Three Months in Kenya

Normality Amongst Abnormality

An early rise, rewarded with views of the breathtaking Mt. Kilimanjaro, coupled with the blazing heat from the powerful African sun and a soothing breeze that drifted down from the mountain. The exchange of smiles and handshakes, shared with sincerity and meaning, despite a language barrier and no audible exchange of words. A warm welcome home, after a long day of work, from a loud and bustling household full of good food, stories, and hearty belly laughs. Standing proudly amongst a room-full of young women, encouraging and empowering them to fight for equality and justice, hearing their dreams of a future in which they can make choices for themselves, and watching them start to believe in their abilities and love who they are. 

These are some of the memories that I miss every day. Memories I wouldn’t trade for the world. Memories I would choose to revisit and relive over and over again if I had a time machine. They became such a normality amongst the abnormality of a new environment, culture, and experiences. 

It’s been two months since returning to the UK, and, without fail, I can still experience each flashback of nostalgia with perfect clarity.

Culture Shock

Living and working in Kenya was an experience like no other. From working with traditional Maasai communities and teaching them important knowledge and life skills, to making chapattis with my Kenyan Mamma and learning to speak Swahili, each day slowly changed my life in one way or another. I’d be lying, however, if I said that every second was easy. Culture shock was definitely something I experienced. Its pretty much inevitable when moving to a country with a completely different language, temperature, environment, living conditions, customs and expectations.

One of the challenges I struggled with the most was the language barrier. Often, it was no problem at all, and I would either get a Kenyan volunteer to translate for me or just ignore the fact that I had no clue what was going on. However, there were times I felt isolated because of my inability to understand Swahili. For example, in the host home — being the only person unable to understand what my family was laughing hysterically at did make me feel excluded at times. To overcome this, I had to adjust my way of thinking. And, with time, I found that I no longer felt left out or worried they were talking about me, but instead used it as a way to learn more Swahili by guessing what the conversation was about. So, despite there being challenges in my adjustment to living in Kenya, I can say that, without a doubt, the highs greatly outweigh the lows, and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

A Normal Week

Twelve weeks flew by in a busy blur, with so much happening that I wish I had kept a journal of all the tiny details of my days there. With just Sundays off, the rest of the week was packed with school visits, women’s skill building classes, community outreaches, writing weekly newsletters, and managing our team’s social media sites (as I was a member of the media committee). However, no two weeks were the same, and there was always something new to experience, a new project to get stuck into, or a new challenge to overcome. Consequently, I found that, within me, there was always a constant hum of excitement and curiosity at what was to come. And at times, it was tiring, yes. But overall, I enjoyed being busy, and the rewarding feeling of accomplishing so much. Seeing the impact our work was making, was the driving force that kept me going!

VSO’s work in Loitokitok, Kenya, focuses on bringing about a positive change to disadvantaged communities, with a focus on improving the access to and quality of education. As VSO says, “Knowledge is power,” and this is something that my team and I focused our development work on — we aimed to empower communities with knowledge and skills that would enable them to bring about sustainable changes within their own lives. Changes that would continue for generations and result in a stronger, fairer, and more inclusive community.

Over the three months, I had the pleasure of working in many different schools, within a range of communities. During these visits, my team and I conducted peer education sessions with large classes of students, on topics that they don’t have access to within their schools or at home. We covered subjects such as self-confidence, gender equality, accepting diversity, peer pressure, stress management, HIV & AIDS, child marriages, early pregnancy, contraception, sexual health, mental health, healthy living, female anatomy and the menstrual cycle, making reusable sanitary towels, gender based violence, child abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, relationships, hygiene, first aid, climate change, the importance of education and staying in school, career choices, and business skills. Through equipping Kenya’s youngest generation with knowledge on these important topics, we believe that each individual now has the ability to change both their future and the future of their country. By inspiring young girls to fight for gender equality; by empowering young men to encourage their sisters, partners, mothers, and daughters to go for their dreams, enter politics, or start their own businesses; by addressing and breaking down the stigma surrounding illnesses, disabilities, and differences; my team and I have challenged thousands of young Kenyans to fight for a country of equality and reduced poverty.

Teaching business skills to traditional Maasai women was another big part of an ordinary week for me. Through translated conversations, facilitated by my Kenyan team mate, I was able to help teach a group of twenty-two women about business skills, the importance of saving, and book keeping when running a business. We also helped them set up a bank account with Kenya Women Finance Trust Bank, and worked alongside county government officials to get them access to a space within the local market to sell their business products. Furthermore, we taught them useful life skills such as first aid, soap making, spraying homes for bed bugs, and making fly traps. Through teaching these, we aimed to improve the quality of life for these women and their families, as well as giving them the tools to work towards building a brighter and more sustainable future for themselves.

“Sharing skills, changing lives” — VSO.

Through these weekly session, I learned that Maasai women carry out a very traditional role within the household — cooking, cleaning, and raising children are their main responsibilities. However, there are some women who have begun seeking their own job opportunities, in order to reduce the dependency they have on their husbands. This is something we were encouraging, because a rise in equal working opportunities and a reduction of women’s dependency on men will increase their worth within society and the economy, furthermore increasing gender equality. Yet, although this sounds achievable over time, it is crucial that the men are also educated on the positive effects of female education and empowerment. This is due to reports of increased domestic violence following women’s attempts to achieve independence and equality. Therefore, this is also something my team and I worked to address too. 

