situations in which the card won’t work, such as on certain river transport (and of course it doesn’t work outside of London at all), but in all my trips to London with my card I have never, ever had a problem or turned up anywhere where the card isn’t accepted. If you’re doing the normal tourist stuff and staying within zones 1-9 (i.e. everything you can see on the tube map), then you won’t have a problem. The only notable exception is that it doesn’t work on the Heathrow Express.
You can either buy an Oyster card in London from card vending machines, travel information centres, ticket windows at stations or newsagents, or you can get one before you go from TfL’s website: www.tfl.gov.uk/oyster.
Oh, and the chip is underneath the surface, so you can use either side of the card to touch in at stations – that one confused me too at first. Happy travelling!

A Girl’s Guide to Going Hand Luggage Only

Have you ever read about or spoke to those people who seem to be able to wander around from country to country with little more than a single backpack for months on end?

Have you ever wanted to skip the baggage queues at the airport?

Do you think you’d love to go hand-luggage only but that it surely can’t be possible or that it won’t work for you?

Suitcases

Tired of travelling like this?

I was just like you a few months ago. Then I went interrailing around eastern Europe and a combination of easyjet’s baggage fees and the thought of lugging a massive suitcase round a railway station while I run between platforms searching for trains pushed me into the realisation that hand-luggage only wasn’t just an option – it was the only option.

And do you know what? It honestly wasn’t that difficult.

Now, personally, I am not the kind of girl who even owns a pair of trainers, let alone takes them around the world with me. I’m not exactly high-maintenance (I never really wear make-up, for example, and I am hardly going to take ten pairs of heels on a round the world trip) but I still prefer summer dresses to jeans and tshirts. I don’t think it’s vain to want to look remotely decent on the photos you send home. I think it’s OK to dread the thought of a month of sweaty trainers and the same four pairs of pants (and I’m talking British pants here, not American pants, just so you get a bit of perspective). I’m also pretty sure this describes a good proportion of girls out there – so how on earth do we go about combining thinking like that with fitting all our luggage in one tiny bag?

You’ve probably heard all the usual stuff before – only take things that match, buy your toiletries when you get there, wear your bulkiest clothes on the flight out – but how can you make this really work just as well for you as it does for those people who really do wear the same pair of pants all month long?

Dresses

If you’re a jeans and tshirt kind of girl, great! You’re all sorted and you probably don’t need any packing help from me. But what if you’re not? Let’s get logical about it – a little summer dress takes up less room than a separate pair of trousers and a tshirt. I’m not saying you should wear dresses every day and everywhere, but it’s not vain to throw a couple into your bag – it’s practical. They take up next to no room, they can be formal or casual and they’re a lot cooler than a heavy pair of jeans on a hot day.

That said, it’s a good idea to take at least one pair of trousers for travel days (it’s quite difficult to sleep comfortably with your feet up on the chair in a train compartment when you’re wearing a skirt and you’re worried about everyone else in the carriage seeing your knickers). Linen trousers are great for hot weather and they’re a lot lighter than jeans. Depending on where you go, you have to be careful about exposed shoulders, short skirts and low necklines, but there are mid- or long-length dresses out there with respectable necklines and even if they don’t have sleeves, you can easily cover up with a thin scarf or wrap.

Scarves

Talking of scarves, I’m pretty much convinced they are about the most useful thing on the face of the earth. There are walls and walls of thin summer scarves that fold out into huge pieces of fabric in most clothes shops right now for really reasonable prices. A scarf can cover your shoulders or your head if you enter a religious building or a particularly conservative area. It can keep you warm at night when it’s not cool enough for a jacket. It can double as a picnic blanket, a bed sheet, a towel, a sarong, a bag, you name it. If you’re having a rubbish day – perhaps you’re homesick, literally sick or just feel disgusting because the hostel showers were really unclean and you’ve been wearing the same tshirt for a week, or perhaps you just want to dress up for a fancy event – then a scarf can really brighten up your outfit and make you feel a little more put together, a little closer to the way you might dress at home.

A girl I met in Morocco used to say the same about earrings – she brought one or two dangly pairs along with her to make her feel a bit more feminine. It might sound silly, but earrings take up next to no space and much as I don’t want to admit it, there are some travelling days when you feel so awful that something as simple as feeling clean and remotely attractive again could really cheer you up.

