For decades the people of Dal Lake, its houseboat community and wider Srinagar inhabitants, have been witness to many of their lakes becoming polluted beyond repair. Now, Dal Lake is on the brink of an environmental disaster with huge economic, social, cultural and ecological repercussions that not only threaten the prevailing way of life for the local community, but also foreshadows the demise of natural habitats across India and worldwide.
I have always loved travelling: exploring new places, experiencing new cultures and meeting new and wonderful people. For me, travelling on my own heightens my experiences of these new places, cultures and people. That is why I am currently planning a road trip in the USA. It will just be me, on my own, bumping into family and friends along the way. I want space not only to see new things and meet new people, but also have the space to make art. I feel like being alone in a new place with new cultures and people will help me make that art.
However, whenever I plan such lone wolf trips my parents panic:
‘I don’t like you travelling on your own’
‘It’s not safe… Especially at night in a strange country as a woman’
To be fair it is not unusual for parents to be concerned of their child’s welfare and safety. It is human nature and a caring instinct for many parents. But it is that last comment that stabs anger into the back of my head every single time it is mentioned…
…‘As a woman’.
This anger has got me wondering a lot of things…
If my brother decided to go travelling on his own, would they make similar concerns known to him? Now of course they would worry for his safety, but would they announce that these fears concern his sex, ‘as a man’? Their concerns would not even consider his gender, only that he is out on his own in a new place where they cannot protect him.
If I had not previously been sexually assaulted whilst on my own in a new place, would they voice their concerns about me as a woman out at night? They probably would. But maybe their worries would not anger me so or make me feel even more vulnerable as a woman, who has already experienced loss of control and power to a man, living in this world.
This gender bias is not something that is limited to lone wolf travellers exploring the globe. It is not just about being in a new place with new cultures and new people. We must remember that this worry and vulnerability is something many, if not most, women experience when travelling in their own country, town or even their own home.
This needs to change.
Travelling, and even simply living in your own home, should be safe for all – no matter your race, gender, sexual orientation and so on. Everyone has a right to feel free to move, to not have their paths blocked, and to not let societal expectations and roles define whether someone is too vulnerable or weak to choose to travel as a lone wolf. Everyone has the right to explore new places, experience new cultures and meet new people just as YOU and not as your gender.
I worry that the current state of our unstable world will hinder this possibility.
I know that this is all very idealistic. The world is a far cry from safe for anyone, anywhere at anytime. But we should not see lone wolf travellers as male and therefore inherently strong. Men can be weak and vulnerable too – let them be weak and vulnerable! Furthermore, let those seen as stereotypically vulnerable in society be seen as strong, travelling lone wolves too, even if they are just travelling on their own to their local shops!
Without accepting that women, and those seen as weak, should occupy and travel in space without fearing for their safety then we are letting them be tainted by the so-called vulnerability that society places on genders that aren’t solidly male, masculine or ‘normal’.
I want a time where I do not have to carry a rape safety whistle with me everywhere I go. I want a time where I do not have to pre-plan my route home, where I can wander in new places without constantly checking behind my back. I want a world where travelling on your own as a woman is not seen as a ‘lone travelling wolf, who also happens to be a woman’, but simply just a lone wolf travelling because of their love for places, cultures and people.
I will fight for this. I hope you too will join me in this fight and share your own views on this matter.
Part of why Thailand attracts so much foreign tourism is down to its exotic and natural beauty. Beauty that in the last twenty years has helped boost its economy significantly. However, in many cases these inherently magnificent sights are overshadowed by the thousands of hostels, bars and other infrastructure that is needed to cater for such an industry. It is this sort of development that is constantly susceptible to overconsumption, to a point where the aesthetic romanticism of such landscapes are overwhelmed by relentless tourism that can bear heavily on the environment and its inhabitants. Places such as Koh Phi Phi, Phuket, and other crowded southern islands are an apt example of this. Still, not everywhere has been engulfed just yet. Laemsak, an isolated village in the south, is one of those.
I have been volunteering here for three weeks now, teaching English to the local community for a project that aims to bring community-based tourism to the locals in order to have a fair share of Thailand’s growing capital that hasn’t yet managed to reach them. An advantage of my role is being offered excursions to locations that not many other visitors have been before – free of charge! The catch? There are cameras following to capture the action and promote community-based tourism in the area. I can only assume that a show of my foreign genetics is a way of showing other tourists that this is a place worth seeing.
