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Five things I learnt from watching David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet

As soon as I discovered that David Attenborough’s new film ‘A Life on our Planet’ would have a limited cinema release, I booked myself a ticket. The world premiere event was scheduled to take place at London’s Royal Albert Hall on Thursday 16th April 2020 and would broadcast LIVE to cinemas across the UK and Europe. David Attenborough was then set to be joined live on stage by some special guests for a discussion on some of the most prevalent issues raised in the film.

This, of course, didn’t happen. Like many things, the event was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, five months later, the movie aired for one-night-only in cinemas across the UK.

The film tells the story of life on our planet by the man who has seen more of the natural world than any other. David Attenborough uses his lifetime to show us just how different the world is now from when he was born in 1926, and he is visibly saddened by his own vision for the future of our planet. However, he does offer hope for future generations.

So, what did I learn from watching this honest and revealing documentary, which serves as David Attenborough’s witness statement for the natural world? The familiar, soothing voice of a man that we all admire taught me:

  1. The world is not as wild as it once was. Since the 1950s, wild animal populations have more than halved. Humans have destroyed the non-human world.
  2. We’re replacing the wild with the tame. Half of the fertile land on earth is now farmland. 70% of the mass of birds are domestic birds, the vast majority of which are chickens. We, as humans, account for over 1/3 of the weight of mammals on earth. A further 60% are the animals that we raise to eat. The rest, from mice to whales, make up just 4%. This planet is now run by humankind – for humankind. There is little left for the rest of the living world.
  3. A sixth mass extinction event is well underway. Scientists predict that if nothing changes, we face a series of one-way doors, bringing irreversible change. Within the span of the next lifetime, the stability and security of the four seasons will be lost.
  4. Don’t waste anything, don’t waste electricity, don’t waste food, don’t waste power. Treat the natural world as though it’s precious, which it is, and don’t squander the bits that each of us have control of.
  5. We must re-wild the world. To restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity. The very thing that we as humans have removed.

David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet is available on Netflix from 4th October 2020.

Eastern Trail

I finally did it, I took the plunge and uploaded my first YouTube video! It’s nothing fancy, simply a GoPro short of my time travelling Eastern Europe with Contiki. I look forward to making more of these and eventually transitioning to ‘proper’ YouTube videos. In the meantime, you can check my first video out here:

The tour featured is the nine-day Eastern Trail, and takes in seven European countries: Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Italy. The full itinerary can be found here.

Gateway to India

Like many, I have spent much of lockdown dreaming of not only when I can travel again, but where I will travel too. Stunning images of destinations near and far have filled my Instagram feed; Turkey, Greece, Hawaii, Vietnam, Australia. Although unlike ‘before’ many of the images are from locals rather than tourists and I have to say, I’m rather enjoying seeing a destination from a locals perspective. It’s refreshing for my explore page to be filled with authentic images rather than those that are staged for the ultimate amount of likes and comments.

One destination that has come up, again and again, is India. A destination that has been pretty low on my travel bucket list, until now. The India that is my imagination; colourful, chaotic and exotic exists alongside tigers, temples, palaces and bazaars. However, it’s the everyday side of India that has caught my imagination; here are the Instagram accounts of some of my favourite locals:

Harswaroop captures a different view of the Pink City with the intricate beauty of this doorway found in the capital of India’s Rajasthan state. Jaipur evokes the royal family that once ruled the region and the City Palace and Hawa Mahal (Jaipur’s most-distinctive landmark) dominate social media feeds. However, it’s the marvellous doors of the inner courtyard of the City Palace that caught my attention. Pictured here is the Lehariya Gate, the vivid green represents the green of Spring season and is dedicated to Lord Ganesha.

Jalebis, captured by Shourya, is a sweet snack found all over India and are made by deep-frying maida flour batter in pretzel or circular shapes, it’s then soaked in sugar syrup, and can be served warm or cold.

Located in Kolkata, the Mallick Ghat Flower Market is the largest in the whole of India. The flower market is over 130 years old, and people travel from all over the city and suburbs to sell flowers here. It is primarily for people who want to pick up flowers for temple offerings and prayers. This image, captured by Jyoti, captures the organised chaos of the market perfectly.

This image from Ashwani highlights just one of the many modes of transport available to locals in India. Captured in Kolkata, the capital of India’s West Bengal state, this bus transports locals daily from their homes to their place of employment.

Dhobi Ghat is Mumbai‘s 140-year-old, open-air laundromat and it is estimated that each day over half a million pieces of clothing are sent here from hotels, hospitals, and homes, for the over 200 traditional laundrymen to wash. It’s an impressive operation and one that warrants hard work, which Navya has captured well with this photo.

Khari Baoli Wale, located in Delhi, is the largest spice market in the whole of Asia. Narrow lanes, covered by hessian sacks, are packed with huge parcels of herbs and spices. Electric red chillies, vibrant yellow turmeric and bright green cardamoms are just some of the spices included in the eye-catching displays. However, there is more to the market than large crowds and an overwhelming abundance of smells, like the sunset from the market’s rooftop as captured by Deepak.