Toiletries

Another consideration when going hand-luggage only is toiletries. You’re severely restricted with liquids and aerosols are a no-go – so what do you do about shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste? The list is endless.

Solid products are a godsend. You can get small liquid roll-on deodorants or, if you don’t want to compromise your liquid allowance, solid versions of many brands. Shops like Lush sell great solid shampoo and conditioner, even solid toothpaste and perfume. If you’re like me and solid perfume sounds brilliant but you’re not sure how much chewing your toothpaste appeals to you, then you can always wait and buy your toiletries at your destination to get around those pesky liquid restrictions.

And while we’re on it, those microfibre quick-dry travel towels are an absolute godsend. I had to shell out £22 for a decent-sized one, but it saved me SO much space and it dried so quickly that I never had to go from place to place with a wet towel in my bag. It was worth the money 100 times over and I don’t think I’ll ever travel with a proper towel again, even on overnight trips. I managed to find one for my hair too for a mere £2 – look in normal pharmacies/chemists/beauty shops for those.

Books

After I tried to fit ten different books into one tiny bag and then realised I couldn’t fit my clothes in on top, I came to the inevitable conclusion that the Kindle is pretty much the best invention ever. Enough said.

Shoes

Let’s be honest here – I’m lazy. I’m really not into outdoor sports, unless you call wandering down to Tesco to buy myself some cheesecake a sport. I don’t hike or walk for fun at home (I just don’t see the point in going round in one big circle to get back where you came from), so chances are I likely won’t be doing so abroad either – and if you’re anything like me, neither will you. Despite that, you’re probably going to be doing more walking than you’ve ever done in your life, so it’s important to get some decent shoes.

So, with this is mind, what did I pack for my three-week trip around eastern Europe?

Um, that would be a pair of ballet flats and a pair of flip flops.

Hammock!

My not-so-trusty ballet flats at the start of the trip

My travelling buddy was convinced this was a huge mistake, especially when it started pouring it down in Bosnia and just didn’t stop. Judging by the state of my shoes by the time we hit week two, she might have been right:

shoe

I’m standing by my decision to take girly shoes though. I just should have bought better ones. They fell apart because they were Primark shoes and I’d already been wearing them non-stop for a month before we set out – not because they were girly shoes. In fact, for Primark shoes I think they did pretty damn well. They went with all my clothes (trainers and dresses are not such a hot look – unless you’re Lily Allen of course, and even then I’m dubious), they dried out a LOT quicker than everyone else’s trainers, they didn’t smell, they were small and light enough to fit in my luggage even when I wasn’t wearing them. Next time, I’ll just make sure I get my ballet flats from a slightly more reputable shop. And while I definitely recommend trying your shoes out for a full day or two before you take them, perhaps wearing them every day for a month and leaving with shoes already worn out wasn’t my smartest ever move.

Bags

Now, my final suggestion is one most travellers would probably laugh at, but for me it was a long thought process and I’m perfectly happy with the decision I made.

I did not take a backpack.

I hate backpacks. I hate how even the women’s ones are often made for people with absurdly broad shoulders, I hate having everything on my back where people could steal it, I hate how heavy they are, I hate looking through everything to find one little thing, I hate how they make your back sweat as you’re walking along and I hate how they instantly identify you as a tourist.

So, instead, I took a massive shoulder bag. You know, like a handbag.

Seriously.

bag

It’s deceptively roomy, I promise.

With a bag like this, I can blend in. I can look like a local shopper rather than someone carrying all their valuables with them at once (and I don’t know about you, but especially as an occasionally solo female, I definitely feel a lot safer when I at least look like I know where I’m going and what I’m doing). I can tuck it under my arm and keep an eye on it. I can rummage through my things without having to take everything out because what I want is right at the bottom. The friend I went with swore she couldn’t carry something like that on her shoulder for all that time, and while I understand that, I feel exactly the same about backpacks. I’m aware you can buy brilliant backpacks which pretty much meet all the above criteria (aside from not being an obvious tourist), but I’m on a tight budget and I’m a girl who carries a crapload of junk around with her on a daily basis – I already had several big shoulder bags hanging around.