And so I have been torn between contributing to locals that want to gain economically from an established industry elsewhere, and the uncertainty that it may just expand hideously and tarnish the aesthetic of Thailand’s remaining beauty. My reluctance to deny the desires of my new friends who so desperately want to put themselves on the global map – and rightly so – causes me to agree to this latest adventure. In essence, today I am a guinea pig running the wheel that no other tourist has ran before. We embark on a new route, a trial run for future tourists, and what we are about to discover will be a surprise even to the locals and cameramen following.
After waking up at 6am and driving north for a while, myself and four colleagues (Teo, Sutima, Natalie and Jamie) arrive at a small pier on the river near Ban Lui. We climb onto a Longtail boat at 7am with a driver and a local cameraman. Five minutes down the river we stop at a floating fishing village where our cameraman jumps from our boat into a different one. The identical vessel is complete with a driver, two other crew members from the village, and three canoes squeezed on deck in which they sit. They come from three different villages, and so their coalition is based around this tour which would collectively provide money to all involved communities – community-based tourism. The drivers rev the huge engines, submerge the propellers, and speed away from the fishery down the widening river.
As subjects we were given no instructions, although I had already assumed the appropriate attitude for my role. Chill and enjoy as a tourist would – especially when it’s free. I lay comfortably on the nose of the boat as the sun begins to peak over the surrounding mountains. Its illuminating light gives life to the flourishing and tangled greenery that climbs up the mountains on either side of the river. We are the only boat on the river for kilometres, besides the camera boat that has been weaving from one side to the other to catch the best angle. Soon enough, even that becomes a ghost that blends in as a picturesque silhouette on the canvas of rural, untouched Thailand.
We continue around a curve until our boat slows at the sight of a few figures in the middle of the river. As we get closer I notice they are the shoulders and heads of local fishermen. Their bodies are submerged as their arms dig deep, only re-emerge again with shrimp, crab or other creatures clenched in their hands. Each catch is thrown into a basket that is wrapped around their torso. I look to my right and watch as a single bamboo seems to drift past. Upon closer inspection I notice the bamboo stilts on which it sits only a few inches above the water. Detached from the land and only accessible by boat, it is the only structure visible for the entire day after passing the fishery.
Soon we become enclosed on both sides by bicycle tyres that are strung together by sticks and rope anchored into the thick muddy riverbed. Some tyres are partially buried beneath, some hove above water level, all confuse me as to their purpose. Fortunately, Sutima – local to the area – is able to explain that these are Oyster farms. The tyres are immersed in water twice a day due to the rise and fall of the Andaman tide. Eggs released by oysters near the mountain float down the river and attach themselves to anything they can – including bicycle tyres. Here they are able to grow before being harvested by fishermen. The tyres run for hundreds of metres until we come to a small sandy island in the centre of the river.
We dock on the shore and jump off, unwittingly stepping onto an island inhabited by thousands of red crabs scuttling about. They move in their masses and split as we approach. Some of the younger crabs become stranded at the sudden sight of us alien visitors, so they rapidly dig in a downwards spiral to hide beneath the sand. Noticing this as an obvious sign of intrusion, we decided to board the Longtail once more and carry on down the river, leaving the cast of crabs in peace.
Eventually, we come to an opening of a sprawling mangrove forest. We had travelled 20 kilometres down the river, and finally it was time to use the canoes that had been squeezed into the identical boat at the floating fishing village. We both cut our engines and the crew lift the canoes into the water for us to clamber into. Teo and I share one, Natalie and Jamie climb into another, and the cameraman and his driver occupy a third as we set off into the undergrowth of the mangrove.
Now, with no spluttering engine to spoil the silent serenity, this really feels like a hidden paradise. Even more so than the seclusion we had been experiencing for the past couple of hours. The sun flickers through the leaves above and onto the spider-like roots of trees that stretch sporadically, from the suspended trunks into the riverbed below. We weave in and out of the maze, watching in awe as mudskippers ripple across the water’s surface. The tiny fish below our canoe distract us and we become stranded on the shallow waters. But the warmth of the river is inviting enough for me to get out and pull our canoe into slightly deeper water. After half an hour of breathing in the fresh sea air that emanates from up ahead, we reach our Longtail boat which had taken an alternative route.
Back on deck with the Andaman sea now in full view, we turn around head back towards the pier. Our promotional excursion was almost at an end – or so everybody thought. As I bask once again on the nose of the Longtail boat in the setting sun, reflecting on how gloriously exclusive the river has been, the engine suddenly cuts out. A serene silence blesses us once more. I look up at the cameraman who is now stood at the rear of the boat, staring intently a hundred metres to the side. I follow his eye line to the water and catch a glimpse of a what I initially think is a large fish momentarily surfacing. A couple of seconds later, just off to the right, it appears again. This time I see its pink head and shiny grey back elegantly rise and fall, and its heart shaped tail flick up before diving below once more.
