Sunsets and the Power Of Reflection

I love sunsets. They are one of the few moments in life when we are not only able to, but feel comfortable enough to stop, think and reflect; they allow us to just be.

Last week I saw an old friend handle the hardest day of her life with memorising composure and unwavering courage. Still now I am in awe of her strength and compassion; she had the room in the palm of her hand as she spoke about her beautiful mum. Everyone in the room hung onto her every word, they laughed, cried and everything in between. She was braver than most adults would be in the circumstances as she said goodbye. And I was so proud to be her friend.

It got me thinking about how much or little time we get on this earth. We have one shot at it; what are you doing to make yours count? What am I doing to make mine?

It’s so easy to be trapped constantly in your life bubble – worrying about shopping, thinking about the next promotion, the run I should probably go for, the emails I still haven’t got round too. I find myself breaking up time into blocks of years, leaving pipeline dreams on the shelf.

I am a firm believer we are right where we are supposed to be. Every moment, every memory and every lesson has helped us to where we are now, and will be valuable in the future. But are we putting in the ground work, being patient, being understanding, for something that will never come? Or putting in time time and energy to something that is not what we really want? And then if it’s not right, then what are we after? And if we are here for a limited time, how long should we wait before enough is enough? Are we slowing ourselves down to reaching our full potential, our true purpose?

There are those that wait for opportunities to fall into their laps, and there are those that are the go-getters (often mistaken for being impatient). But is to push forwards a bad thing? In many ways, I suppose how can we know if we are wasting time as every moment is an experience. But how are we to know when a scenario, job, friendship, circumstance is stale? How do we know whether the grass will be greener? At what point do we stop and look at the bigger picture, is there genuine value in what is now, or what comes next? And how does one quantify value?

The only answer I have so far is it that cliche gut feeling seems to know. And reflecting is done best whilst watching a sunset.

No time has ever been wasted doing that.

 

rx

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10 Tips for visiting London; With Love from a Londonder xo

I don’t know have to break it to you, even if you’re visiting for a month, no, a year, you just aren’t going to meet the Queen…

Visiting London soon for the first time? Here are 10 London hacks to help you wade through the vastly diverse and eclectic city, where like anywhere, there is too much to do in often too little time.
Enjoy!

1. Travel. Forget the Oyster card. Carrying pounds is useless to you. Be sure you have a contactless credit or debit card. That way you are already good to go on ANY London transport – buses, tubes, the overground, even trains. You are all set.

2. Carry a small umbrella or shawl/scarf around with you at all times – you never quite know when you’ll be caught in a polite British downpour.

3. Shoes. It can be a nightmare when it comes to packing footwear for a trip with a limited suitcase weight allowance. My tip? Bring boots and trainers only. If you’re optimistic and in the capital in the months of June – August bring flip-flops. 

4. The Central Line is nicknamed the Central Heating Line for a reason. It gets unimaginably hot. I was recently in New York. Your subway air conditioning? Heavenly. I felt like royalty. Our underground system is much older, much smaller, much more cramped and assists over 8 MILLION Londonders on their commutes, (plus tourist figures). It gets hot, it gets sweaty, you will find your nose in a strangers armpit, or vice-versa. I just think you should be prepared for that.

5. Parks. Unlike New York (which feels like every single park opportunity has been condensed into one ginormous park), in London you are spoilt for choice. My personal favourite is Greenwich Park. The views, the space and the nearby Martime Museum is every bit as Jane Austin as you can imagine.

6. Cycling around London on Boris bikes. Sure, but I recommend parks only. The roads are not really built for cyclists; London drivers have no patience, and we have more public buses than any other city I have visited in the world. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for our vivid red fleet of TFL buses – the amount of times they have rescued me as I’ve found myself in a torrential downpour wearing only flip flops – but the fumes that power-fart out the exhausts will transfer directly down your throat, into your lungs. It’s grim.

7. Go see Big Ben, Westminster, Oxford Circus, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye, Tower of London, you have to do these things once. These buildings and sites are incredible, I hate to say it but it’s as good as the guidebooks tell you. 

Tip: If you struggle with busy crowds, nip down an alleyway and take a parallel street. You’ll find yourself removed from the London bustle almost instantaneously.

8. Best free things to do? Walk along the length of Southbank (in the evening, and especially at Christmas!), take a trip to gorgeous Greenwich Park (we are spoilt for parks), get a cocktail high up the Shard or the top floor of the Walkie Talkie Building in the Sky Garden. From there, take a deep breath and drink in London’s mesmerising skyline.