It’s hard not to visit the Taj Mahal and capture an ‘Instagram’ photo. Other than the fact that it wasn’t, the building was built for Instagram. I’m sure, like mine, that your feed is filled with the signature image of the Taj Mahal – tourists sat on the iconic bench in front of the Taj Mahal. While that’s great and a must-do, it’s so refreshing to see a different angle of the Taj Mahal, like this one from Romita from North East India. The lighting cast on the exterior of the building is perfect, and the detail featured shows off the immaculate building, built to serve as a memorial for Shah Jahan’s third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child in 1631.

Thanks to these locals, India has made it’s to the top of my list of planned travel destinations for 2021. Being such a large country, I know I won’t cover it all. If you’ve made it to India before, where do you recommend I don’t miss? Let me know in the comments below!

Furlough or fur-low

It’s always been shit to lose your job, but to be made redundant via a zoom call scheduled 30 minutes prior, it feels even worse.

Like many, I’ve suffered at the hands of the coronavirus epidemic. I lost my dream job, one that took four interviews and a lot of hard work to achieve, within the space of 7 minutes and 30 seconds, the length of my redundancy call.

I can’t say that I wasn’t expecting it, I had been in my role less than one year and worked in one of the hardest-hit industries, travel and tourism. My employer, a small-group adventure travel company, was no exception to the impact of COVID-19 and had to make some difficult decisions to survive.

My redundancy call happened five days before the UK government announced their plans for a coronavirus job retention scheme. Unfortunately, my initial request to be furloughed was denied, however after three weeks and some divine intervention, I was placed on furlough and was so, up until August 31st.

So what’s it like to be furloughed? In short, not all that it’s cracked up to be.

I’ve never been without a job. At the age of 14, I had a paper round. Each morning before school, I would cycle around my neighbourhood, delivering news hot off the press. I worked weekends in retail up until the age of 17, when I got my first full-time job. Now, suddenly, and for the first time, I was without a job. In the time that it takes to load a dishwasher, I not only lost my job, but I lost my routine, my community and a bit of myself.

I knew keeping busy would help and so I threw myself into reinventing my CV. Within two days of being made redundant, I had a CV that I was proud to call my own. I then began the tedious task of looking for a job, but unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one. As the UK entered a full-scale lockdown, companies unsure of their future began to make large scale redundancies. The few companies that were recruiting started to receive hundreds of applications for just one role. The quality of applicants was high, and so employers could afford to be picky.

The new reality of staying home, with no set routine, and the radio silence that I was receiving from potential employers had a real impact on my mental health. I found myself waking up late, not wanting to get out of bed. I napped regularly, even though I wasn’t tired. It was just a way of passing the time. I was worried about money, how would I pay my bills? I hated not knowing what each day would bring, but I had no motivation to do anything. When I look back now, I know that I was depressed. I felt like a failure; I felt that there must have been something more or something better I could have done. In reality, there wasn’t. I wasn’t made redundant because of something I had done wrong. It wasn’t me or my work ethic. It was a virus.

At this time, my request for furlough status was denied. The hours turned into days and days turned into weeks. I had already completed an online course in digital marketing, and although I felt some sort of accomplishment at this, I needed something more structured. I reached out to my network of friends and family and asked if anyone knew of any jobs locally. Two weeks later, I had given up on the possibility of finding anything when I found a note under my door. My neighbour, manager of a local Sainsbury’s, let me know that he had an opening for an Online Assistant. Twelve hours a week, 2 am – 6 am. Although the hours were ungodly, I jumped at the chance of having a purpose – helping to feed the nation – as well as a routine.

To start, it wasn’t easy. Although I was only working four hours a day three days a week, (a stark contrast to 12 hours day, five days a week), it took a while for me to find a good work/life balance, let alone a manageable sleeping pattern. I persisted, and I found a routine that worked for me. Five months and approximately 40,000 items picked later; I’ve been offered a permanent, 16-hour contract at Sainsbury’s. To say that this job saved my life is a little dramatic, however, to an extent, it’s true. Sainsbury’s gave me a purpose when I didn’t have one, and for that, I’m so grateful.

I’ve seen many meme’s and posts on social media poking fun at those on furlough, and in theory, yes it sounds great. You get paid 80% of your wage to stay home, but people face other challenges, and it’s important that we, as friends and family members, recognise this and support those that we love.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, you’re not alone. Mind, the mental health charity is there to make sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone. If you need non-urgent information about mental health support and services that may be available to you, you can call their infoline on 0300 123 3393 or email info@mind.org.uk.

Rio Carnival 101

When I booked my Rio Carnival 2020 holiday in late 2018, it was somewhat a spur of the moment thing. I was working on a Rio Carnival creative piece at work and my friend and then colleague, Kim, was getting excited for her own upcoming trip to Brazil. Before I knew it, I was on the phone with my local independent travel agent, securing a space on a tour that I hadn’t done any research on!

Now, if you’re a friend of mine you’ll know that I’m typically an avid planner. Having worked in the travel industry for a number of years, I know how to research and plan a trip, and I know how to do it well. Saying this, I just didn’t have the motivation or urge to want to research much ahead of this particular trip. In retrospect, I think it was because I was part of a small group tour and knew that I’d have the help on the ground if I needed it.

Being a solo female traveller, I always knew I wanted the security of a group while experiencing Brazil, Rio de Janeiro and Carnival. I had travelled with G Adventures previously and had had a wonderful time, and so it just made sense that I book my Carnival experience with them.