This is no fish. What we are witnessing is an Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphin, more commonly known as a pink dolphin. In fact, we begin to notice a entire pod of about six pink dolphins working in harmony with a small fishing boat on the river rounding up their food. I was soon made aware as to why the driver and other locals seem just as surprised as us. These mammals are some of the rarest animals in the world, and it is a first sight for them as it is for us. We stay to watch them surface for air and spit water as they released air from their blow holes. I had never seen a dolphin before, and felt amazed that my first time is seeing them now, in the wild, in such an untouched part of Thailand. However, my amazement soon turns to concern as I am reminded of my purpose on this boat by the sound of a clicking camera behind me.
The cameraman is eagerly trying and catch the moment a foreign tourist watches as pink dolphins frolic about from the close proximity of his friend’s boat. This is a potential goldmine opportunity that he did not want to miss. And I was his guinea pig from which tourism would soon follow. After other areas have seen the influx of wealth flow in, it is understandable and justified for secluded communities such as this to want a piece of the moneycake. And to criticise this would make myself a huge hypocrite. However, after a day of being surrounded by genuine culture and raw nature, unscathed by the sprawling effects of tourism, my mind sits uneasily at the prospect of tourism completely consuming another beautiful part of the world.
As a tourist, it seems there is little escaping the chance of negative contribution. This is a concern that unfortunately comes simultaneously with exposing myself to cultural differences in order to understand diversity within the world, and wanting to help a community weigh in on the incoming capital. And so I feel it is important to draw attention to that. However, in light of wanting to enjoy the beauty and romanticism of the breath-taking landscape that surrounds me, I lay back down and relax. As our boat rocks gently on the water, my mind casts back to a fitting quotation by Scott Fitzgerald that I once read back in secondary school. “We beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”. On one hand we are all entitled to benefit from tourism whether that is economically or culturally, yet at the same time we desperately desire to hold onto the exclusive serenity of beautiful and undisturbed places such as this that may one day become a memory. I can only hope that my input here will be put to healthy use and not overuse.
During my first couple of days in Kolkata, everybody looked at me dumbfounded when I said: “no, I’m not staying for Durga Puja.” Their faces would bounce into expressions of abject disbelief, scrunch up with confusion, or even contort into practical disgust. After enough of these reactions, I decided to stay for the festivities.
Puja is a Hindu celebration of the religion’s mother goddess, the ten-armed and three-eyed Durga. It lasts for ten days in total, where families gather together to ‘eat, drink and be merry’, much like how those of us in the West do at Christmas. Bengal is particularly famous for getting into the spirit so, being the capital, Kolkata goes into practical meltdown for the main days of the celebration. Anyone who can take off all ten days does, to make sure they’re free to fully immerse themselves in Puja, and often the Ganges as well.
As people made their last minute preparations, the streets became an absolute blur of traffic, while markets and shops absolutely swarmed with shoppers. If you’re from Britain, imagine the Next sale, but it’s like that everywhere. Police man every street crossing, actually using rope to herd shoppers behind like cattle, before lifting it when they’re allowed to pass. The noise of car horns is incessant, and it amazed me I didn’t see a single crash whilst I was there.
The crowds, however, are much more inviting than you might imagine. With the sparkling lights and the smell of street food and chai intoxicating everyone’s nostrils, it’s hard not to be swept up into high spirits. The Hindu religion is one which teaches compassion and at its core is the belief in treating people well. Everywhere I went I felt welcomed.
All over the city, every area has its own Pandal, a temporarily constructed temple of sorts, each vibrantly and distinctly decorated, all seemingly in competition with one another to be the best. These host statues of the idols, with the goddess Durga taking prime position in the centre. These incredible structures take months to plan, design, and build, then are open for just four days, before being deconstructed. In each the artwork is distinct, with each year a new theme being used by each, unlike the old nativity scenes and beat up trees dragged out annually in Britain.
This combination of modern art work and worship is something I’ve never witnessed before, and, at least on this scale, seems distinctly unique to Kolkata. Whether a devote Hindu, a die-hard agnostic, or whatever else, the temporary masterpieces which are created are unbelievably impressive to see. The knowledge that they are purely temporary makes them all the more special too. Unlike anything placed in a gallery or reprinted to be put on the walls of millions of people across the globe, you know only a select number of people can see these. The dedication of the artists to something which is ultimately fleeting and ephemeral makes you feel truly lucky to see it.