9. Keen to experience a British cup of tea in the country’s capital? Well there’s nothing to it and don’t be caught out. Literally pick any cafe anywhere and they will provide you with the goods.

10. Unfortunately the stereotypes are true; expect taxis to be impatient, expect commuters to look on blankly and forlorn (after all, we don’t have much sunshine *ahem* unlike you Spain, Asia, Australia! Nor do we have a beach nearby to escape to, or scenery that transports us to a happy place we didn’t know existed *New Zealand!* Nor do we have the super high buildings and epically cool immensity of New York or LA)

We are London, we are practical, we are busy and we will apologise even if you accidentally bop into us
Ok & an 11th for fun. I don’t know how to tell you this (and trust me when I say breaking this news to my American friend was actually traumatic); No matter what you think ‘visiting/living in London’ means, and no matter however many times you visit Buckingham Palace, you just are not going to meet the Queen. 

9 Things No-One Tells You About Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

1. You are legitimately living above the clouds for more-a-less a week.

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2. When you attempt the summit you will experience by far, the most mesmerising, captivating sunrise in the world. There is nothing more breathtaking than the sun stirring and watching the ball of fire rise up high over the whole of Africa. The immensity will overwhelm you.

 

3. No matter how muscly you are, how many times a week you go to the gym,

Photo 02-08-2017, 22 22 46.jpghow many rugby medals you have, how many marathons you have run, I don’t care if you can lift your body weight x6; the porters are unbelievable and will put you to shame. Guaranteed. We all felt completely inadequate!

 

 

4. Let’s get real. It’s not all bright African colours, exotic animals and beautiful landscapes. You will be looking at this for roughly two thirds of the hike…

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5. CLIP YOUR TOENAILS BEFORE YOU SET OFF. Otherwise descending steeply, for at least two days, with your toes rammed into the front of your boots is hell. on. earth. Trust me I learnt the hard way.

 

6. You will be taken the piss out of forever. You’re the git in the group that climbed Kilimanjaro, and you can’t live it down. But DAMN RIGHT you did.

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7. Do not expect toilets, they are not toilets as we know. If you are lucky enough to stumble across a ‘toilet’, it is an adventurous shack and you will be met by a hole. The horrific stench will throttle your throat, burn into your eyes and bring up your breakfast, lunch and dinner from three days ago. Here are a few pieces of advice on this point:

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7a) Learn to squat; squat every damn day before you leave, you’re not sitting on a toilet for a week. And if you’re not well on the trip (yes, you know what I’m saying), you really really want to know how to squat.

 

7b) You do not need a piss, you do not need to throw up, nor do you need to shit. No no. You need to ‘send a message’ (the polite way to tell your porter you desperately need to go). By the end of the trip your whole group will be sending texts, emails, need to send a text in about half an hour, asking when is next best opportunity to send an email, demanding they need to send urgent emails, need to send a text RIGHT NOW(!), no the message can’t wait, etc.

 

8. The epic glacier that spans for miles, visible from Kilimanjaro’s summit, is estimated to be gone within 50 years. If there hasn’t been a more convincing reason yet to get on and tick this off your bucket list, now you have one.

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9. When you finally make it to the bottom, get yourself to paradise island aka. Zanzibar, literally only a half hour flight away and treat yourself to a cocktail (or eleven). You just climbed to the roof of Africa, you bloody deserve it.

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The One & Only New York City: 8 Observations

Never been to New York before? No, neither had I until 7 days ago. In fact, I’ll raise you one more, I had not even stepped foot on American soil. As a mere Londoner travelling to the biggest – and so the films tell me, greatest – city on earth, I was intrigued, apprehensive and just a little excited to explore this iconic city. After great deliberation, here are my top eight observations about New York.

  1. Queue’s – you think you’re first, you’re not. You’re probably third.

I am now back in the safety of London and I’m still confused by the three-queues-but-pick-the-shortest-one-and-wait-for-ages-and-at-some-point-unbeknown-to-you-suddenly-it’s-your-turn.

Erm, who made up that system?