Additional events that we put on throughout the three months were community outreaches, community action days, and active citizenship days. For community outreaches, we visited marginalised communities to teach them vital life skills that will help improve their standards of living. For example, teaching mothers first aid, which we decided to run due to the tragic death of a local child which took place during our time in Loitokitok. Community action days involved large scale events, in which we reached out to hundreds of people to raise awareness on topics that are internationally recognised, such as International Women’s Day and World Health Day. Finally, active citizenship days happened once a week, where volunteers would run an educational talk on important topics that must be addressed in order to reach the sustainable development goals. For instance, gender equality, quality education, and sustainable agricultural practices were just a few. Seeing the hundreds of community members come together during these events was amazing, and my eyes were opened to the realisation of how big of an impact we were having on these individuals. It was through these moments that I received fresh revelations of how important development work is, and how much of an impact our actions can have on the lives of those in need who are lucky enough to receive it.

Reflection

Although development work was the focus on my trip, I was blessed with other aspects that made my time away so insanely special. Having an amazing host family, being a part of an incredible volunteer team, and receiving continual support from family and friends at home were some things were so important to me during my three month placement. Also, a special part of my ICS journey was falling in love with the work I was doing, and having the realisation that I wanted to make this a part of my everyday life. And that its something I could actually do! 

Reverse culture shock

Returning home from Kenya was, in fact, a step that I could’ve delayed for another few months…I was so sad to leave and felt so at home there. The goodbyes were emotional to say the least. I cried a lot. My mamma cried a lot. Us volunteers all cried a lot. And, to make the send off even more emotional, I was blessed with some gorgeous gifts — an amazing traditional Maasai shucka and earrings from my mamma, a stunning piece of Kenyan artwork from my grandma, and my counterpart, Monica, gave me her own necklace so I could always remember her. So, after copious hugs, more hugs, and even more hugs, we set off on our last drive through the giraffe laced African desert, wondering what we would all do without each other’s constant company in the UK.

A moving floor? Why do airports need a moving piece of floor, right next to a perfectly good other piece of floor? — My first thought when stepping into Heathrow Airport. 

In all honesty, struggling to adjust to the Western way of life was something I didn’t expect. But reverse-culture-shock is so real. I remember getting internally angry as I watched a woman loose her temper in a supermarket queue, just a day after I’d returned. I had to hold back my annoyance at her ungratefulness for even being able to be in the shop, let alone afford the amount of things she was buying. A few days later, I caught myself being completely shocked by a woman throwing her half-eaten food onto the floor, which her son then proceeded to copy and do with his own. 

“There’s people who can’t afford food,” I muttered under my breath. 

It was acts like this that really made me notice a difference between the attitudes of people around me…as well as my own! I was starting to notice little things that I never would’ve noticed before, things that were now shocking me and making me question myself and how much I take for granted. It was a big eye opener. 

Now, two months after leaving Kenya, I would like to say that I am more aware of appreciating things I never would have before. I remind myself when doing the mundane, ordinary things such as getting on a bus, buying myself a coffee, going to the beach, or even expressing my opinion within a conversation. Each are things that some people will never get the chance to do; they shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Thinking Ahead

My experience has inevitably given me a new perspective on life. It was from the revelation that even the smallest of actions can have the largest of impacts, that I realised the importance of the decisions I make in life and how they impact others. And this realisation has caused me to think more carefully about each choice I make. 

So, with this being said, I urge anyone reading this to notice how their actions can impact others. Every little thing you do has a consequence, and I pray that you would use your actions to better both yourself and those around you. Maybe that means volunteering with VSO? Maybe that means cutting down on single use plastic? Maybe that means petitioning for what you believe in? Or maybe it’s just being more aware of your influence in the world? 

Life’s too short to sit around and let the world fall apart right in front of our eyes. Lets do something about it.

If you are interested in volunteering with VSO, and you’re between the ages of 18-25 (to volunteer) or 23-35 (to volunteer as a team leader), you can apply online — https://www.vsointernational.org/volunteering.

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One Month in Kenya

Arriving

I’ve been in Kenya for a month. I can’t quite believe it but it’s true. From meeting the rest of the voluntary team, settling into life with my host family, and starting work within the community, so much has happened in the time I’ve been here. I’ve been working alongside 17 other volunteers – 7 UK and 10 Kenyan – within schools and women’s groups in marginalised areas surrounding Loitokitok, Kenya.

Training

It all started in Nairobi, where the UK volunteers met the Kenyan volunteers who we’d be working with. In total, our team is made up of 8 UK volunteers, 10 Kenyan volunteers, and 2 team leaders. Following our attempts to sleep off the travel tiredness and being eaten alive by mosquitos, we all bundled into a bus, with our luggage hauled and strapped onto the roof, and set off for our in-country training. For this, we found ourselves at a place called ‘Teen Ranch’, where we got to know each other whilst receiving training on the work we would be undertaking over the next 3 months. 

The training was intense but valuable. Our team leaders and placement supervisor, Yvonne, taught us about life in Kenya, the culture and customs, introduced the 6 different areas/towns we would be working in — both schools and women’s groups  (teams of women that have come together to try and support themselves and each other through life and the running of personal businesses) — and how to assess them to find solutions to their problems. We also found out more about the major issues being faced in these areas, which include: FGM (female genital mutilation), child marriages, early school drop outs, HIV/AIDS, gender inequality, low self-esteem and confidence, lack of awareness, acceptance and support surrounding diversity and disability. With all of these problems being prevalent within the 6 placement areas (Loitokitok, Kimana, Entonet, Namelok/Isinet, Entarara/Illasit, and Rombo), our roles as VSO volunteers is to combat these issues by supporting, teaching, and empowering children and women, to equip them with the skills and knowledge to improve their lives.