At night, groups of all ages go ‘Pandal hopping’ until the early hours of the morning, and you’ll find people at the largest ones 24-hours-a-day. Ceremonial drums are played intermittently, timed to welcome the gods each morning and to thank them each evening. This sound of steel percussion encapsulates the fever of Puja, and players are even inclined to jump into the crowds to whip up a frenzy of dancing from the revellers. I spent from 6:00pm to 6:00am hopping around on the first night, and saw but a tiny selection of what was on offer. Then over the coming days I visited many more but still couldn’t even make a dent in the total number.
For any fan of partying, the intoxicating vibe of being surrounded by people, and general good times, Durga Puja is a must visit spectacle at least once in a life time. Added to this, any lover of art and culture will also relish the sights around the city. The lights, the paintings and the sculptures are all mesmerising in their own ways.
Now I’ve been once, I’m sure I will again. I can see why the locals practically insisted I stayed, as I’d insist that anyone who heads to India while Durga Puja is happening goes to Kolkata. Because if you miss a Puja, there’ll never be another one quite like it again.
When you cross the border from Northern Ireland into the Republic, it’s surprisingly clear that you are in a separate country. Road signs look different, each paired with its own Gaelic translation, just to remind you that you are in fact in Ireland, despite the fact that nobody speaks Gaelic anymore. The accents are stronger, the houses are fancier and a trip to Ireland is not complete without mistakenly using your Great British pounds instead of the Euro.
Nevertheless, the countryside is breathtakingly beautiful. I took a trip to County Kerry, which is situated in the South West of Ireland. There were twelve of us on the trip, so we stayed in a big country house which had everything you might need – except enough towels for everyone and a working toaster – but it did overlook miles (sorry, kilometres) of fields, mountains and farmland. I quickly became accustomed to the friendly wake up call from the cows in the neighbouring field.
The closest town was Killarney, which has always been a popular tourist destination as the start of the Ring of Kerry, a scenic drive of 179 kilometres along the coast. However, since December 2015, it has become particularly well frequented with Star Wars fans, as the final scene in the new film, The Force Awakens, was filmed on Skellig Michael Island, which can be seen clearly from the Ring of Kerry.
Killarney is also home to a magnificent National Park, which was the first ever created in Ireland. Here visitors can get a boat trip across the Lakes of Killarney, stopping off at a small island called Innisfallen, where there are ruins of a monastery from the early Middle Ages.
There are also jaunting carts, or horse-driven carts, which take visitors on a tour of the park. Our driver had a particularly strong accent and spoke incredibly fast. Myself and my very English mother and sister had a little trouble understanding what he was saying at times. His response to this was: ‘if I’m talking to fast, listen quicker.’ He also commented that he was ‘looking for a wife,’ and ‘any man’s wife will do.’ Delightful.
However, the tour was very interesting and gave us the opportunity to see some brilliant views, although we probably could have seen these same views on foot if only we weren’t so lazy.
The National Park is also home to the Torc Waterfall, which you can reach by climbing an almost unnecessarily steep flight of steps. Needless to say, I was glad to reach the top, but was the view worth the sweaty red face, painful cramp and aching limbs? That’s for you to decide.
There are also some very beautiful beaches in County Kerry. Inch Beach (I know, who thinks of these names?) was my personal favourite. Swimming in the sea is truly magical, as you are surrounded by the mountains, dotted with cottages. It’s so far from the city, from the noise of the traffic that it’s quite surreal to swim there. Honestly, it’s reassuring to know that these places still exist, and not everywhere has been overtaken by housing developments or motorways.
Another stunning beach was Rossbeigh, which would definitely be a great beach for families with children, as the sand dunes are perfect for sliding down on a body board (you know, if you’re into that.)
All in all, Ireland is truly beautiful. If you know where you’re going, it’s totally worth a visit. If you don’t know where you’re going, go anyway.
Northern Ireland will always have a special place in my heart. I’ve visited more times than I can remember on annual family visits and it really does feel like home.
But it’s only since my last visit that I have begun to see more than the places I visit every year, and discover Northern Ireland all over again.
On an average family holiday, we would go to Belfast, the capital city on the Eastern coast. But in an exciting new turn of events, this year we drove right across the country to Enniskillen, which is in the South West of NI.
Enniskillen is part of County Fermenagh, which shares a border with Southern Ireland. So for me it felt pretty strange to be that far from familiarity.
I’ll tell you now, no Linkens family trip is complete without a few visits to National Trust properties. Blame my mum, not me. On our first day, we visited a property called Crom. Here, you could hire out a boat (maximum five people but we got away with six plus a dog, rebellious), and take it down Upper Lough Erne to a town called Belturbet, which sits right on the border of Northern and Southern Ireland. We all got very excited that we had manage to sneak into Southern Ireland without a passport.