And even then, once you’ve been told to go, what if someone else thinks it’s their turn also? Naturally, when this happened to me, like any other British person, I took a step forwards, then back, then awkwardly, suggestively stumbled forward again, bumped into my competitor, stood there blustering mumbling apologies (as us British do), then got barked at to walk to till 19. Somehow I left unharmed with all my groceries. But any explanation or insight into this would be hugely appreciated.

  1. Everything is ginormous

I keep getting told that ‘ginormous’ is a child’s word, but ‘enormous’ and ‘gigantic’ do not do New York justice. The meal sizes (huge, bigger than UK size plates); Pavements (sorry, ‘sidewalks’) necessary considering it’s basically the heart of the world,

Views of Manhattan
Views of Manhattan

but still so wide!; Buildings (every single building, including an average apartment block is what I consider a London skyscraper); The Views (not one is average), and Drinks (a double, G&T? oh my) – honestly everything is ginormous. Then there you have the size of Central Park – after walking the streets of New York extensively, I see what happened here. New Yorkers appear to be allowed to have one humungous Central Park (basically five Hyde Parks) all squished into the one space, or no park. And finally, cost of anything in NYC – well yeah, thanks Brexit.

 

Manhattan by Night
This was taken from Westlight rooftop Bar in Brooklyn. A view of Manhattan as the sunset over the city.
  1. Run

I have thought this for other cities (Sydney, Melbourne, Vienna, Budapest, Prague), but

Brooklyn Bridge
An empty Brooklyn Bridge at sunrise

this more than ever stands true for New York. Run, go running. First thing. Whilst the skies are still hazy and New Yorkers are still snoozing. Run up fifth, see the library, the Empire State, jog further over and pass The Chrysler Building, just keep running.

Another day, join New Yorkers and jog around Central Park. Tip: Be sure to stay in the running lane and move in the correct direction. These people are not awkwardly polite like Londoners, they will nudge you out the way.

 

Central Park Resovoir
Running round Central Park Reservoir

Be selfish, see the John Lennon memorial, the reservoir, the boathouse, Strawberry Fields, see it all. The day after that (or maybe have a rest day first), run over Brooklyn Bridge. And experience each of these at sunrise because the morning light catches each of these moments with almost a poetic beauty. Not to mention the city is empty and you get each of these breathtaking views all to yourself.

 

  1. The films don’t make it up

Firstly, it’s true, New Yorkers love to honk their horns. All day, in all scenarios, with full force, for absolutely what is longer than (in British opinion), necessary. I found it loud and hilarious.

Secondly, screaming “TAXI!” in a high pitched voice with Carrie Bradshaw levels of sass, is so satisfying and just as thrilling in real life.

  1. Don’t hire bikes to cycle around Central Park

There will be countless sales people at local bike docking points, and bike company representatives hovering around park entrances and nearby streets trying to sell you their bike services. My advice is don’t do it!

Central Park Westside Entrace
My first steps entering Central Park

In theory cycling seems like a great idea because the park is huge. But because the park is so big, docking every half an hour is incredibly limiting (getting lost is half the fun, right?!)

Also, hiring bikes from a company is deceiving and equally limiting because you can only really use the main paths for cycling. There are countless footpaths, fields, narrow bridges, random steps up to a different level, and busy areas, all of which are fun to explore. But only possible and from my experience more accessible and enjoyable on foot.

  1. Yellow buses from Recess and Lizzie McGuire actually exist

I saw one with my own eyes! Mind.Totally. Blown.

(Also I think I completely bewildered the driver trying to get these close up shots of what I am sure, in her eyes, is just a mundane dilapidated school bus).

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  1. Chance on a flea market!

There are random pop-up flea markets all over the city. Before I went, I didn’t really understand what a flea market was, sure Lorelai and Rory visit a bunch in Gilmore girls, but I don’t think a British person can quite grasp it unless you experience one yourself.

Elephant Bracelet
I found this Elephant Bracelet at Flea market in Manhattan, $5 bargain!

In England, we have very organised weekly markets that all have items in specific stall categories; the banana guy, the make-up stall, the pets stall. Flea markets? There are old baseballs, old baseball gloves and hats (I’m taking 60s, 70s vintage), quirky artwork, vinyls, masks, old trinkets, rings, vintage jewellery. Maybe less practical than the organised typical British market, but for a New York virgin like me? So cool. p.s. I got this beautiful elephant bracelet there.