Just make sure the straps are long (too short and the bag will stick out awkwardly, not to mention be uncomfortable) and wide and that the bag can take some seriously heavy stuffing without anything ripping. You don’t want to be half way through a plane check-in and have to lug your bag around on what is essentially a long leash because the straps broke. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this for actual, honest-to-God backpacking trips where you’d be carrying it all day, every day, but for interrailing or city-hopping it works just fine.

And one final tip – I kind of hate washing things in hostel sinks. People always look at you like you’re crazy, especially in mainstream party hostels, and you just never know what else has been in that sink. Three years of living in uni dorms taught me that. So how about washing your stuff in the shower? The water pressure is much better than from the tap and you don’t have to flash your knickers to your dorm mates.

What do you girls think? Am I totally crazy? Would you ever traipse round Europe with a glorified handbag? Weigh in at the comments section below.

Making the Most of a Disliked Destination: Zagreb & Mirogoj Cemetery

I have a confession to make (one which you’ve probably figured out already):

It’s been a lot more than three weeks since I last wrote.

The truth is, it’s not because I’m lazy (well, alright, it’s not just because I’m lazy – I did admittedly take a taxi to the shop at the end of the road to buy cheesecake earlier). A person I ceased contact with a long time ago has recently come back into my life and I’m not entirely comfortable with this person knowing where I am or what I’m doing, or being exposed to the kind of cheesey-inspiring inner thoughts which are apparently completely acceptable to throw out at strangers through the medium of a travel blog but are rather awkward to deal with in person.

Then, this morning, I had a revelation.

Why should I let this person stop me doing what I love? I’m not going to stop travelling because of them – why, then, should I stop writing for the same reason?

Right then, enough oversharing. Excuses made and here we are, finally – my first post since my interrailing trip through eastern Europe!

Let’s start with Croatia.

I spent three days in Zagreb – not through any particular desire to see Croatia, but rather because it was a convenient half way point (or quarter way point, to be more accurate) between Slovenia and Bosnia, the two places I had been really passionate about visiting.

I’ll be honest with you – Zagreb kind of bored me initially. Sorry, Croatia. I’m sure your beaches are much more exciting, but I’m not really a beach sort of girl. Sand in awkward places, sunburn, stupid societal pressures to look good in a bikini? No thanks. I’m much more at home on the British coastline, where you’re more likely to cover up in a mac and some wellies than you are with some sunscreen.

Rain-Soaked Pier, Aberystwyth

Britain – gorgeous coastlines, only with less sunburn and more umbrella.

I therefore deliberately chose a Croatian city over a Croatian beach as my post-Slovenia pre-Bosnia stopping off point (still with me?) and to be entirely frank, I was a little underwhelmed by Zagreb. It was pretty enough and certainly clean, but I never found myself stopping to take pictures of every passing building like I later would in Istanbul, there was no abundance of street performance like we’d seen in Slovenia only days before. There never seemed to be much going on at all; it struck me as much more of a business city than a tourism destination. Zagreb’s real big thing seems to be museums, but as we were on a tight budget and all the museums were at least as expensive as a cinema ticket and a good meal, we struggled to fill our time there and actually had to pace ourselves to one or two attractions a day (I did, in fact, forgo the museum for the cinema and the good meal, too). The much-hyped Plitvice National Park involved a 12euro trip – each way – not to mention the entry fee and we simply couldn’t afford it, leaving us with very, very little to do. At first it surprised me, considering it’s the capital, but then again I suppose all the tourism money goes into the beaches and islands along the coastline. Certainly almost every other person we met was using Zagreb as a brief stop-off point before or after hitting the sand. There was, admittedly, a moment of enormous excitement when we discovered Croatia’s supermarket chain Konzum (Yoghurts! Real cheese! VEGETARIAN FOOD! We’d been living off bread for a week by this point), but that was about the highlight for me.

Until day three, that is. On our final full day in Zagreb, we decided to head a little out of town to check out Mirogoj Cemetery (pronounced ‘Mih-rah-goy’ – I got a fair few blank looks asking for ‘Mirr-oh-godge’). I’d heard online that it was pretty impressive, but we were yet to meet anyone who had actually been there so I was frankly sceptical about the length of time I could happily spend in an oversized graveyard.