Fast forward 12 months. A new job, a new home and a new relationship meant that I was no longer a solo female traveller. During our first date, my boyfriend and I discovered that we were both travelling to Brazil in 2020 for Carnival. We were both departing from London on the same day, at the same time, on the SAME FLIGHT! (I mean what are the chances?) We joked that it would be an awkward flight if things didn’t work out, but luckily for me (and I like to think for him too), they did. We decided that as I was already confirmed on a tour, he would simply add himself on and we’d experience Carnival together with G Adventures.

Fast forward to March 2020, and we’re home from what was an incredible trip. Carnival really is everything that everyone says it is – and so much more. I don’t think there are enough words to describe just how phenomenal the experience was. It’s something that I think everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime.

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As we were part of a small group tour, the stress of purchasing Carnival tickets and organising other elements was taken away. Nonetheless, I learnt a lot and wanted to share my experiences with you so that whether you’re travelling independently or as part of a small group tour, you get the best out of Carnival! 

The Main Event
Did you know that the main Carnival parades actually form part of a ticketed event? Prior to finding this out, I believed that floats passed through the streets of Rio de Janeiro while bystanders cheered them on from the sidewalk – somewhat like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. But that’s not actually the case. It’s held in the Sambadrome, located on the outskirts of the city centre. Each year, on the Sunday and Monday before Ash Wednesday, the top 12 Rio de Janeiro samba schools compete in front of 90,000 spectators in a taught competition for the Carnival title. Each school picks a theme, which is expressed through their performance and elaborate costumes, and between 200 and 400 drummers help by beating a quick, hypnotic rhythm that draws the crowd into the school’s compelling scene. The whole thing is honestly just magical!

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Sambadrome Seating
The Sambadrome is divided into various sections, numbered from one to 13, and are located on both sides of the Samba runway. We were seated in section 11 and honestly, it was perfect! We were directly across from the judges, where each school pauses to give the judges time to, well judge. With this in mind, consider looking at tickets in sections 10 (behind the judges) or 11 (across from the judges). If you’re purchasing tickets in the grandstands, seating is in the form of concrete bleachers and so isn’t comfortable. You will find vendors selling foam pads however, you can bring in your own cushion/pillow. Seating is on a first come first serve basis and as you can imagine, everyone tries to sit at the front of their section. So, if you want the best seat, it’s advised that you arrive early to claim your spot (the Sambadrome opens at 18:00 while the first parade states at 21:00).

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Timings
The first samba school begins their procession at 21:00 – or thereabouts. Each school has approximately 85 minutes to complete their entire procession (points are actually deducted from a samba school’s overall score if the procession runs shorter or goes longer than the allotted time). With six schools performing per night, at 85 minutes each, it’s a long night. The last samba school begins their procession at approximately 04:30, finishing around 06:00!

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Costumes
Carnival is known for its over the top costumes however, dressing up is not obligatory. Whether you decide to wear a swimsuit, accessorised with glitter and sequins, or shorts and a t-shirt, you won’t look out of place in the Sambadrome. You will be hot and sweaty though, so keep that in mind when choosing what to wear and be sure to wear comfortable shoes! Depending on the weather forecast, you may want to incorporate a raincoat into your costume. The Sambadrome is an open-air venue and so if it rains – you’re getting wet! 

Note: If you arrive in Rio and want to spice up your original outfit, or find a whole new one, there are plenty of shops selling costume accessories. If you plan on wearing a headpiece – be mindful of those behind you as they’ll want to be able to see the parade.

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Photography and Video
I took my iPhone, Canon and GoPro with me into the sambadrome and had no concerns over safety. I positioned myself right at the front of our section and got some fabulous footage of the floats/dancers as they passed by. I’ve read from multiple sources that the Sambadrome is considered one of the safest places during Carnival and I couldn’t agree more. I never felt unsafe or that my belongings were at risk of being stolen.

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Food and Drink
You’re allowed to bring two 500ml plastic bottles of water and two items of food per person into the Sambadrome, but like any event, you’ll find plenty of fast food trucks. There were also men circling the stands selling water, alcohol and ice cream so you never need to miss out on any of the action! Note: be sure to take plenty of cash as the cash machines are known to run out.

Toilets
There are toilets located in the Sambadrome however, be aware that there are 90,000 other spectators. It’s known that toilet paper runs out by the end of the performances; therefore, it is advisable to bring an extra roll from your hotel with you just in case…

Transport
As a part of our small group tour, we had round trip transport included. We were picked up from our accommodation and dropped off right outside the entrance to the Sambadrome – it was seamless and made the experience stress free! If you’re travelling independently, I would recommend pre-booking a return shuttle from your hotel. Bear in mind that there will be street parties happening with tens of thousands of people in attendance, so factor in major traffic delays. If you’re happy using public transport, take the metro to Praça Onze and walk for around 15 minutes from here. It’s well signposted – and you can enjoy some of the street celebrations along the way.