Getting a Kenyan family  

Following training, all volunteers were matched with a ‘counterpart’ – a  volunteer of a different nationality who we’d be living with for the next 3 months. This was something I was nervous about, but I couldn’t have been more relieved when I was matched to Monica – we get on amazingly well!

Once we had our new sisters and brothers, we headed to our new home town, Loitokitok, via matatus (a Kenyan form of public transport, which looks like a ‘mini  bus’ to us UKs) to meet our host families.

My host family is lovely! I have a Mama (Mama Helen), 17 year old sister (Helen), and 10 year old brother (Colins). Here in Kenya, Mothers are referred to as ‘Mama’, often followed by the name of their first child. This is why, despite being called Carol, our Mama is known as ‘Mama Helen’. 

Kenyan living

Settling into the Kenyan way of life has taken some time. Interactions, respect, politeness, relationships, food, time-keeping, language, and many other things are very different to that in the UK. Even after a month, I’m still finding myself surprised by things on a daily basis, but being open minded and ready to learn is allowing me to adapt quickly. 

Living situations are very different here. After walking down a winding dirt path, which weaves it’s way through corn fields, I find myself faced with a large wall of corrugated iron, fashioned into a giant square. These are  the walls to my compound. Walking through a hole in the iron barrier, a small path appears lined with closely built houses. The houses are short and small, with brick or wooden walls and iron roofs. My house is at the end of the path, which means I always get a warm welcome home from the neighbours as I pass their open doors. 

Space within our home is limited, so Monica and I share a room. As do my host siblings. The bathroom is not so much a bathroom but a bucket in the corner,  hidden by a curtain. And the toilet is an outdoor drop toilet (a hole in the ground), shared by all the homes in my compound. To be honest, I really don’t mind the bucket showers and squat toilet. The hardest bit about it was finding the best way to wash my hair, which has led to me just sticking my head into the bucket like an ostrich. 

The kitchen is small, but my Mama has managed to make use of the space by hanging things from the walls and stacking pots like she’s playing Tetris. To cook, we use a gas canister with a single ring. And when we need to cook multiple things at once, we use a jiko – a small, portable stove fuelled by burning charcoal. My Mama is a great cook, and every night she loves to teach me as I help her prepare the food. 

The first month of work 

Working in Kenya is both one of the toughest and most rewarding things I’ve ever done. The extreme poverty I’ve seen here constantly breaks my heart, whilst the joy and kindness of the people absolutely overwhelms me. The placement location I work in is called Kimana. This town is about a 20 minute drive from where I’m living in Loitokitok, so travelling to work each day requires getting a taxi or a matatu (a type of Kenyan public transport). I work with two other volunteers – Maya (UK volunteer) and Joshua (Kenyan volunteer) – and together we are working to help solve the problems faced within the 3 schools and 1 women’s group. 

On each visit to the schools and women’s group, the welcome never fails to amaze me. At the school, children run to us, holding out their hands to be shaken or hi-fived, shouting ‘how are you?’ whilst giggling and smiling from ear to ear. Children from Maasai tribes offer their bowed heads to be touched — a sign of respect to someone older than themselves. The fascination with mzungu (white person) skin and hair never ceases to disappear, and I find myself being constantly prodded and stroked when I’m in reaching distance of any little hands. School teachers are just as welcoming, declaring that  it’s “a blessing to have visitors”. Similarly, at the women’s group I’m blown away by the kindness and hospitality. My team and I are taken into the small tin homes and offered fresh milk and tea, with the women wanting to spend time getting to know us despite the language barrier. 

Within the primary and secondary schools, my team and I have carried out multiple peer education sessions on different topics – hygiene, relationships, self-acceptance, healthy living (including mental health), peer pressure, bullying, career choices and goal setting . VSO believe that ‘knowledge is power’. Therefore, by teaching the children important information and skills, we are able to empower and encourage them to use what they’ve learnt to create a change in their own lives. Unlike leaving them with material objects, knowledge offers a sustainable change which can be passed on for generations. 

At the women’s group, we have been working with 22 Maasai women to help improve their running of personal businesses and the daily struggle of supporting their families. Teaching them business, marketing and sales skills has been vital in equipping the women with tools to benefit their businesses. In turn, this will hopefully increase their incomes and, therefore, enable them to more easily provide their families with food and send their children to school. 

Moving Forward

With 2 months left in Kenya, I know there’s a lot more excitement, adventures, and challenges to come my way. It’s been full of surprises so far, and I know they won’t be stopping any time soon. I’m excited to see what more we can do for our placement schools and women’s group. As a team, we have a lot planned and have high hopes for the positive changes we will bring about within each of them. So, here’s to the next 2 months…

On Home Soil

Pre-placement preparation and internal thoughts.

Choosing to volunteer for VSO was an easy choice. After reading further into the work they do, I found out that VSO tirelessly strives to support and improve the quality of living in disadvantaged and poverty stricken communities all over the world. This is something I was so keen to be a part of. I wanted in. So I applied to volunteer for them. And that was just the beginning.