After Crom we visited Castle Coole, where there is an 18th-century mansion and a park, and then Florence Court, which has an 18th-century house and an estate. Both properties were fairly similar but very beautiful and had easy woodland walks for families which aren’t too challenging for those who just want a short ramble.
A highlight of our trip was our visit to the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark. In groups, you can take a guided tour, and find out some information about the history of the caves and the geography behind the various rock formations. It is a very popular tourist spot, and the highlight for me was seeing what they called their ‘City of Atlantis.’ Here, the stalactites on the ceiling are reflected in the water surrounding the walkway, which is so still it looks as though there are also stalagmites coming up from the ground – and it does seem to resemble an underwater city.
We spent a week back in Belfast at the end of our time in Ireland, which I was much looking forward to until I was told that we were going to be climbing a mountain. Not just any mountain, but the tallest peak in Northern Ireland, Slieve Donard. It is 850 metres above sea level (that’s about a tenth of the height of Everest). Now, I could have refused to go. My sister did, and that was fine. Nobody asked me to go. But a stupid voice inside my head kept saying, “imagine how cool it’ll be to say you’ve climbed a mountain”. Screw you, determination.
So I did it. But I won’t lie to you. Climbing that mountain was possibly one of the hardest and worst things I’ve ever done. Yes, I cried, okay? You don’t have to keep going on about it.
The first third of the climb is completely fine, completely manageable. You follow a lovely forest path, passing streams on your way. When you come out of the trees, there is a rocky path up to the second third, or possibly your second-worst nightmare. That part is tricky. That’s where I had my first breakdown. It’s a steep climb up to the Mourne Wall, which was built in the 20th century and runs down the sides of the mountain. But it’s the final third that is truly horrific. You follow the Mourne Wall up to the peak, that is if you don’t die in the process.
But honestly, the view was worth it. From the top of the mountain, the whole of Northern Ireland is laid out before you. You can stand on a pile of stones and declare yourself the highest person in Northern Ireland, if you want to. Would I do it again? Most definitely not. But will I be telling each and every person I meet that I have climbed the tallest mountain in Northern Ireland? Of course I will.
Slipping out of a dorm room at 2:00am in Ubud, Bali, feels somewhat like a scene from a retro horror novel. The street lights are out. Nobody is a round. The only sound is the howling of stray dogs. If you want to make it to Mount Batur in time for sunrise, though, this is the eerie scene you have to endure.
I sidled my way into the van we were heading to the peak in, blinked, and I was there – the plus point of early journeys being that sleeping practically makes the travel non-existent. Our tour driver gently woke each of our party, before escorting us to a dimly lit dining area, where we were given an incredibly early breakfast of traditional pancakes and banana, to prepare us for the two-hours of hiking in utter blackness.
Equipped with a torch that looked older than me, I began the ascent, clumsily and slowly, in my sleep deprived state. But, with still hours to come until sunrise, the labour felt justified with one glance at the stars and the crystallised crescent moon, shining more brightly for the hills than they would any modern day city. Then, refocussing my attention earthwards, the strange procession of meagre lights being carried by each wanderer almost reflected the sky itself, painting a star-spangled caricature of the sparkling blanket above on to the mountains.
Upon reaching top, the fog was evidently going to be problematic for those of us with visions of viewing a pure sunrise, and when 6:26am hit, and the sun began to peak over the jagged rocks surrounding us, it first gave off nothing but a slight golden glow. In disappointment, those with little faith in nature’s abilities began to head back down the mountain. I was tempted myself.
As half an hour passed, the temperature seemingly decreased if anything, and the chances looked slim of seeing any of the sky through the stagnant mist. Slowly, but quite definitely, the wind picked up. Then our nearest star mustered all of its power, and split the clouds down the middle. Genuine applause broke out amongst the eclectic mix of pilgrims – such was the feeling of relief the walk wasn’t wasted.
And, apparently, this appreciation didn’t go unnoticed, as the clouds lowered and began to dance around the mountain peaks ahead of us and the feet of everyone at the top. This slowly allowed the landscape to reveal itself, and Lake Batur even joined the festivities eventually, posing for everyone graciously, as the crowds took photographs.
On certain days everything at Mount Batur looks completely untouched and perfect, thanks to the fog, that wasn’t what the view I received. The feeling of community amongst the hikers and the beauty of the surroundings still came to the fore though – proving the true mysticism of Bali’s most famous volcano.