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And finally, Blocos
Blocos are the street parties of Rio Carnival. They’re much more casual than the parades in the Sambadrome however they’re considered the heart and soul of Rio Carnival. Each bloco writes a theme song and has a live band to play the music – typically from the top of a moving bus! There are numerous blocos located around the city of Rio de Janeiro in the days leading up to Carnival, but also during the days after. Blocos can be as small as a couple of hundred people or as large as 400,000 people, so it’s best to plan which bloco you wish to attend ahead of time. The best way to get to a bloco is by using the subway. A one-way ticket costs R$4.30 (£0.64GBP/$0.83USD) and you’ll find that there is typically a subway station within a block or two from a bloco. Blocos are a pickpockets dream, so ensure you’re carrying the bare minimum – I always wore a bum bag (fanny pack) and had no issues! Once you’ve decided on your blocos, planned your costume and your transport route – be prepared to party into the small hours of the morning. Blocos last all day and night!

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Regardless of whether you’re attending Carnival independently or as part of a small group tour, you’re guaranteed to have the experience of a lifetime. To try and put into words the quality of the costumes, the elaborateness of the floats and the atmosphere of the Sambadrome is close to impossible! If you’re heading to Rio Carnival in 2021, let me know in the comments below and keep your eyes peeled for my next blog: The City of God.

Notes: I experienced Rio Carnival as part of a small group adventure tour with G Adventures. Rio Carnival: Sequins & the Sambadrome is a limited edition, six-day guided tour with a maximum group size of 16 however, there are ‘multiple departures’ and so you’ll be exploring Rio with a bigger group. Prices start from £899 excluding flights. This is not a sponsored post. All thoughts and images are my own.

 

To the moon and back

Jordan. The name of a culturally rich Middle Eastern country, filled with landscapes the colour of honeycomb, but also that of my obnoxious ex-boyfriend.
I had the preconception that the highlight of my trip to Jordan would be Petra, one of the most precious cultural properties in the world. However, I walked away at the end of my eight-day journey with a greater comprehension for the land that I had explored, and an altogether disparate highlight.

As I step off the plane in Amman I am greeted by a surge of dry heat, one that every Brit takes pleasure in when arriving in a foreign land. The short journey from the airport to the city is filled with hillsides blanketed in box homes in various hues of ecru. But Amman is just the starting point of my small group tour. From Amman, we journey to the ruins of Jerash, Jordan’s largest Roman site, and to the famed Dead Sea, where we have time to float in the therapeutic waters. From here we head further south, to Petra, home of one of the seven new wonders of the world.

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City of Amman from the Citadel
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The best falafel and hummus in Amman, Hashem Restaurant
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Jerash, Jordan’s largest and most interesting Roman site
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Floating in the therapeutic waters of the Dead Sea
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An all over mud mask at the Dead Sea
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Mount Nebo, where Moses was granted a view of the promised land

We arrive at the entrance to Petra just as the sun is rising and embark on a journey that takes us between narrow gorges the colour of caramel. Our guide, a local man named Zuhair, tells us tales of bygone times; of the Nabateans, the Arab Bedouin tribe that once called Petra home. “And, if we all jump here at the exact same time, you’ll see the ground shake. 1, 2, 3…” We all jumped. Nothing. “Now look up” proclaims Zuhair. I don’t know why we all fell for such foolery, or even believed that we could make the ground move; but there, highlighted by the first rays of the day’s sunshine, the Treasury of Petra. As if in unison, a sound of awe comes from the group.

At this time of the morning, before the swarms of tourists arrive, the Treasury is peaceful. I take time capturing different angles of the magnificent facade before breaking away from the group. I settle myself in a quiet corner and observe the comings and goings happening around me. Bedouin men at work, shopkeepers setting up their stalls, tourists taking selfies, camels yawning.

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The first rays of sunlight hitting the treasury
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Close up of the Treasury facade
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Looking back at the Treasury
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The entrance to Petra at sundown

We venture deeper into Petra, past bazaars selling souvenirs; frankincense and traditional Jordanian scarfs. Past coffee houses serving fragrant Bedouin Coffee and Limonada, a Jordanian drink made of lemon juice and fresh mint leaves.

Following Zuhair’s recommendation, myself and a number of the group decide to take on the Monastery route. It doesn’t take long for us to realise that climbing an uneven, ancient rock-cut path, made of more than 800 steps, in the intense midday heat is a bad idea. The route is long and taxing, however, this soon slips my mind as we turn the final corner and are met by the impressive and imposing facade of the Monastery.

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The impressive facade of the Monastery
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The Cave Bar at the Monastery, a welcome respite from the sun
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The Monastery route
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Sunset over Petra from hotel rooftop

My Lonely Planet guidebook had somewhat prepared me for the beauty of the Treasury, with its ornate carvings and intricate detailing; but standing here in front of the 48-metre high exterior of the Monastery, I am blown away. At first glance, it looks much like the Treasury, just less ornate. However, the shapely curves, in varying shades of butterscotch, and the enormity of the rock-cut Nabataean tomb leave me speechless. I had found the highlight of my trip to Jordan, or so I thought.

The next morning we leave the ancient town of Petra and head south towards Wadi Rum. We exchange our minivan for several 4×4 vehicles and head out into a vast landscape of ancient river beds and stunning rock formations. We climb burnt orange sand dunes and visit landmarks made famous by blockbuster movies.

