Once In a Lifetime Experience

By Charlotte Discombe

In my personal opinion travelling is more than just about getting away from your worries and your normal routine of get up, go to work and go to bed. For me travelling is about the experience – that once in a lifetime experience.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of experience is:

– Practical contact with and observation of facts or events;
– An event or occurrence which leaves an impression on someone;
– Encounter or undergo an event or occurrence.

In this sense an experience is something you, as a living and breathing human being, take part in or have a connection to. However, unlike an everyday normal event an experience is something that stays with you even after the experience has finished.

Travelling is an experience itself. You experience time and liminality; the act of being in between places and time frames. But travelling also allows you to experience many of the world’s vast cultures.

A QUICK NOTE

In a moment I am going to recount a month long visit to Japan where I travelled to Tokyo, Nara, Kyoto and Hakone. I wish I had the time and the words to delve into all of my experiences of these places, but alas that shall have to be saved for another day. For now, I hope you enjoy this small account of several ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences in the mountain town of Hakone.

 

Once in a lifetime experience 2
Hakone, Japan

 

JAPAN: THE EXPERIENCE

I had never been to Japan before. I had travelled around parts of Asia but Japan was a totally ‘new’ place for me. After finally finishing my degree I wanted time to explore. Despite having a little knowledge of Japanese culture after studying Noh theatre, Japanese modern history and anime, I still did not know what to expect from Japan. In fact in hindsight I really was not prepared for the experiences that were about to hit me.

After a couple of days in Tokyo experiencing singing subways, old Japanese heritage sites mixed in with gigantic skyscrapers and an earthquake, we headed out into the mountains.

Hakone is a little town on a mountain just opposite Japan’s most famous, and arguably most beautiful, volcano – Mount Fuji. The town is only a few hours inland from Tokyo, the main city on the coast of Japan, and is a place where (again in my personal opinion) I truly experienced Japan.

Despite being a popular destination for tourists wanting to see the magnificent Mount Fuji, Hakone manages to maintain many of Japan’s sacred traditions that have been passed down through the generations. This is in contrast to the historic cities visited such as Kyoto and Nara which, although filled with historic relics from Japan’s complicated past, have become a lot more commercialised and metropolitan. Don’t get me wrong, these are obviously still amazing places to go and visit and experience for yourself (as previously mentioned), but my time staying in Hakone will be something I will never forget.

To get to the countryside we took the subway, then get on a bullet train – the fastest train in the world going at a rocketing 200mph – and then got a civilian train into the mountains and onto Hakone. I remember this journey vividly. The day was hot and sticky. All the trains were packed and uncomfortable. It was the weekend and many of the locals were also travelling in order to enjoy the countryside in the sun or see loved ones. I remember worrying about mosquitos and about the fact that I had not had the Japanese Encephalitis vaccination (not a good idea folks when you’re going into the countryside). I remember a lovely lady trying to teach me how to write my name in Japanese calligraphy, such a wonderful and friendly beacon in a sea of unfamiliar faces all speaking a language completely unknown to me.

When we finally got to Hakone we were met by the owner of the house we would be staying in. For next couple of days the group had the pleasure of staying in a traditional Japanese house, experiencing the richness of old Japanese culture and rituals.

This house was right on the side of the mountain and was a very long way up from the small town station. It was a sacred place and provided many of the locals with public baths to wash in. There were a few rules that needed to be respected:

  1. No shoes were allowed in order to keep the outside world away.
  2. Western clothes were frowned upon as guests were invited to immerse themselves within Japanese traditions.
  3. Tattoos were not allowed, or at least needed to be hidden as to many Japanese tattoos are a sign of the Triad (the gangs that have caused Japan so much violence).

On our arrival to the house we shared the ritual of bathing with the other guests and locals of the town. For someone very self conscious about her body, naked or otherwise, this was at first a very unsettling experience. Not only was I to be fully naked in front of my travelling companions, but also in front of men and women who I had never met before and would probably be sitting down to have dinner with in the next couple of hours.