My journey with VSO began with an application. It was something I’d been mulling over for a long time; it was something I never really imagined would become a reality. I’ve submitted applications for voluntary organisations on multiple occasions, each time answering their replies with a blank stare of disbelief and a swift drag into my junk mail. It always felt like a huge commitment. One I  just couldn’t make. I would justify my rejection with ‘when would I go?’, ‘but I’m still in education’ and ‘it would just never happen’. So, when it came to my VSO application, I thought nothing of it. But with their first response, an invitation to an assessment day, I found myself unable to ignore their opening line: 

“Congratulations on taking your first step towards this once in a lifetime opportunity and challenging yourself to change your world.”

I was transfixed. This time, I couldn’t delete the email. I had to go, I just had to. So, I did.

Before I knew it, after responding to my invitation, I was travelling to London for an assessment day. It was an intense, day-long assessment and interview process, with around 30 other applicants joining me. The thought of this would normally be enough to make my stomach convulse like a hedgehog attempting to take cover within itself.  However, I felt excited. And the excitement didn’t ware off — meaning I loved every second of the endless group activities, discussions, and presentations that were hurled our way.

Following the assessment, within mere days, I received an email to congratulate me on being selected as a volunteer. I almost exploded with excitement! This was when I started to realise that I was actually doing it…after all those years of dreaming, I was finally seeing it come to life.

Next, I received details of my community placement location. Loitokitok, Kenya, it read. I squealed out loud. Since a young age, I’ve always had an interest in Kenya, with its Maasai community and exotic wildlife absolutely captivating me. So, the new reality of finally being able to visit stirred up 10 year old me’s uncontrollable elation. It was as if my whole childhood fascination and awe had been stored up in a jar and released all at once. I was SO ready for this! 

The next few months tumbled past in a blur. Fundraising, training, and more fundraising. It felt as thought I had both tonnes of time and no time at all. The fundraising part scared me. Firstly, because I knew nothing about fundraising and, secondly, because I hate asking people for money (even though it was for VSO and not myself). However, despite my nervousness, I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I reached my £800 target, and continually found myself amazed by people’s generosity. Amid the fundraising, I had to go to London for a three-day-long pre-placement training. It was a jam-packed and hardcore learning experience, but one which left me even more passionate (I didn’t know that was possible) about the work I would be doing in Loitokitok, Kenya.

Throughout each training day, I learnt more about VSO, Kenya, and what my daily life on placement may look like. This ranged from gaining further knowledge about VSO’s extensive international work, to learning protective and practical skills I will be using on placement — for example, how to sterilise drinking water, how to make my own rehydration drink, and how to perfect the tricky toilet squat position for Kenyan ground-hole toilets. Yep…this involved twenty-one volunteers practicing their squats in a meeting room. All squatting aside, the most valuable thing this training has left me with is a greater understanding of our own ability to bring about change within our lifetime. What a way to motivate someone to fundraise and volunteer, eh? 

With training and fund-raising all complete, packing was my last step before setting off for Loitokitok, Kenya. This was when it finally started to sink in: I’m packing 5 million plasters (well, that’s what it felt like)? Okay then. Will 4 bottles of suncream be enough for my pasty skin? Probably not. It’s going to rain in Kenya?! Yep, I’d picked Kenya’s rainy season. 

As the time got closer and closer, I thought I’d start to get more nervous. But that was the opposite of how I felt — instead, I found myself getting more and more excited (the complete opposite to my parents’ growing worry). I was surprised, because I’d always thought of it as such a huge thing to do on my own, and expected the nerves to be piling up by the minute. However, I was enjoying it. I’d never felt so ready to do something so far out of my comfort zone. But maybe, I was beginning to realise, it was that my comfort zone was much wider than I’d thought. Maybe I’d forced the idea of my capabilities into a small box, because then I could always see them and know what I could and couldn’t do. Thats better than diving into something head-first, not knowing if I could do it, right? No. Whats the point in only trying something because you know you won’t fail? I guess you’d never be disappointed, you’d always know you’d succeed, and you’d probably find satisfaction in getting a job well done. But that would mean never pushing yourself to be the best you can be, never surprising yourself with abilities you didn’t know you had, and never feeling pride over completing something you struggled with. Its subjective, but I know which ones I prefer. 

So, with that realisation, I took on the journey to Kenya with the mindset of ‘I don’t know what I can do, but I’m going to try damn hard at whatever it is. And I’m going to enjoy every second of it’.

Challenge Yourself to Change Your World

3 months in Kenya with VSO.

Finding out that I’d been selected to volunteer with VSO on an International Citizen Service placement in Loitokitok, Kenya, was a moment I will never forget. Thrilled was an understatement. I’d been impatiently awaiting news from VSO, after attending an assessment day, hoping the email would greet me with the warming ‘congratulations…’ rather than the patronisingly sympathetic ‘I regret to inform you…’. Luckily, I received the former — I’d been accepted onto a 3 month volunteer placement, starting at the end of January (23/1/2019). Working with VSO is something I feel passionate about. This non-profit organisation’s mission is to combat poverty within some of the most disadvantages communities across the world, focusing on bringing about sustainable change to the lives of those who need it most.

Within my placement, I will be working on an Inclusive Education programme. This project focuses on supporting vulnerable children and young adults by working in community-based organisations, schools and social enterprises. Within these organisations, my team and I will be working to improve the provision of inclusive education — increasing its availability to marginalised groups of people, regardless of age, gender, disability, language, religion, and social status — in order to provide Kenya’s youngest generation with the knowledge, skills, and ability to better their futures. This project is an incredibly important step to improving the future of Kenya’s youngest and the development of the country itself.

Throughout my placement (if the internet allows it), I will be posting updates of my experience and the work that we are doing in Loitokitok, Kenya. I can’t wait to see what’s in store! 