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Wadi Rum 4×4
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Wadi Rum 4×4
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Climbing a sand dune, Wadi Rum
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CEO Zuhair and Bedouin guides, Wadi Rum
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One of the many naturally formed arches, Wadi Rum
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Climbing one of the many naturally formed arches, Wadi Rum

We journey further into the desert. In the distance, we spot the silhouette of a group of Bedouins and their caravan (group) of camels – our final mode of transport for the day. I inelegantly mount one of the larger camels in the group and hold tight onto the reins, leaning back, waiting for the inevitable. The camel forces himself up off the ground, tipping me gently forward and then suddenly jerking me back, all before throwing me forward again – it’s an awkward affair!

The sunsets in a blaze over the sands as we reach our destination, an isolated Bedouin camp, just in time for dinner. We dismount our camels, deposit our belongings in the goat-haired tents that we will call home for the night, and head towards the traditionally decorated central tent. Dinner has been prepared in a customary fashion – underground in an earth oven. We gather around as a three-tiered grill, arranged with various kinds of meat and vegetables, is pulled from a hole in the sand.

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Camel ride through the Valley of the Moon, Wadi Rum
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Camel selfie, Wadi Rum
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Setting sun casting long shadows across the desert
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CEO Zuhair and myself, Wadi Rum

Our group fills their plates, and slowly their tummies. The hum of conversation fills the tent, and soon the space around the campfire. Members of the group share stories of their individual travel experiences and we discuss our day exploring the ‘Valley of the Moon’.

As the fire loses its light, the sky darkens and the stars come out in an abundance. I spot the Ursa Major and Northern Cross constellations and as my eyes adjust, the dusty white Milky Way is smeared across the sky. I stand in awe – the view is simply breathtaking. In the clear air of the desert, feeling a thousand miles away from the rush of everyday life, I make a decision to not sleep in the stifling hot tent made of goats-hair, but to sleep under the stars. It is then, as a shooting star passes overhead, and my eyes fall heavy that I know that this is my highlight of Jordan.

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Traditional Bedouin dinner
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CEO Zuhair sleeping under the stars, Wadi Rum
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Isolated Bedouin camp, Wadi Rum
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Packing up camp after a night under the stars, Wadi Rum

Now, when I utter the word ‘Jordan’ I no longer think of my obnoxious ex-boyfriend, but of an inspiring country. One filled with inspirational treasures, stunning desert landscapes, delectable dishes and some of the most kind-hearted people I’ve met while travelling.

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Sunset in Amman on the final night of the tour

Notes: I discovered Jordan as part of a small group adventure tour with G Adventures. Highlights of Jordan is an eight-day guided tour with a maximum group size of 16. As a solo female traveller, I found this the best way to explore the country while not missing any of the key attractions. Prices start from £879 excluding flights. This is not a sponsored post. All thoughts and images are my own.

Let me know if you’ve ever been to Jordan or if you’re considering it!

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G Adventures group with CEO Zuhair

A bite out of the big apple

For two and a half years I called the United States home. During this time I visited some incredible cities – Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, Miami – yet the one place I get asked about the most is New York City.  ‘Where’s the best place to eat?’ ‘What should I do?’ ‘Is the Rockefeller Center or Empire State Building best for views?’ So, straying from my typical style of writing, today I’m giving you my take on the city that never sleeps – which by the way is true, it never sleeps.

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New York City from the Staten Island Ferry

TIMES SQUARE IS OVERRATED
Don’t get me wrong, the flashing lights and giant billboards can be mesmerising and it is worth seeing however don’t base your entire trip around Times Square. It is overpopulated and the restaurants on and around Times Square have long wait times and charge significantly more for regular menu items.

YOU HAVE NOT SEEN NEW YORK UNTIL YOU HAVE LEFT MANHATTAN
You’ll find that most people only associate New York City with Manhattan, however New York has SO much more to offer, including four other boroughs. That includes Brooklyn and Queens.

YOU CAN’T SEE EVERYTHING
If you’re visiting New York for the first time, be realistic, you won’t have time to see everything! I know a lot of people that feel overwhelmed when visiting the big apple as they feel they need to see/do all the major attractions. Just remember this, you can try and rush around to see as much as possible but take the time to consider what you want to see rather than attempting to tick everything off of some list that you found on the internet.

NYC TAXIS ARE SLOW
You know the movies where the guy calls a cab in New York and rushes to tell ‘the one’ that he loves her? You won’t make it in time in real life. Taxis are slow due to traffic and are generally very expensive. Sometimes, walking can actually be quicker; just don’t walk everywhere.

THE SUBWAY IS GREAT
Don’t be afraid to take the subway. It is one of the largest public transportation systems in the world and the primary mode of transportation for the majority of New Yorkers and tourists. (If you’re in New York for more than four days, it’s worth purchasing an unlimited metro card. A single ride costs $3, a seven-day unlimited metro card costs only $33.) For a comprehensive subway guide visit: https://www.wanderlustingk.com/travel-blog/nyc-subway-guide

DON’T EAT AT CHAIN RESTAURANTS
It is currently estimated that there are 24,000 restaurants in Manhattan alone which means there’s no shortage of places to eat. Lists of ‘the best places to eat in New York’ are ever-changing however constants include bagels, Chinese food, and New York-style pizza (don’t let anyone tell you that Chicago style is better, it’s not!)