After taking our first wash in the baths we were then given lessons in how to put on and wear a kimono – the clothing we would be wearing during our stay. I never thought something that looks so simple could be so complicated. There were layers and layers of material that all needed to be folded in a specific way to create the kimono. We could even wear our PJs, a rather fetching pair of yellow trousers and belted top, under the kimono. This was again was a completely new experience for me to try!

Once finally suited and booted (or words to that effect) we were shown around the house – yet another experience to add to my ever-growing list.

The house was a bungalow with spongy floors and wooden panels. Furniture was at floor level: we slept on the floor, ate on the floor and drank tea on the floor. There were many window panels covering the whole house, giving the impression that we were outside amongst the trees and wildlife within the wilderness that surrounded us on this mountain. Our bedroom had one massive window panel that looked out over to Mount Fuji. I have to say that waking up to see the sun rise over Mount Fuji every morning will be an experience I will never forget – an image that at first look seems so calm but when looking closer you could see smoke emerging from the volcano, a sign of the unrest right underneath our feet.

 

Once in a lifetime experience 3
Hakone, Japan

 

THOUGHTS ON THESE EXPERIENCES

Day after day the self-consciousness I felt on this first day, after taking part in so many new experiences, gradually faded. These experiences have become memories and these memories are still with me now. Even the experience of ritualistically washing in front of strangers whilst naked in a public space became pretty liberating.

I admit I have probably bored you by going into very specific detail about said experiences. I haven’t even gone into the fact that meal times were set and the meals were very true to traditional Japanese food. OR the fact we walked up the mountain in our kimonos to even smaller villages and experienced tea ceremonies. OR the fact we got right up close and personal to Mount Fuji. The list could go on… However, I hope you realise that this specific detail is important to me and it is what ‘made’ my trip to Japan. This was and still is what I travel for. I was taken out of my comfort zone in small ways and as a result I got to experience a small but AMAZING part of another culture. If I had not travelled to Japan and to the little town of Hakone, these experiences that I will never forget would never had happened. So if there’s just one bit of advice I could part to you it is travel to experience. Don’t just go travelling to get away, go to experience something new. I promise you won’t regret it.

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Defending India

By Connie Bancroft

Whilst sprawled out lazily on a yellow sand lain beach, spooning rich passion fruit into my mouth and taking delight in this strikingly hot afternoon in Vietnam, I find myself reminiscing about my time spent in India. After leaving just under a month ago I have come to realise just how much this truly one-of-a-kind country means to me. It is undeniably true that it turned out very different to what I had expected and this is part of the reason I have been driven to write this article.

Before my departure my work colleagues found much enjoyment in warning me on what I was getting myself into:

‘People will steal your shoes and you’ll have to walk around barefoot in sewage’.

‘You do know people don’t use toilet paper there right? And they just relieve themselves in the middle of the street!’.

‘The dogs will bite you and they all have rabies’.

At the time I laughed along with them, finding the remarks funny and not thinking too much of it. Although a couple these are plausible, and I agree that this country isn’t for everyone, I have an urge to defend India and explain why I fell in love with it almost straight away.

Firstly, I think I need to say that no, not all the dogs have rabies. The average street dog isn’t vicious and all they want and deserve is just a little love and affection – this can sometimes be in the form of a biscuit. After one day of trying to refrain I gave up and made friends with at least one dog a day. Cuddling puppies turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable activity with no negative side effects.

Defending India 3

I was also warned that I would probably be spending half of my time in India on the toilet. I have a ridiculous amount of pills in my backpack which reflect my anxiety on the subject; most of these have gone unused.

To continue on the subject of India’s bad reputation, I would now like to tell you about my encounter with a Dutch fellow my friend and I met in Nha Trang, Vietnam. I sadly can’t remember his name so let’s call him Hank. After meeting Hank at our hostel we decide to go out for a couple of beers. Conversation quickly turns to travel stories, which quickly turns to India. Like everyone else who hears of our trip to India he asks, ‘What was it like?’ Although this time it is clear that the question is only asked out of politeness; it soon becomes apparent he has already made up his mind.