 

 

  1. Live Music

My last and final point is the most important: Go and hear live jazz. My evening at The Blue Note Jazz Club was one of the best live jazz nights of my life; it truly gives London’s Ronnie Scotts a run for it’s money. The Blue Note Jazz Club has been graced with icons such as Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Oscar Peterson and Ray Charles. On the history alone, it’s a great place to settle to a night of brilliant entertainment (and delicious food if the budget allows).

I also took a trip up to Harlem to watch the infamous ‘Amateur Night’ at the iconic Apollo theatre, famous for launching Ella Fitzgerald’s career and the same event and location that saw Jimi Hendrix win first place in 1964.

Harlam
Harlam Art

The Apollo in Harlem (famous for being a space for African-American artists to perform since 1934), has been home to swingers such as Duke Ellington and Chuck Webb, and gospel legends Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It has also housed soul legend Otis Redding and megastars James Brown, and The Jackson 5 just to name a few.

Again, either of these nights are a must do. Tickets for each were similar if not cheaper than visiting views at the top of the Rockefeller and Empire State.

I may be bias, but music has the capacity to transport and inspire anyone to a different place if they let it; Jazz and soul live allows every part of your body to wake up, it lets you feel, endure, hear, and see more than any view ever could.

You can’t go to New York City and not experience live music.

 

 

An Honest Reflection: 7 things they don’t tell you about Volunteering Abroad

Volunteering in India, what springs to mind? With those I trained alongside (who went on to volunteer in Tanzania), we conjured up images of morning yoga at sunrise, bright intricate temples with gold statues and burning incense, eclectic Indian dress, soft silks, rich spices, mouthwatering exotic, hot Indian cuisine, henna body-art, bustling streets, and of course exposure to a whole plethora of faiths, belief systems, customs and traditions.

Much of the above stayed true to our imagination. I have never seen more breathtaking clothing; married women wore sari’s made of beautiful precious silks, others wore delicately stitched salwars with graceful scarves. Coupled with nose rings and bindi’s, every girl and woman looked like a goddess.

The roads were crazy; imagine five or six heaving lanes of traffic and each vehicle simultaneously moving in anything but a coherent line, tangled like spaghetti, weaving in and out of one another, some cars, some motorbikes, a majority tuk-tuks. Of course, the priority was not to avoid crashing into one another, but to dodge crashing into the sacred cows lying in the middle of the road or the heard of goats trotting at the edge alongside the frenzy going on millimetres from their hoofs.

Naturally, locals wanted to cross those roads too which added yet a further layer of mayhem, and don’t get me started on the Indian equivalent of motorways where vehicles drove towards you in high speed traffic – it was something out of Grand Theft Auto (minus the guns and gangsters). The only single word that truly describes it, is chaos. However, this total chaos made perfect sense, for it quickly became the norm, it was their way of life.

And visiting a local temple was like nothing I have ever experienced. I was nervous. The walls stood tall, magnificent, guarded by incredible sculpted statues. Lines of people stood waiting their turn to enter with an offering, as the outpouring of incense from within stepped up the humidity and left a mist in its wake. It was intimidating. It was exciting.

However with all the beauty and wonder that India has to offer, I was not there as a tourist. As a volunteer I had a job; to help communities that needed sustainable change. We were tasked with implementing projects that, in theory, had the ability to create momentum to develop communities and change locals’ lives from the very grass roots up. Our work, socially and physically allowed for volunteers and communities alike to consider ideas they had not thought about before, question their perception of normal and reconsider habits and their way of life; from washing hands with soap before eating a meal with their hands, to creating small kitchen gardens, to giving volunteers a platform to express real feelings and locals the opportunity to openly condemn violence against women. Through building relationships, nationals began to entertain the incomprehensible thought that on different land in another country a long way away, girls marry for love. And that one day, their daughters or daughters children, could marry for love too.

For all the research and reading I did in preparation, all the emergency supplies I took, and for all the positives that came from volunteering, there were some aspects of this experience that took me by surprise.

1. No matter how much you prepare, your experience will be emotionally, physically and mentally overwhelming.

It is possible to prepare for a different living situation and different culture if you are expecting it. Before I left, I felt I had armed myself for the most extreme scenario; I expected no toilet (I practised squats for months), expected no shower (I had packed approx. 8 bottles of dry shampoo to last me 3 months!), I expected to eat food I wasn’t used to eating, and work with people I didn’t know very well. I was prepared mentally for sleeping on the floor or on metal, bugs/ants/cockroaches/geckos/spiders, the heat, working with a small team for a long period, being a girl (or guy, in fact being western) and being unable to go out in public alone. I was fully aware of curfews of 8pm because it could be legitimately dangerous. I felt I was ready, some of these things perhaps more difficult to comprehend than others, but possible to get my head around. I felt I could handle whatever situation I found myself in because I wanted to volunteer abroad and such ways of life come with the territory.