So, stick around if you’d like to hear all about it. I cant wait to share my journey with you…

 

Further information on VSO and its partner organisation ICS, follow the links below. 

https://www.volunteerics.org/

https://www.vsointernational.org/

Goldilocks’ Dream: Pink Porridge

Now, I’ve never been a fan of porridge. It’s something about the lumpy texture that has just always made me squirm. Not to mention the taste being so bland that I might as well be chewing on a wet flannel.

After many many many trial and error porridge-making-mornings, with years of continuously failing to make anything slightly bearable, I have FINALLY found the perfect recipe. Not to sound too dramatic but…this was a momentous occasion for me. Not only could I eat the whole thing, I ACTUALLY ENJOYED IT (I practically inhaled the whole bowl)!!! So, for all those porridge haters out there, why not give this a try? You might turn out to be a breakfast convert like me.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup of milk (any type)
  • ½ cup rolled oats
  • Juice from ½ a lemon
  • 1 tbsp Greek yoghurt
  • 1 tbsp Honey
  • 1 handful of raspberries (both fresh and frozen work well)
  • Cinnamon
  • Toppings of your choice (I used: blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, almond butter, chia seeds, and desiccated coconut)

Utensils:

  • Saucepan
  • Measuring cups
  • Wooden spoon
  • Table spoon

Directions:

  1. Add milk to the saucepan and heat on high until you it begins to boil
  2. Once bubbles begin to appear, turn the heat down to medium and add oats and a handful of raspberries
  3. Keep stirring the mixture, mashing up the raspberries with the spoon until it all turns pink (the more raspberries you add, the pinker it gets)
  4. As the mixture starts to thicken, add the yoghurt – this gives the porridge a smooth and creamy texture
  5. Add lemon juice, honey and cinnamon to taste
  6. Keep stirring the mixture until the consistency is to your liking
  7. Once the thickness is, as Goldilocks would say, ‘just right’, turn off the heat and leave to cool for 1 minute
  8. Transfer the porridge to a bowl and add your favourite toppings
  9. Enjoy!

South East Asia: a month on the road

Southeast Asia – a cocktail of fascinating culture, heavenly food, and postcard-perfect scenery – is a destination brimming with endless spots just waiting to be explored. Consisting of eleven countries, which stretch from Southeast India to China, Southeast Asia can provide every traveller with a diverse experience depending on the destinations and routes they choose to take.

For my sister and I, one-month of travelling was our time limit. This allowed us to visit Thailand and Vietnam, staying in each for 2 weeks. Now I know a WHOLE month may sound like a long time, but in a backpacker’s world this is no time at all! So, what we quickly learnt when planning our trip was that it’s best to visit less countries and explore them more thoroughly, rather than trying to visit as many places as possible and spending all of our time travelling between them. In this blog, I’ll describe our journey, where we went, and how we got to and from each place.

Thailand

Bangkok

Our journey started in Bangkok, Thailand – a built up city filled with buzzing traffic, delicious street food stalls, and an energetic night life. We began by flying into Suvarnabhumi Airport, one of Bangkok’s two international airports. We only stayed there for 2 nights, due to the recommendations of friends who told us they didn’t like Bangkok. So, on the assumption that we’d feel the same, we only stayed there briefly. This was a mistake. We soon realised that travellers’ opinions are subjective, because we loved Bangkok, and as city lovers it offered all we could’ve wanted: tonnes of cute cafés, restaurants serving amazing Thai food, an awesome range of bars with a great night life, and an electrifying hustle and bustle of people (this is what the majority of Bangkok haters don’t like). Unfortunately, the hostel we stayed in wasn’t what we were hoping for. We stayed in Sloth Hostel, situated just a 5-minute walk from the infamous Khao San Road. I would recommend this hostel if you are looking for friendly staff, breakfast included in the room price, and a quiet and more chilled atmosphere.

One thing to always check when staying in hostels is the check-in and check-out times (check-in is usually between 12-2pm and check-out between 9am-11am). If your arrival or departure times don’t work too well with the check-in/out times, hostels are pretty good at accommodating guests’ needs by offering somewhere for them to hang out until their rooms are ready. Hostels also tend to have a luggage room or area in which you can leave your bags while you kill time by exploring your new destination. My sister and I never had any problems when leaving our luggage and we found it to be pretty safe. However, you leave your belongings at your own risk, and hostels do not take responsibility for any damage or loss.

Chiang Mai

After our short stop in Bangkok, we caught a Grab taxi (via the Grab app) to the train station and then took a night train to Chiang Mai. We booked our train on the 12Go Asia website, on which you can book all types of travel around Southeast Asia. We found that we preferred the ‘no plan is the best plan’ approach (again, just personal preference), so booked all our travel tickets about a day or two in advance via the 12Go Asia website or at the check-in desks of most hostels (when travelling in peak backpacking seasons, make sure to book a little more in advance, as hostels fill up quicker).

6am. I woke to the mechanical, yet gentle, rocking of the train as it moved swiftly through the Thai countryside. The 13-hour journey was nearly over, and I’d actually enjoyed myself a lot more than anticipated; the bed was the comfiest I’d had, we met some lovely people, and the journey felt just a few hours because of sleeping through the majority of it. At 7am, we arrived in Chiang Mai and took a songthaew – a red truck which is like a communal taxi – for 50 Bhat each, to our next hostel. These trucks wait just outside the train station, so you can hop straight in one when you step outside.