Hank is surprised by our enthusiasm for the country, abruptly stating that he would never step foot there. We calmly ask him why and this is when the atmosphere starts to get a little awkward. He shrugs and says, ‘I’ve heard it’s really dirty’. Well this is sort of a given, it’s India and out of all the negative reviews it gets, this is one that stands true. If experiencing bad hygiene and seeing rubbish on the street makes you so unhappy that it would ruin your trip then I would maybe say don’t go to certain parts of India.

Hank’s next point: ‘Apparently Indian people just want to make money out of you and I know loads of people who have been scammed’. This one is interesting because we were there for three months and not one of us got scammed. There are a couple of reasons I can think of as to why this was so. Firstly, we travelled in a group a majority of the time and I am aware that solo travellers have less support and are more easily targeted. Secondly, and most importantly, we did our research.

Online and in the guide books it tells you what to look out for and we were prepared to stand our ground. I knew before I left that Delhi is a hot-ground for scammers and avoiding them is as difficult as avoiding traffic whilst crossing the Indian roads. We were only in Delhi for thirty minutes for a bus transfer when we had an argument with a tuk-tuk driver trying to charge us double than what we’d agreed to. It is common for scammers to hang around at the train station and target foreign travellers getting off the trains. Tuk-tuk drivers tell you that your hotel is fully booked, has burnt down, has been washed away by a tidal wave etc etc, just to get you to travel further with them to get to their mates guesthouse. We once met a guy who was told the whole of Delhi was on lockdown after arriving at the airport. He bought it and ended up spending hundreds of dollars to be driven out of the city for somewhere to stay.

I am aware you can’t be prepared for everything but I do think a lot of these scams can be avoided if you have a decent amount of awareness. You are also more likely to come across problems if you stick to the big cities and this plays a huge factor in India’s bad reputation. We encountered a couple of people who were pretty much just doing a city tour of India: Mumbai-Jaipur-Delhi-Agra. If you do this, obviously your experience of India will be very different and I would argue that you haven’t experienced the real India at all. Cities can be stressful and the people there are more persistent and eager to make money from you.

 

Defending India 1
Orchha, Madhya Pradesh

 

“I met a Swedish girl who arrived in Goa and got her drink spiked on her first night’.

Hank’s last point is, for myself, the most frustrating. I have to take a long, deep breath, count to ten, and remind myself to stay calm because I definitely don’t want anyone to think I am being insensitive. Having your drink spiked is horrendous and it is obviously never someone’s own fault when it happens to them. I have friends who have been violated in this way during nights out in England. Unfortunately this happens all over the UK and, being the party capital of India, it also happens all over Goa. The state of Goa is the least conservative place in India; it doesn’t uphold the same values as the rest of the country. Because of this, and the expanding drink and drug culture that often causes problems there, I would feel unsafe walking by myself on the beach at night. Would I use this as a reason not to visit the whole of India? No, I wouldn’t. Hank has a distaste for our opinions that nearly matches his distaste for India. This results in an awkwardly abrupt exit after one beer. Goodbye Hank.

I don’t have the space to list all the reasons I love India, however there is one little phrase which may help explain my deep affection for this country. If you visit you will hear the phrase, ‘Shanti Shanti’ time and time again. In Sanskrit, Shanti means ‘Peace’. Following Hindu traditions, Yogis often chant it three times after meditation to represent peace in body, speech and mind. Locals also say it twice, often to express their nations state of being. Peace seems to manifest itself in many ways. It is there when you choose not to let dissatisfaction possess you, present when you discover twenty minutes means at least an hour in India time, and shines through when a local exclaims with overwhelming optimism , “Why not? Everything’s possible!”.

You will have noticed I have a biased opinion about India due to my trip having been such a success. I did not get scammed or spiked, I only got ill once, and dealing with the dirt became second nature to me. However, my love for India goes far beyond its ability to defy people’s negative expectations. My love stems from its people, their relaxed temperaments and the attitude they have towards life and it’s trials and tribulations. From the gentle hearted Swamiji I practiced meditation with, to the smiley chai vendors we visited in the streets, to the wonderful family who took me under their wing. India is full of inspirational people who will remind you to be thankful and accepting of your life everyday.

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