Friday, 29 November 2013

Caqalai- my favourite place on Earth....

If you’re visiting Fiji on a budget, but want to escape the well-trodden, island-hopping backpacker trail, Caqalai (pronounced thang-a-lay) is a perfect alternative. This tiny island, situated just below Ovalau, has the relaxed feel of a tropical paradise without the hype.

I discovered the island by pure chance. Unorganised as ever, I was flicking through a Lonely Planet in a bookshop in Auckland the day before I flew out, when I first spotted the paragraph on Caqalai. I choose my destinations with a combination of budget and isolation in mind and this island fitted my specifications. Although the Yasawas are the most accessible option as they are only a ferry ride away from Fiji’s international airport in Nadi, there was something intriguing about the tiny dots on the map which required a little more effort to discover. In my opinion, including your journey as part of the excitement is the difference between a holiday and travelling. In order to reach Caqalai, assuming you’re coming from Nadi, you must first head for Suva - Fiji’s colonial capital - where it’s best to stay for a night before taking two buses, firstly to Nausori and then another one from Nausori to Waldalice Bridge. The boat ride from there is an experience in itself; hold on to your hats!

During my week long stay, I spent the majority of my time face down, exploring the coral reef which thrives a few meters offshore. The nearby Snake Island is accessible at low tide, and my general plan for the day was to walk over there while the rocks were exposed, taking care to avoid stepping on the hundreds of brittle stars, and spend the next couple of hours snorkeling my way back to Caqalai. Through these adventures I spotted reef sharks, a turtle, stingrays, thousands of fish and a couple of the rather menacing looking stripy sea snakes which give the smaller island its name. On reflection, I encountered a wider variety of marine life around Caqalai than I saw on the Great Barrier Reef, and all without the direction of an over-enthusiastic guide or accompaniment of a dozen other snorkelers.

This banded sea krait has some of the world's most toxic venom, ten times more deadly than that of a rattle snake, but apparently they aren't aggressive and only have very small mouths (too small to latch on to anything other than your finger or toe). This news was encouraging up until this snake started swimming directly towards my face, at which point I forgot all the logic and fled in panic as fast as my trainer clad feet could propel me.

They're still quite beautiful, but I'd rather observe one from a distance.

Reference- Aquarium of Pacific learning center

However, even if you aren't such a keen underwater explorer, it’s still hard not to fall in love with an island which has a sandy circumference that can be wandered around in 15 minutes. Accommodation is basic, with outside bathroom facilities and dodgy electricity, but this is reflected in the price and what more does a budget traveller need? Evenings can be spent sampling a variety of Fijian food, often including the locals’ catch of the day, partaking in their favourite kava ceremony or sitting around a fire on the beach watching them dance and sing. You will gain respect from the locals if you can swallow your whole bowl of kava in one, but be warned - it tastes like earth and numbs your mouth and even part of your brain if you have too much.

Caqalai fulfilled all my expectations of a Pacific island escape: lovely people, a stunning underwater world and the feeling that you are the luckiest person alive. So if you’re heading for Fiji, take some time to enjoy my favourite dot on the map, unless of course you fancy discovering one of your own.

What's your favourite place on Earth? Have you found it yet?

You might also like- Ten photos that remind me why I have to go back to Portugal...

I first wrote this article for Exploration-Online...

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Review: Birdnest Guest House, KL, Malaysia

A lucky coincidence led us to Birdnest Guesthouse. While sitting in a café, discussing how to escape our bedbug-infested hostel without trekking half way around the city, my travelling companion and I were lucky enough to be overheard by Will, the owner of Birdnest Guesthouse and our new knight in shining armour. His prices were similar, his rooms were nicer and he knew the city like the back of his hand. Before being allowed to unpack, we were made to soak all of our clothes and hang them out in the sun, in order to kill any of the little biting blighters that may have crept their way into our stuff. Although slightly humiliating, it was good to know he was serious about this tricky problem. Bed-bugs are notoriously common in KL, and despite my somewhat lax attitude towards living standards while travelling, I draw the line at creatures that actually try to eat me in my sleep.

The atmosphere at Birdnest was relaxed and friendly, with a communal kitchen area, free internet and chilling areas both inside and out where card games were played in the evening. Will was always helpful in advising good places to go, sights to see and things to eat (although we did turn down his offer of trying toad after seeing their little faces peering through the glass). Having some form of artistic talent, we found another positive in Birdnest. After spotting my coloured pencils one evening, Will explained how he was keen to add some more decoration to the already colourful Guesthouse. With the promise of free beds, our couple of nights stay changed into a week as we painted different birds on each room door. So, if you are planning a trip to Malaysia, drop in to admire our handiwork in KL and you might just end up staying.

Birdnest's website-

I originally wrote this for Exploration-Online...

Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields

Travelling around Cambodia, it is easy to forget the country’s troubled past. In my experience, Cambodians are some of the happiest, most helpful people in the world, so it is difficult to believe that less than forty years ago, around 21% of their population was wiped out under the Khmer Rouge dictatorship. Pol Pot, the leader at the time, enforced the policy of “Agrarian Socialism”, which theoretically would have made everybody equal, as workers in the countryside. Unfortunately, his methods did little for the cause of equality. Evacuating people from cities and forcing citizens to work on collective farms and labour projects in rural areas, Pol Pot was so paranoid about being overthrown that he was prepared to arrest and murder anyone intelligent enough to identify the flaws in his plans.