Our hostel was called Jungala House, which we booked through the Hostel World app, and we stayed in a double room for 11 Bhat a night. This place was less of a hostel, however, as it was a complex of shared rooms with no real social area. We found the rooms to be basic, broken and dirty, however, it was all that we needed, and we found it to be sufficient for just sleeping in. Despite the lack of cleanliness, the location we stayed in was perfect! Situated in the Old City, a budget and backpacker friendly segment of Chiang Mai, we were plentifully surrounded by restaurants, cafés, bars, clubs, and temples. As well as an infinite variety of day trips, sight-seeing adventures, and guided tours that can be booked from any hostel or small tourist shop throughout the city.

Pai

Following our stay in Chiang Mai, we headed North to Pai – an Asian version of, what I can only describe as, a small hippy-like Western town. We travelled here by minibus, via the 12GoAsia app website. In short, the journey was a 3-hour corkscrew through the Northern Thai mountains, with enough twists and turns to make pretty much anyone feel sick. So, if you get travel sick, DEFINITELY take a travel sickness pill!

We fell in love with Pai. Whether we were admiring the stunning view from Pai Canyon, swimming in waterfalls, or visiting a rabbit café…that’s right, A CAFÉ FULL OF RABBITS…we we’re blissfully aware of our hearts pleading with us to make Pai our home. We stayed in a 12-bed dorm, in The Famous Circus Hostel, for £5.74 per night (per person). When first arriving in Pai, you can call the hostel and they’ll pick you up for free in their ‘taxi’ (or, as we liked to call it, a rickety motorbike side cart). This hostel was an experience in itself, with the majority of people being on some kind of drug and fabulously flinging a rug, hula hoop, or flaming torch around in the air. This was something that my sister and I found both hilarious and captivating, as we don’t get involved with either activity, so often found ourselves laughing at some weird, yet wonderful, behaviours. The “chilled” ((holds up fingers in a peace sign)) vibe was something we didn’t mind, however if you aren’t the type to feel comfortable in these environments then this hostel isn’t for you.

Chiang Mai

As our final Thai destination, we popped back to Chiang Mai for a few days, where we waited for our flight out to Hanoi, Vietnam. We booked the return minibus to Chiang Mai through our hostel’s reception, just one day prior to leaving. Once back in Chiang Mai, we stayed in Mad Monkey Hostel for around £6 each. We found this hostel to be slightly quiet, as it was undergoing construction, but felt as though it would be a lively scene during peak season.

On the day of our flight, we caught a Grab taxi (via the Grab app) to the airport, from which we flew to Hanoi, Vietnam.

Vietnam

Hanoi

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Arriving in Vietnam was, unfortunately, more stressful than expected. Despite feeling prepared for how we would fund our travels through the country, we found ourselves stuck in the airport for hours because of not being about to withdraw any money from the airport cashpoints. Finally, we realised this was because we were trying to withdraw too much at once – the most you can withdraw is 2,000,000 Vietnamese Dong (VNG), which is £68.25, so we ended up having to make multiple transactions throughout our time in the country.

Once we’d figured out the Vietnamese cash machines, after hours of stressing and nearly bursting into tears, we made our way out of the airport exit towards the bus stops, situated just outside the doors. For 35,000 VND we got on a bus to the Centre, where we’d booked into the hostel Central Backpackers Original. I advise, however, staying in Central Backpackers Downtown (the sister hostel) for a livelier social scene and an actual communal area. The cost to stay in both of these includes breakfast…which is always a bonus.

Exploring Hanoi, for my sister and I, wasn’t our favourite. Unlike all of the love-struck descriptions of Hanoi that we’d heard, we found the city to be overwhelming and suffocating, and its people to be aggressively pushy. The first Vietnamese people we spoke to were two women selling food – they forced items into our hands, taking our phones to capture the moment, and then refused to let us leave (by physically holding our arms) without buying anything. On top of this, the heavens opened, releasing an outpouring of torrential rain, which turned our ‘leisurely wander’ into a battle to see 5 meters in front of us.

On returning to our hostel, we booked a trip out to Ha Long Bay – a world heritage site, consisting of 1,696 stunning rock formations scattered throughout Vietnam’s breath-taking northern sea – which I would absolutely recommend visiting. The trip we booked was called the ‘Hideaway Tour’ and cost £70 each for 2 days and 1 night. This price covered all transport, food, and accommodation. The tour began with a 2-hour coach, a short boat ride, and another 40-minute coach. You then reach the Hideaway Boat, on which you sail around the majestic islands of Ha Long Bay, enjoy a buffet style lunch, and meet your fellow islanders for the night. After a few hours of jumping from the decks into the pristine waters and exploring an isolated island beach (if you fancy the challenge of swimming from the boat), you are taken to a private island, which becomes your home for the night. Following an ‘island party’, the next morning offers a guided kayaking trip into the bay, allowing you to explore, for yourself, the mighty limestone pillars which make Ha Long such a famous tourist attraction. After this, and not to mention another awesome buffet lunch, we headed back to Hanoi.

On recommendation of our fellow islanders, who all came from Central Backpackers Downtown, we booked into their hostel for one final night in Hanoi. This was 10 times better than Central Backpackers Original. The following day, we booked tickets for a 10-hour night bus to Phong Nah, scheduled for a 6pm departure which ended up being 7pm. We booked and paid for these at the hostel’s reception, with the transport costing roughly £19 each.