THE HOLIDAY SEASON IS MAGICAL
There’s something about being in New York during the holiday season; the colourful balloons and floats of the Thanksgiving Day parade, the bright lights of the Rockefeller Christmas Tree and the incomparable excitement of watching the ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
Having attended the Thanksgiving Day parade my advice is to arrive early for a good view and wear layers, it’s November and it is cold! (The next day you can enjoy all the amazing Black Friday deals!)
If you’re visiting over the Christmas period, be sure to visit the Christmas windows at some of the cities iconic department stores: Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales. Other things to do in New York during the Christmas season include ice skating (skip the Rockefeller Center and head to Central Park or Byrant Park), the renowned Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall (purchase your tickets as soon as you know you’re going), the festive Union Square Holiday Market and the iconic Rockefeller Christmas tree. When visiting for New Year’s I chose to avoid Times Square and celebrated like a native New Yorker on board a luxury yacht on the Hudson River! It was everything you’d think it would be and more.

WHAT TO SEE IN NYC

9/11 MEMORIAL & MUSEUM – Reflect on the terrible events of 11 September 2001, however, be respectful of those who lost their lives here. Don’t remove flowers or take smiling selfies. Pre-booking is suggested.

CHINATOWN – A vibrant, densely populated neighbourhood in downtown New York.

WALK THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE – I suggest taking the Subway across to Brooklyn and visiting the BROOKLYN PROMENADE for panoramic views of Manhattan before walking back across the bridge.

STATEN ISLAND FERRY – Head to Battery Park to pick up this free ferry service and take in amazing views of the STATUE OF LIBERTY. If you want to visit the island that the Statue of Liberty sits on, pre-purchase is essential!

WALK THE HIGH LINE – The High Line is a public park built on a historic freight rail line elevated above the streets of Manhattan’s West Side. (Allow yourself at least an hour.)

WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK – Known for its arch (honouring George Washington) and fountain, the park is the famous heart of GREENWICH VILLAGE.

GRAND CENTRAL STATION – The historic train station is one of New York’s most famous filming locations. TIP: Try and find the WHISPERING GALLERY.

NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY – With nearly 53 million items, the New York Public Library is the second-largest library in the United States. The marble ‘library lions’ have captured the affection of New Yorkers since the library opened in 1911.

CHRYSLER BUILDING – This art-deco skyscraper is a staple of the New York City skyline.

EMPIRE STATE BUILDING – The highest open-air observatory in New York. The observation deck on the 86th floor offers a 360-degree view of New York and beyond.

TOP OF THE ROCK – With sweeping, uninterrupted views of Central Park and the Manhattan skyline, including the Empire State Building, the Top of the Rock observation deck is my preferred viewing platform. (I personally prefer Top of the Rock to the Empire State Building and so if you had to chose just one, make it Top of the Rock).

MET STEPS – Get your Gossip Girl moment on the steps of the METROPOLITAN MUSEUM.

CENTRAL PARK – I recommend finding BELVEDERE CASTLE, BETHESDA TERRACE (if there are street performers, they’re worth watching) and THE BOATHOUSE. (Allow at least two hours to explore Central Park.)

FOOD & DRINK

SERENDIPITY III – An iconic establishment known for their Frozen Hot Chocolate – which by the way are amazing!

STICKY’S FINGER JOINT – Possibly NYC’S best chicken fingers. I went for the fried green beans and salted caramel pretzel chicken fingers and was not disappointed!

GRAY’S PAPAYA – Featured in one of my favourite movies ‘The Back-Up Plan,’ this New York hot dog joint is cheap and cheerful!

SHAKE SHACK – Shake Shack sprouted from a hot dog cart in Madison Square Park. Today they’re THE BEST burgers around.

SUGAR FACTORY – Self-proclaimed the sweetest place on earth, the cocktails at the Sugar Factory are incredible.

CHICK-FIL-A – I fell in LOVE with Chick-Fil-A when living in the US. It is THE HOME of the original chicken sandwich, and their waffles fries and homemade lemonade are to die for! If you’re visiting from overseas, I recommend sampling my favourite American fast food. TIP: The waffle fries and homemade lemonade are to die for!

CARLO’S BAKERY – From the hit TV show ‘Cake Boss’ the original Carlo’s Bakery is only a train ride away from Manhattan, otherwise, Cake Boss Cafe in Times Square sells the famous and delicious ‘Crumb Cake.’

FINAL THOUGHTS
New York City, no matter what time of year you visit, is magical. There’s a saying ‘Anything can happen in New York’ and it’s true! If you let it, New York will wear you down but if you allow the city to show itself to you, with its quirks, charm, and beauty, you’ll fall in love with it!

The lone bull

The mokoro glides through the shallow, murky waters of the delta and onto land. I climb out, firmly gripping my camera; not ready to let go of what I have just captured. As the rest of my group head back to camp to tell those that stayed behind what we encountered, I linger by the shore. I close my eyes, in an attempt to relive my encounter when I’m disturbed by a partition in the tall, unkempt grass across the bank.

As we trundle down the dirt road out of the campsite, the truck sends a vortex of dust into the previously stagnant air. We pass by huts crouched in the shadows, encompassed by grazing cattle and the bright faces of locals, before arriving at the entryway to the Okavango Delta, Africa’s biggest oasis.