S-21, now open to the public and only a short tuk-tuk ride out of Phnom Penh was one of the prisons in which these people were detained. Although I had expected a harrowing visit, I was not prepared for the graphic, matter of fact way in which our guide presented the history: “This is where a prisoner was beaten to death with a metal pole” he said, pointing to a brownish stain on the ceiling, and it went on. We saw the remnants of the tiny, concrete cells in which people were confined, designed so that it was impossible to see the other inmates and with the metal attachments that held their chains still in place. Tales of torture and ridicule turned my stomach and the accounts and artwork from the survivors, which have been displayed on the otherwise bare grey walls, really help to transform the statistics into individuals. Worst of all was the array of photographs; mug shots of each person admitted, creating a confusing collage of emotions. Defiant young men, overwhelmed children and desperate mothers with crying babies all seem to share a look of courage, attempting to keep their dignity until the end. It was strange to think that our guide was about the age these children would have been, had they been allowed to grow up. Prison guards, who were often merely children when they committed the atrocities, now have to live among the families of those they killed. It’s hard to know who to have more sympathy for.

I'm afraid I borrowed this photo from Andy Brouwer here- -as, I lost mine when my camera was stolen a few days later, but there are great panels of these photos, showing everyone who was held there.

Later, we walked around the Killing Fields, where thousands of people were taken to be beaten to death as a result of the Khmer Rouge’s insistence that bullets must not be wasted. Despite the collections of bones, small craters marked as mass graves and scraps of clothing in the ground, freshly washed up from the last rainstorm, it was hard to imagine that this was where the horrors occurred. The sun was shining, chickens were pecking at the bottom of one of the grassy holes and there were birds singing from a tree labelled as the place where babies were once clubbed to death. With the combination of my happy associations with sunshine and probably my subconscious denial of the truth, I found it hard to imagine how it may have looked just a few decades ago.

Cambodia is a beautiful country with a scarred past, and I believe we should only allow ourselves to enjoy it after understanding how lucky we are to visit during peaceful times. The government is still corrupt -- just try getting help at a police station -- but as far as I know, the general population is now safe and tourists can travel from place to place without much hindrance. In English schools, children don’t hear about the Khmer Rouge. We focus on Nazi Germany, where we, as a nation, were at least of some help in Hitler’s disposal. Unfortunately, after the Vietnamese disaster, the West wanted nothing more to do with South-East Asia and left Cambodians to their fate, at a time when they actually needed our intervention. Pol Pot was allowed to live freely until he died in 1998, reportedly peacefully in bed with his wife. At the time he was nearly 20 years older than the Cambodian average. He was never tried or punished.

I originally wrote this for Exploration-Online...

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Beg, Borrow and Steal your way out of Athens during a riot.

Lack of money while travelling can put anyone in amusing, difficult, or sometimes just exhausting situations, and our final day in Greece this summer proved to be all three of these things. Casually cooking pancakes on the morning of our flight, we overheard a boy moaning about having to walk into the Acropolis from our hostel. Having done this in about half an hour the day before, we asked him what the problem was and took his reports of a capital-wide strike with a pinch of salt, casually continuing our pancake feast until a computer was free for Googling the situation. At this point, our plans crumpled around us: not only were there no trains, trams, buses or metro, but the taxi drivers had chosen that day to rebel against the government's plans to liberalise the taxi sector too and there was even a strike at the airport. Maybe we could walk? A quick Googlemap later and that option wasn't looking hopeful. The airport was 30km out of the city, along a motorway, and hitching in a riot didn't seem like the best plan either. It was the first time when our motto of, "Everything works out in the end" seemed to be mocking us.

Still fairly calm at this point, we decided to go wandering around the city asking for help. Following a few tip-offs, we trekked through the steadily increasing numbers of protesters for several hours, looking like woodlice on their hind legs with our bags. It was quite an effort in the midday sun, and it got to the point where even the creepy topless man with the bashed up car, who popped his head out the window suggesting “Taxi?” seemed like a possible option. Eventually, we found a Greek man who was also trying to get to the airport. As we were waiting with him at a bus-stop, hoping for the best, we heard the protest approaching. In the distance, it sounded like a battalion of Orcs, but as it got closer we could see that they were peaceful students rather than angry rioters. Our main problem with the protesters was that they had caused the road we were waiting at to be cordoned off. How would the bus get down? Even if it was on its way, it couldn’t have got to us as we sat on our island bus-stop in the sea of protesters.

Thankfully, as has always happened to me so far, we had found a knight in shining armour in the Greek man. After half an hour or so of talking rapidly into his phone, he eventually beckoned for us to follow him on another sweaty hike through the city, to yet another bus stop, where to our relief we saw not only one, but many buses. Our saviour probably missed his flight, but we got there with hours to spare before our delayed plane was ready for boarding. There was even a free McDonalds for our inconvenience. Our guilty secret, a lack of travel insurance, could have resulted in serious problems that day, possibly a rather extended stay in Athens as my overdraft was maxed and there is no way I could have bought a new flight. But somehow, it was fine, as always, so far...