Phong Nha

Arriving at 5am, despite the disorientation from having just woken up, was so exciting! We stepped off the bus into the welcoming warmth of the dark night and headed for our hostel, East Tiger. This hostel is unlike any others we stayed in – you won’t find it online or via apps like Hostel World. It’s only through word of travelling mouths that their email address is passed around, by which you can contact them to book a bed. Easy Tiger was the one and only hostel recommended to us by everyone we met that’d already been to Phong Nha. And, like those we met, I would undoubtedly persuade anyone travelling there to book into this hostel. Double beds, hammocks, swimming pools, hostel dogs, bicycle and motorbike rentals, information talks, organised tours, on site kitchen, on site bar, drink happy hours, pool table, live music…you name it, Easy Tiger has it. What more could you want? Email easytigerphongnha@gmail.com for booking requests.

Phong Nha itself is another level of cool, with both beauty and quirkiness appearing side by side to offer an unusually unique experience. Whether you’re interested in visiting awe-inspiring caves, riding motorbikes through the emerald-leaved mountains of the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park or visiting a duck farm and a buffalo named Donald Trump, you’ll want to give yourself a few days to explore. I’d recommend staying no less than 2 days, but no more than 4. Bicycle and motorbikes are available to hire from Easy Tiger Hostel at a very cheap price and will be your main form of transport around Phong Nha. Motorbikes cost 90,000 VND (£3) to rent for half a day and 150,000 VND (£5) for a full day. An option of hiring an ‘easy rider’ is also there for those who don’t want to drive a motorbike but would like to ride on the back of one with an experienced driver.

Before moving on, I can’t skip mentioning my favourite café – The Bamboo Café. Make sure you visit this little gem! It’s just across the street from Easy Tiger Hostel, serving amazing coffee and food, as well as being a completely plastic free establishment. My sister and I visited with friends on multiple occasions, as we loved it so much.

The night before leaving, we booked a 4-hour bus to Hue for the next day. We booked this from Lynn’s Homestay, just a 2-minute walk down the road from Easy Tiger, due to Easy Tiger not offering transport bookings.

Hue

Hue, located 430 miles south of Hanoi and in the centre of Vietnam, was the previous capital city between the years of 1803 and 1945. Richly laced with history, Hue is recognised as one of the World Heritage Sites by UNESCO (United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization). Unfortunately, due to sickness, my sister and I didn’t get to explore the city at all. Instead, we were bed ridden for 3 days and, by the time we felt better, we had to move on so we would stay on schedule and not miss our flights home. During this time, we stayed in Khe Sanh Homestay (booked via Hostel World) – run by the most hospitable and accommodating people we’d met. We were even offered complimentary fruit and jasmine tea on arrival! From what we found, instead of the usual abundance of hostels, homestays were in the majority throughout Hue.

Hai Van Pass (from Hue to Hội An)

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Travelling to Hoi An was an adventure in itself. And what an adventure it was. After hiring some ‘easy riders’ from our accommodation, we set off on a day long journey down the infamous Hai Van Pass (as seen on the British show ‘Top Gear’) to reach the quaint city of Hội An. We were driven by experienced motorbike drivers, who took both us and our backpacks, stopping off at multiple viewpoints, activities, and food stops along the way.
The journey cost 38 US Dollars, which included entry fees to some stop off points – the Elephant Springs and Marble Mountains. If you are a solo traveller, I suggest finding someone/some people to do this journey with. There will undoubtedly be others making the same trip as you, so you’d easily find them by just asking around your homestay. It would still be amazing on your own, I don’t doubt that, but having people to share the excitement with, having company at the stop off points, and just being able to enjoy the experience with someone else, makes the trip that little bit more enjoyable (in my opinion). My sister and I planned to go together but ended up in a group of 6. It was the best thing we did!

Hội An

Without a doubt, Hội An, which translates to “peaceful meeting place”, was my favourite stop in Vietnam. Arriving there was an enchanting experience, with the well-preserved ancient town offering a captivating fusion of history and diverse cultural architecture, due to its previous role as a major trading port between the 15th and 19th Century. This town’s former life resulted in its current mixture of colonial French buildings, Vietnamese tube houses, traditional Chinese-style temples and wooden shophouses, and the well-known and well-loved Japanese Covered Pagoda Bridge. Interviewed amongst all this, canals snake their way through the town in a stunningly obtrusive style, encouraging by-passers to take to the water via canal boats. And at night, the liquid mirror transforms into a stream of coloured light, as lanterns flood the streets and waters.

For our time in Hội An, we stayed in the Sunflower Hostel. We found the rooms to be our least favourite of all hostels we stayed in, however the lively social areas and free buffet-style breakfast made up for what the bedrooms lacked.

During your stay in Hội An, be sure to try the local dishes. Cao lầu, wontons, bahn xeo, and white rose dumplings (banh bao vac) are just a few mouth-watering options. Visit Hội An Deli Café & Restaurant for an unbeatable Cao Lau (a unique noodle dish with sweet chewy noodles, pork, crackling, fresh greens and herbs). Another must-see attraction, specific to Hội An, is the night market. This is no ordinary market. This is the most beautiful market you will ever see. With streets and canals brimming with traditional Vietnamese lanterns, you’ll feel as though you’re walking through a scene from the Disney movie ‘Tangled’ (google ‘Tangled lantern scene’ if you have no clue what I’m talking about). Trust me you won’t regret it.