What is not possible to prepare for however, is how each of these individual factors will affect you. Consider each of those and stop for a moment. Eating the same meal, three times a day, day in day out, for 90 days precisely (3 months), that’s 270 meals  – that has emotional and physical implications whatever your best intentions (and without thinking about food allergies etc). Then add any of the above on top. When they all impact at once, it hits hard that this is reality. This combination of factors, circumstances – this, constantly, is how life is now for the next three months. I will not lie, I found it quite tough.

The aspect I found most difficult and had not fully prepared for mentally, (and it is difficult to do so because you cannot imagine it), was having such little freedom; in how I dressed, what I ate, when I ate, where I went (or wasn’t allowed to go). If I wanted peace and quiet, I was living on top of eight others. If I didn’t fancy another curry, it was irrelevant and I had to go to breakfast unless I was ill, because it would offend my hosts if I did not. If I had a falling out with a fellow volunteer, there was no where to go. We  lived and worked in the same space; we had to put differences aside and make it work. The work I did there was more important than any personal disagreement. When I was sweltering hot in the 35+ degrees, I could not take any layers off or change into shorts, I had to continue wearing full length clothing and leggings under my salwar. If I ever needed time to myself, it was difficult because I was not allowed out in the open alone, and I shared my room, my personal space, with other volunteers. When I wasn’t well and needed a fresh shower, I had to retrieve the buckets of water first (showering was a practical act, not relaxing or refreshing). I could not get up early and go for a run as I usually would in London; you do not do that because wild dogs will chase and it is completely inappropriate for a western girl to go out alone at any point in the day. It was never a matter of having the confidence to be different (in my mind before I left, I figured ‘so what? Let them see a taste of what life is like in the UK’). Quickly you learn that is ignorant, frankly stuck-up and stupid. It was not about me having confidence, it was not about personal needs; it was about what was respectful and appropriate in the societal framework I lived within. I found this aspect particularly difficult because like a majority other women in the west I am defiant, strong-willed and independent. Speaking my mind and acting as I wish is as second nature to me as breathing. So the level of total gender inequality shocked me. I had definitely expected it to be that way, but never stopped to consider that I would fall into the same category and be confined to such an extent too. Living as a woman was incredibly infuriating, suffocating, and at moments unbearably hard. But I had to take a deep breath, and respect the country, customs, and circumstances I was in and remind myself constantly why I was there.

2. You will be more culture shocked as you return home after being away.

Besides the oddness of reintroducing yourself to ‘normal’ organised traffic, sitting in a comfortable car with warmed reclining leather seats, coming home and there being a carpet underfoot, paint or wallpaper hung on walls, a sofa, your own bed! Something will have fundamentally changed inside you. New thoughts that enter your head and how you now lead your life will shock you.

All of a sudden, you realise your sense of normal has shifted. When you are getting ready for work and rummage through twenty or thirty tops and push aside dress after skirt after trouser, there is no sense of ‘I have nothing to wear’. Immediately the reaction instead is, ‘what have I been doing all my life. Who can I give this to that needs it more than I?’

When the shower runs cold, you don’t get angry with your parent/partner/the water company; you are grateful you are standing under fresh clean water that automatically runs out, not a rationed bucket of water you had to walk to collect or wait to fill up.

When the train is running two or three minutes late, or a train is cancelled, you are no longer furious with the train company; you know another train will eventually come, you know you can get the next underground tube in four or six minutes. Before your time away that was a long time to wait, now you know it is no big deal because another train will come that will get you across the city in less than fifteen minutes. Also, you can afford that rail fare, you do not need to walk for hours.

Where I volunteered, trains were not even an option, buses or walking were one’s means of transport. And on busses, particularly when girls go home alone after work in the evening, they are at risk of being gang raped. Thank goodness for TFL and the safety of my bus or train that may be late, but will eventually show. And I will get home just fine.