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Okavango Delta Drop Off

After some lawless commotion, we’re assigned a poler and a mokoro; a traditional canoe. I clamber inside and before I lose my balance, I sit back. We push off and I find myself listening intently to the sound of the mokoro passing through reed beds and water lilies, somewhere between a swish and wizz. I discuss life on the delta with my poler, a local guy named Shoes. He tells us stories of his childhood, of the delta itself and how he came to earn the name Shoes. I’m hanging on his every word but we’ve reached our campsite. 

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Okavango Delta

Once tents are erected, firewood collected and the toilet dug (there are no luxuries in the middle of Africa); Shoes offers to guide me deeper into the delta. I hurriedly locate my camera and follow Shoes down to the mokoro. Others in the group have caught wind of my proposal and follow suit. After only a short time on the water, Shoes’ hand shoots into the air, silencing the group. He’s spotted something. I crane my neck, trying to catch a glimpse of what it is that he can see. 

Out of the tree line lumbers a lone elephant, a bull. Paying us no attention, he continues his quest for food, stretching his weathered trunk to reach the higher branches of a fragrant marula tree; completely oblivious to the impact his presence has on the group. I feel an overwhelming sense of exhilaration. We linger, in a trance-like state, until the elephant has taken what he can from the tree and wanders back into the bush and out of sight. 

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Male elephant attempting to reach a marula tree.

Shoes gets us safely back to camp and while the rest of the group wander in purposefully, armed with stories of our encounter, I’m just not ready to share mine so I stay close to the water’s edge. I gaze out into the delta, thinking of my late grandmother and how she would have cherished my recollection of this moment.

Abruptly, I’m brought back to the present by movement from across the bank. I study the long grass, waiting on tenterhooks – after all, I am in Africa. Suddenly, yet at the same time in slow motion, the grass parts and there he is. The lone bull. 

At an almost sloth-like pace, I bring my camera towards my eye, attempting to capture everything that this moment is. Only then, as tears are falling, do I realise that happiness is pouring out of me like sunshine through fine white linen, pure and light. 

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The Lone Bull
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Myself and the amazing Shoes

The elusive diva of the north

In March 2018, National Geographic Traveller asked their readers to submit a great piece of travel writing in a bid to discover the very best untapped talent. The prize, a two-week Thailand Hike, Bike and Kayak Adventure courtesy of G Adventures. They, of course, received hundreds of entries, however, had to whittle these down to just three compelling tales that would be published in the October issue of the magazine. The winning piece; Uganda: Songs for Elephants by Dom Tulett was a compelling read and left a lasting impression with its reader. Of course, I was a little enervated at not being published; nonetheless I have decided to post my entry here:

We have spent the past five days traversing northern Norway; wolf encounters in Narvik, reindeer spotting on the North Cape and husky sledging through Alta. Each night we’ve waited patiently to catch a glimpse of what the locals call the ‘diva of the north’; however she has yet to make an appearance and so tonight, our last night, is our last chance.

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Wolf Encounter at Polar Park, Narvik

We were due to be flying further north to Spitsbergen, the crown of Arctic Norway. However, the vast blanket of white that is engulfing the city, swallowing distant objects, means our plane has been grounded, and we’re going nowhere. Although disheartened at the missed opportunity of scouring the horizons of Svalbard for polar bears, we are determined to make the most of our extra night in Tromsø, the gateway to the Arctic.

As dusk falls over the city, we wander the historic centre, delighting in the traditional architecture, imagining what stories live within the chestnut red and burnt yellow walls. I look out across the steel grey Tromsøysundet strait, and admire the iconic Arctic Cathedral, built in the 1960’s the triangular structure stretches skyward, imitating the hulking snow-capped mountains behind.

We cross over the Tromsø Bridge, toward the mainland and take a cable car to the top of Mount Storsteinen where we are rewarded with a sweeping view of the city. Beneath the canopy of the night sky, Tromsø appears almost as though it’s been dusted with glitter; for the city is alive with lights. Our guide, a professor at the city’s university, draws our attention to the emerging constellations from the palette of stars above; the Little Dipper, the Northern Cross and a lone orbiting satellite.

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Tromsø from Mount Storsteinen, 421 metres above sea level.

Inside, I take a bite of my reindeer burger and listen intently as the professor tells me of his encounters with the ‘diva of the north’. He recounts the variety of forms, colours and intensities that she can take on. Suddenly, as though she knows she’s being spoken about, she teases the sky with the first hint of her approach and the excitable buzz of chatter in the restaurant increases in volume. I find the nearest exit, hoping this is it; the moment I’ve been waiting for.

I look up at the night sky. At first, it appears indistinct, a light smudge behind a bank of clouds. The smudge starts to glow and gather into tormented twists of ethereal green. It is indisputable now, the elusive diva of the north as arrived. The Northern Lights dance across the sky in a sequence that only Mother Nature could choreograph. I gasp as a halo of vibrating violet light explodes almost directly above my head. I am speechless, awestruck. Bursts of white, green and purple continue to splash themselves against the canvas of the sky, as though being formed by the brushstrokes of a haphazard hand. There is nothing inexpert about this artist, though; every touch is calculated, every motion nuances the breathtaking final masterpiece.