And then we got there and Mirogoj completely blew me away.

Mirogoj Cemetery

And that’s only the entrance.

WWII Memorial    Memorial Flame

The largest cemetery in Croatia and often considered the most beautiful in Europe, it was built in the 19th century and today is full of the rich and the famous, a veritable who’s-who of Croatian history (we had a bit of fun googling some of the names on my friend’s Kindle as we walked around – which also came in useful when trying to distinguish the male/female toilets, as Croatia never seems to put those handy little male/female drawings on the doors like most other European countries do. That avoided some potentially embarrassing mistakes. Thanks, Kindle! I’ll never call you overrated again). I’ll leave it to the pictures to describes its beauty, but it was truthfully like stepping into another world. The place is so big that you could literally spent hours in there without bumping into a single soul, despite the fact that there may be thirty or forty other people wandering around at the same time as you.

Cobwebs  Mirogoj Cemetery  Graveyard Roses

As a Religious Studies graduate, the really interesting thing for me was that the cemetery was full of graves from every religion and none with absolutely no segregation. One minute you would be walking past an atheist’s grave, the next a Jewish memorial, the next an Orthodox tomb. From giant states of Moses with Hebrew inscriptions (that was a good test of my old language skills – suffice to say my lecturer would have been ashamed) to elaborate Catholic statues and simpler, Arabic-lettered posts, Mirogoj had it at all. Considering Europe’s fraught religious history, it was refreshing to see.

  Wreaths & Candles 

There are literally hundreds of thousands of graves here, including several war memorials, but if you’re stuck for time simply wandering along the intricate arcades will easily let you see enough of Mirogoj to be suitably impressed. If you have got a bit longer, try and make your way into the graves on the ground – the occasional family tomb adds a bit of interest, but the real appeal here is seeing the graves of completely ordinary people, marvelling at the abundance of flowers still adorning some and the way nature has taken over others. We found several graves where people’s faces were actually carved into the surface – including a seriously creepy one with faces carved into it and no death date. How weird would it be, visiting your husband’s grave every week and seeing your own face staring back at you?

See how the woman’s portrait has no death date? Now that’s what I called prepared.

Not only is Mirogoj bursting at the seems with things to photograph and enough walkways to keep you busy all day, but it’s free too. It’s also deceptively easy to get to. Zagreb’s public transport system is incredibly efficient and clean, putting England’s utterly to shame. Even on the buses, each stop is announced by a sign and an automated voice so you always know exactly where you are and which stop is coming up. You only need to take one bus to get to Mirogoj from central Zagreb – head up from the main square to the bus stop just past the cathedral and literally just hop on bus 106. It even says Mirogoj on the top, it takes less than ten minutes and you get an amusing insight into real Croatian street names along the way (my personal favourite had to be ‘Rockefellarova’). It’s as simple as that.

Memorial Candles for Sale

Candles for sale at the bus stop outside the cemetery

I suppose the point I’m trying to make here (rather than simply bigging up Mirogoj) is that one good encounter in a city you’re not particularly fond of can really turn things around. Thanks to that stunning cemetery (and a quick side trip to the English language, Croatian subtitled cinemas to catch the latest Harry Potter film), I now remember Zagreb with fondness – and not with the boredom that filled our first two days.

So, if you find yourself stuck somewhere unfamiliar and little uninspiring, sit back and think for a moment about what you like to do. I’m hardly a cemetery nut (in fact, before Mirogoj I found them beyond creepy), but the place offered so many photographic opportunities that I adored it. Find a restaurant serving your favourite food, see a film with subtitles, sit in a cafe and watch the world go by. In the end, each and every place can only be what you make of it.

Ivy

Rachel and Sarah’s Epic European Adventure: Day 1

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So today is finally the day – after what seems like years of planning and dreaming, today I leave for London to start my interrailing trip through Eastern Europe!

Tomorrow we fly to Slovenia, where we’ll take the train through to Lake Bled, Croatia, Bosnia and Istanbul. As a Religious Studies graduate I am beyond excited to see Istanbul in its all religious historical history.

I’ve got a couple of posts lined up but I’m not taking a laptop so I don’t know when/if I’ll be able to post anything. I’ll be around on Twitter whenever I can though, keeping up to date with you guys. See you all in three weeks!

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