3. Building strong relationships with your fellow volunteers is as important as the volunteering itself

This is crucial because the bond between volunteers will directly impact the success of the projects you are implementing. Difficulties lie in the constant close proximity you will work and live in, so naturally there will be disagreements. If there are problems within teams, it is important to shake those and deal with them immediately so the projects and your purpose for being in that scenario is not affected. Another difficulty lies in the fact you may meet your team in a social scenario, bond on the plane etc. so you engage as friends first, then colleagues second. My advice would be to try and get to know the volunteers before you go on the trip, have conversations about volunteering, find out how engaged with international development they are. In the back of your mind, consider whether you could engage with these individuals in a work capacity. Perhaps when it comes to volunteering, choose a company that has a long interviewing process – in many ways you are guaranteed to get great individuals that want to be there for the right reasons. Also, consider maybe choosing a volunteering programme where you have to pay; this might sound crazy when there are free options out there, but those that really want it and care will pay the money. Like any job, it is often the people that make it a success. And you want to be in a team of enthusiastic people that care for the projects, that are passionate about the role, that want to engage, work hard, make change.

4. Expect downtime 

In my opinion, to some extent volunteering abroad is sold as an action packed and challenging time. Which it 100% definitely is. However what is not mentioned is how much time you will have to yourself; to think, to read, to dwell and reflect. There is a lot of time to sit and find calm, and delve into your own head. Often you can find thoughts there you didn’t know existed until you found yourself in calm, away from your normal reality. When you consider volunteering, double check and be honest with yourself, are you okay being on your own?

5. Unapologetically be yourself

Do not be influenced by those around you, be inspired by, but not influenced. Your particular skill set; the way you speak, your outlook on different issues, your creative, vocal, practical abilities, your problem-solving and practical logical thinking, your enthusiasm, even your experiences and knowledge about whatever it is you are into – hold on to what you know is you, you were chosen to be a part of that volunteering team for a reason. So be uncompromising in who you are, be yourself, you are the best person in the world at being you. And you will be surprised by your ability to positively influence those around you by maintaining integrity and standing by your morals and ideals.

6. You will have people on your Facebook that are snotty about what you are doing and assume you are going on a holiday. Ignore it, prove them wrong

To avoid this criticism, (because with every single charity/voluntary situation I have been involved with, it is inevitable), I suggest two things:

1. Research very carefully what you will actually be doing day to day. For example, if you are a music graduate or maths genius, do you think you are capable of building a school? Are you strong, do you know how, do you have the skill set? If you are to teach, are you interested in topics that will actually be covered? Do you like children or the age group you will be teaching too? Do you think you are able to learn the content, do you have a basic grasp on the topics before you ever begin training?

It is easy to get swept up in the idea of living in a country that is different to what you are used too. My advice would be this; if you wouldn’t do it at home, don’t do it abroad.

2. Let’s face it, we haven’t put ourselves forward to volunteer in the UK, we are choosing to go abroad. But let’s not consider this experience a holiday. It will be the furthest thing from! Naturally in going away, sure the plane part is identical to a holiday, but make sure your social media content is not. Write about reflections, post about memories, moments, the work you are doing, changes in perspective, successes, even failures, write about the individuals you meet, the girls’ circumstances that are changing your life. If you don’t want a backlash from social media, be incredibly careful what you put on there and how you think people will perceive your time spent in this different place. We’ve all seen the volunteerism articles that circulated a while back and they aren’t wrong. Taking a picture of a group of small children from above makes the photographer seem (unintentionally) superior. Instead take a picture on their level with them, naturally eradicates any sense of west vs. east or rich and poor. Even better, have pictures taken when you are engaging with locals and with children. Again, this comes down to research on what you will be doing, but understand the bigger picture of what you are doing. If you are stopping by for a few days in one school, honestly ask yourself, are you there for your needs? Perhaps. Find projects where you can fully immerse for a long period of time, find opportunities where there is some level of constant, because that is the only way sustainable change will come.

7. You will find yourself pleasantly surprised by how attached you become to your counterpart and host families.

I am not one for hugs, I am not one for open affection. So I personally found it incredibly difficult to warm to the families, counterpart volunteers and even fellow national volunteers I did not know. It is hard to admit, but hey, a lesson learnt, that it took me time (longer than most), to adjust and feel comfortable in the host families homes. However, by the time we left, it was incredibly difficult to say goodbye.

The more I learnt, the more conversations that were had and the more I witnessed their way of life, the more I realised how strong, resilient and brilliant the women there are. The longer I was there and the more I have reflected since, the harder it is to express the total respect and awe I feel for women and girls living in circumstances and under constraints we in the west would be suffocated by.