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Aurora Borealis from Storsteinen

And then, as swiftly as it began, the spectacle above me dissolves into nothing, and I’m sure the natural phenomena has departed. But then, instantaneously she forms on another horizon, dancing onwards, swirling streams of colour amid the craggy peaks. She continues late into the night, the diva of the north, the sensation of the sky, has given us the performance of a lifetime.

Bula Bula

As we drive away from the airport towards my accommodation in Wailoaloa Bay, my first impression of Fiji is not what I expected it to be. The skies are filled with angry clouds, the land is lush emerald green, and the ocean looks unforgiving; not quite the idyllic blue skies and azure waters I have seen plastered online.

Viti Levu, the largest of the Fijian Islands, is home to three-quarters of the population and is the hub of the entire Fijian archipelago. Nadi, (pronounced NAN – DEE) located on the west side of the island is where I’ll be basing myself for the short time that I have in this pacific paradise.

Once I’ve dumped my luggage in my dorm room I head to the beach where I witness some tourists and locals playing rugby – Fiji’s national sport. The sun is starting to set, and although the grey clouds are still lingering and it’s raining, it’s a sight to behold. The setting sun paints the horizon hues of orange and shades of burnt red.

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Locals & tourists playing rugby on the beach.
Wailoaloa Bay Sunset

I spend my first full day exploring Wailoaloa Bay and the town of Nadi; the local bus offers an easy and convenient way of exploring the main island with fares starting at $0.70. There wasn’t much to the centre of Nadi, only some shops, restaurants, cafes a small handicraft market as well as a produce market. However, at the base of Main Street, I stumbled across the Sri Siva Subramaniya Swami Temple. The Hindu temple offered an insight into the traditional Dravidian architecture and is one of only a handful of traditional temples outside of India. The colourful exterior pops against the clearing skies.

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Sri Siva Subramaniya Swami Temple
Sri Siva Subramaniya Swami Temple
The detail on the sari I purchased to enter the temple.
Selfie inside the Sri Siva Subramaniya Swami Temple

It’s late afternoon by the time I make it back to the hostel, the rain has since passed, and the temperature has risen. I walk down to the beach and make a conscious decision to explore. I head in both directions, taking in the rugged coastline and for a while, I just sit, watching a seaplane land and not long after, take off again.

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Seaplane landing in Wailoaloa Bay
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Wailoalioa Bay
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Rugby on the beach at sunset

For my second and third days, I’ve booked myself onto two different sailing tours. One that focuses on exploring some of the various islands while the latter is all about discovering the regions marine life. I take the local bus to Denarau Island where all boats trips/island cruises depart.

Not long after we pick up anchor, I see a break in the clouds ahead – the sun is attempting to make an appearance. As soon as we sail through the threshold, there is nothing but clear blue skies ahead. THIS is the Fiji I came to see.

After sailing for around an hour and a half, we drop anchor just off the coast of Modriki. Modriki is an uninhabited island, part of the Atolls islands and was the scene for Tom Hanks ‘Castaway.’ Castaway is an epic survival drama starring Tom Hanks; a FedEx employee marooned on an uninhabited island after his plane crashes in the Pacific Ocean. He attempts to survive on the island using remnants of his plane’s cargo and after visiting the island and experiencing its remoteness, it’s no wonder Tom Hanks’ character turned to Wilson for company. We leave Modriki behind and sail north-east towards Yanuya, where we are welcomed by the local community with a Kava Ceremony, an important aspect when visiting any village. We receive a short tour of the island, the local homes and school and meet some of the local children who bear some of the happiest smiles I have ever come across!

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Atoll Islands
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Sailing the Atoll Islands
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Modriki Island
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Modriki Island
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Yanuya Island
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Yanuya Island
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Yanuya Island Locals
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Yanuya Island Locals
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The most happiest, friendliest souls!
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Sailing back to Port Denarau

Day three included another early morning departure from Port Denarau; this time we were headed towards the magical islands of Malolo Lailai , Tavarua, Namotu and out to the outer reefs. After sailing for a while, we drop anchor at a sand quay close to the Malolo Barrier Reef, where the calm, clear waters make it easy to spot the elaborate reef structures and masses of marine life. I place numerous linckia laevigata (cobalt blue starfish), crescent wrasse, parrotfish and scissortail. After a generous amount of time snorkelling, we climb back on board and make our way towards Malolo Lailai Island where a sumptuous Fijian BBQ has been laid out. Freshly grilled fish, various meats, salads and fresh fruit. After filling up on the delicious spread, I swam in the Likuliku Lagoon and just appreciated the beauty that surrounded me before we made our way back to Viti Levu.

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The ocean floor was covered in these cobalt blue starfish. (I of course had to dive down and borrow one for a selfie before gently placing it back.)
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Diving with the scissor-tail sergeant
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Coral Cats Catamaran anchored at Malolo Lailai Island.

If this trip has taught me anything, it’s that there are two sides to Fiji, a green side and a blue side. Do your research before you go, plan what you want to see, what it is you want to get from your time here and plan your base accordingly.

Sitting on the plane back to Melbourne, I felt that actually, Nadi was a great base for myself to be able to explore the variety that this country has to offer. If you find yourself wanting to base yourself on one of the smaller islands, I get it. Who wouldn’t want to wake up to calm clear waters each morning? But don’t confine yourself to one island, because Fiji is so much more!

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Departing Nadi International Airport, bound for Melbourne.