One thing I must add is that I found Hội An to be a strange place in the late evenings. Markets and shops close early, locals go home or disappear, and the streets become eerily quiet. Please be vigilant at these times. Lone tourists can become vulnerable, and reports of motorbike muggings have been made at these hours. After warnings about this from hostel staff and fellow backpackers, my sister and I chose to get a taxi home from the night market. This cost us 25,000 VND (under £1), which we bartered for on recommendation of our hostel staff who told us that it should cost 20,000-30,000 VND. With all this said, no one we met had any bad experiences.

Ho Chi Minh City

Skipping the majority of Southern Vietnam, we travelled from Hội An to Ho Chi Minh City. However, to get to the nearest airport in Da Nang, we had to get a 30-minute taxi. We booked this at the Sunflower Hostel reception for roughly 11 USD. Our flight from Da Nang was 1 hour and cost us £50 (which we booked only a few days prior).

Arriving in Ho Chi Minh, we were met by an effervescent whirlwind of life. Hundreds upon hundreds of motorbikes lurched down the streets in a blurred cry of honking horns and revving engines, whilst crowds of people filled the bustling pavements of the stuffy-aired city. With such a stark contrast to Hội An’s gentle demeanour, I was surprised by Ho Chi Minh’s modern and ‘westernised’ appearance, with its tall skyscrapers and fancy glass front shops reminding me of London. However, a pleasant satisfaction came from knowing this mean the city has a lot to offer. Museums, markets, cafés, restaurants, bars, clubs, shops, temples, churches…the list goes on.

Our accommodation in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1 was disappointing and I’d highly recommend not following in our footsteps. We chose Vietnam Guide Home, which was extremely quiet, had no social area, and the bedrooms smelt like mould. We booked this via the Hostel World app. Reaching our hostel was easy, however, with a bus stopping just outside the airport exit. A bus ticket cost 20,000 VND (67p). There is a short walk to the hostel from the nearest bus stop, which we navigated by the help of Maps.me. Again, I would not recommend staying in this hostel, but would suggest staying in another hostel in the same area.

Leaving for the airport was both familiar and surreal. Due to getting so many flights over the past month, it just felt normal. Yet, knowing it was taking us back to England was the strangest sensation. We ordered a grab taxi via the Grab app and it cost 84,000 VND. The taxi driver tried to charge us an extra 15,000 on arrival, due to accidentally driving through a car park and being charged. You should know that, once you get into a Grab Taxi, drivers cannot charge you extra money because of the price being arranged at the start of the trip. You can refuse to pay any additional costs, as we did, and the driver has no right to make you pay it.

After two flights, we reached England. Cold and mundane…but we were full of excitement. Excited to share our stories. Excited to plan more trips. And excited to explore our home city with the new found curiosity that we never knew we’d come home with.

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Thailand and Vietnam are amazing. I beg you, put them on your bucket list. You won’t regret it.

‘The Famous Granola Bar’ Recipe

Within my family, I am known for being the maker of ‘the famous granola bars’ – deliciously satisfying, yet healthy, treats made from complete scratch. So, whether you’re looking for something to quiet the growls of your hungry stomach, or a quick ‘grab something as you run out the door’ kind of snack, these slices of goodness are simply perfect. Here’s how you can make them…

Ingredients

  • Rolled oats
  • Golden syrup
  • Nut butter (peanut butter/almond butter/cashew butter)
  • 1/3 cup of Walnuts
  • 1/3 cup of Pistachios
  • 1/3 cup of Almonds
  • 1/3 cup of Cashews
  • 1/3 cup of Pecans
  • 1 cup of Medjool dates
  • 1 cup of raisins or sultanas
  • 1/2 cup of dried apricots
  • 1/3 cup of dried cranberries
  • Desiccated coconut flakes

Utensils

  • Measuring cups (1 cup, 1/2 cup, 1/3 cup)
  • Large knife
  • Metal spoon
  • Parchment paper
  • Large baking tray
  • Medium baking tray
  • Large cooking pot

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees
  2. Measure out a 1/3 cup of each type of nut – this recipe works with any type of nuts, so you can use whichever ones you like best
  3. Chop the nuts into small pieces
  4. Spread the chopped nuts across a large baking tray
  5. Measure 3 cups of oats and add them to the baking tray, making sure they’re mixed in with the nuts and spread out evenly
  6. Roast the nut and oat mixture in the oven for 10 minutes
  7. After 10 minutes, remove the baking tray and let it cool whilst continuing with steps 8-13
  8. Measure 1 cup of dates, 1 cup of raisins, 1/2 cup of apricots, 1/3 cup of cranberries
  9. Check if the dates have stones in and, if so, remove them all
  10. Chop the dates and dried fruit into small pieces
  11. Measure 1 cup of golden syrup and 1 table-spoon of nut butter into a large cooking pot
  12. On the stove, heat the syrup and nut butter on a low-medium heat, until it thins to a runny consistency
  13. Turn off the heat
  14. Add the oat and nut mixture and the dried fruit to the golden syrup and mix until all oats are fully coated with syrup
  15. Line the medium baking tray with parchment paper
  16. Pour the mixture onto the parchment paper and spread out evenly, ensuring no gaps or corners are left uncovered
  17. Using the rounded back of the metal spoon, press the granola mixture into the tray – this compacts the mixture, so the finished granola bars will hold their shape
  18. Sprinkle desiccated coconut flakes across the top and press down lightly with the metal spoon
  19. Put baking tray in the freezer for 30 minutes
  20. After the 30 minutes, remove the tray and cut the granola into square or rectangle shaped bars
  21. Store in an air-tight container and refrigerate
  22. ENJOY!

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