Those women and their families became surrogate families away from home. They cared, they treated each of us with complete kindness. The realisation that you may not see their bright, playful children again is difficult to comprehend when you are used to seeing them at least three times a day. It is difficult to comprehend the realities that the national volunteers will face once you leave and their voluntary place on the programme ends. It is incredibly difficult going home, going back to ‘reality’ starting a job, going back to hugging/kissing your boyfriend in public, because you know the world is literally your oyster, but you have come to know your national volunteers so well, and see so much potential, but have no idea if their society will ever allow for them to reach it.

You will miss their simplistic uncomplicated lives, their homes, their company, their food, their chatter, their quirks. Just sitting cross-legged on the floor in a circle eating with our host families and volunteers, chattering in broken English and Tamil, giggling as rice fell from our inadequate hands/mouths, are some of my fondest memories of my time in south India.

Any experience is what you make it, but be honest with yourself about whether it is right for you and whether you truly believe you will be a hinderance or a help.

Short of time? 5 Must-do’s in Sri Lanka!

If you are travelling in the region, do not skip Sri Lanka. I repeat: do. not. skip. Sri Lanka. No matter your time scale, it is possible to squeeze in as little or as much as you want of this beautifully vibrant, versatile country. There isn’t the same tourist chaos as found in parts of Thailand, and travellers are always pleasantly surprised by how built up the cities and towns are. It is a (somewhat) hidden gem and when it comes to Sri Lanka, travellers are still playing catch up.

No matter how limited your time, if you’re in Asia, Sri Lanka must be in the top five destinations on your list. And here’s why:

 

  1. Beaches

The most wonderful thing about the beaches in Sri Lanka is the complete lack of people. Nobody is going to get in the way of your view, Sri Lanka is just not busy enough to be crowded. Relax, sunbathe, chill, be at ease with no noise, loud tourists or photo disruption!

Unuwatuna Beach; a home from home

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Marisa Beach; white sands paradise

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2. Ella Mountains

File 09-05-2017, 23 33 26A MUST visit. I highly recommend staying at the Rock Side Inn, Ella. I assure you, you will not be disappointed. This beautiful boutique guesthouse is situated high up in the mountains (getting to the front porch is an adventure in itself across a rickety
bridge!) From here, you will be only in awe; quite clearly nature is showing off.

 

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I recommend waking up early for sunrise and (accompanied by a small local monkey or two), watching the sun creep round and break out across the picturesque mountains as they tower around you in their full glory.

Inhale the crisp, cool, morning fresh air, feel the beginnings of the sun’s warmth dance on your skin, and open your eyes to the total serenity and calm found in this breathtaking atmosphere, high up and away from the rest of the world.

 

3. Sunrises and sunsets

Glimpse them just once, and these views will imprint on your mind, always –

Unuwatuna sunrise…                                                                               … and sunset

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By the watering hole, taken at 05:30am on the Safari:

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4. Gaga Bees Yala

Photo 27-04-2016, 10 23 35If you can squeeze it into your trip, I highly recommend staying at the eco-friendly boutique Gaga Bees Yala; the most beautiful quaint compound like no place else I have ever stayed. Each chalet hut is perfectly unique with a hatched roof, decking out-front to overlook the well kept communal garden area and mosquito nets. The shower can only be described as something out of Tarzan or Pocahontus; think western shower-heard, crossed with a rocky pebble floor (take flip-flops!) and enough gaps in the bamboo/wall structure that meets the thatched roof for steam to escape, but just enough for visitors to maintain their dignity. Highlights include; a giant lizard (commonly known as the ‘water monitor’ and regularly seen around the complex), taking residence in our roof and sliding around in the thick straw during the night; also a frog taking residence in our toilet for the night, leaping out at 5am as we bleary-eyed prepared for the Yala National Park Safari.

Big tip: Do not keep your rucksack or suitcase open, especially on the floor. Cockroaches will climb in (in our instance, two). Trying to get a cockroach out of a rucksack that has wormed it’s way down in-between your clothes is a very dramatic (for me, traumatic!) experience.

5. Where in the world are you facing?

Visit the most southern point of the island. Try not to fall in or get swept away – think about this for a moment; the next mass of land you will meet is the Antarctic, over 6,000 miles away…

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