Hungarian Hospitality
Jun11

Hungarian Hospitality

We were two ginger-haired bike punks from England, cycling through Eastern Europe. We left the bohemian beauty of Budapest behind, and followed the Danube river as it meandered south towards the Serbian border. The bumpy Eurovelo 6 route skirted by under our bike wheels. We trundled past endless farmland, occasionally broken by tiny villages with dusty streets and one small shop, where we always stopped to buy bread and our favourite hazelnut-cream wafer snacks. It was early spring, and already the sun beat down relentlessly. Stalks nested on every lamp post. Small groups of people were out in the fields, working the land by hand. Sometimes they waved at us, but they rarely smiled. People never seemed to smile in Hungary. In fact, the more I smiled, the more people seemed to frown in return. Samantha, one quarter Hungarian herself, told me the smiling issue dated back to the communist years, when you were all in it together and there was nothing to smile about. Night was falling on our second evening, and our water bottles were empty. There were no towns marked on our map for miles. We squinted hopefully into the horizon. After some time, Samantha spied a couple of houses. We veered off the track and headed toward them. A clamour of barking dogs rose as we approached. A man popped out of his house, presumably to find out what the hell was causing the racket. We held up our empty bottles, grins plastered to our faces. He took them from us and lead us round the side of his house, where he began to pump water from a well by hand. He pumped for a long time before water began trickling through. He held up his hand, signalling for us to wait. It seemed he had to drain off some water first, before the clean drinking water could come through. “Kávé?” he asked, when the bottles were full. Sam and I looked at one another. We’d both given up coffee, but I liked the man and didn’t want to refuse his hospitality. We nodded happily and followed him inside. The house was humble, with a small kitchen and open-plan sitting room, where the television was left babbling to itself. Samantha and I perched ourselves at the small kitchen table while our host made coffee for me, and hot water for Sam to dunk her teabag in. The aroma of the coffee mingled with his cigarette smoke in a homely kind of way. We drew pictures to explain our journey: a wiggly line between a blob called Budapest, and another marked Belgrade; two stick-people on wheels,...

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A Sacred Trail
Jun09

A Sacred Trail

To some, the act of travel is more than just escaping an office cubicle and partying hard for a few weeks; it is a cleansing ritual and turning point, and a chance to heal one’s soul. Spurred by a fateful night that culminated in a suicide attempt, 42 year-old Malene Comes decided she would walk 9000 miles across the US. “I came within 20 minutes of death,” she says. “I struggled for a few years on all fronts: professionally and financially, hormonally, and dealing with horrific depression and anxiety, especially the fear of going outside. “Rejection from a trusted friend sent me over the top, and I nearly died by my own hand. The idea for this walk followed that, plus a whole lot of prayer and crying.” Malene spent two weeks researching the feasibility of her route that connects a series of her most desired landmarks throughout the country. “I wanted to experience Indigenous cultures and the Grand Canyon, and scuba dive in Florida. I have a long-standing love affair with New Mexico and wished to walk it, and also see Oklahoma. Up north, I want to get into the deep wilderness, as well as the wide-open plains. “This is my gift to me – a route specifically designed for me,” she says. “I call it The Trail, and to me, it is sacred.” At the time of writing, Malene had walked around 670 miles (1,078km) of her goal distance, and already experienced so much. “Every part of the walk is different,” she says. “The Mojave Desert [spread across California, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada] was special for the trial of heat and extended time out in the wilderness. I had fallen in love with a man who ultimately did not want a relationship – but our experience in the desert was of deep love, forgiveness, and healing.” Reaching the Grand Canyon was a milestone, as it marked almost exactly one year after Malene attempted to take her own life. “One year before, I had been literally close to death by my own hand, and as personally broken as I think anyone can be,” she says. “The striking beauty of the Canyon was in juxtaposition to that experience. I was very emotional to realise how far I had come in one year. “I connect deeply to nature, and as such, nature manages to take me deep into my psyche, and I use that to heal.” Currently residing in Flagstaff, Arizona due to injuries, Malene is learning much about the disturbing struggles of the Diné people. “Moving into the Navajo Nation has been a stunning experience, and meeting the people here...

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Photo Essay: The Sun Pilgrims of Konark, India
Jun06

Photo Essay: The Sun Pilgrims of Konark, India

On my recent visit to the Sun Temple at Konark, I was expecting some surprises at the temples decorations; after all, it is covered with over 100,000 twelve-inch high, stone-carved interpretations of that oh-so famous instruction booklet — the Karma Sutra. And I was right: the giraffes and dogs in compromising positions were quite astonishing. However, the half-a-million sun worshipers that turned up at 12am and left within 12 hours of arriving — that was the real surprise. It turned out the owners of my guesthouse and their extended family were laying on free food and medicine for the more needy of the pilgrims destined to arrive from all over Odisha state and beyond. I arrived to find the whole family in festive spirits, cooking a huge feast in pots and pans you could bathe a baby in — actually, pans so massive I could have a bath in them! Little to no spoken English from my hosts left me uneducated about the coming onslaught. It’s 2am when I get my first introduction to the Maga Sapthami festival. Standing on the streets outside my guesthouse as the noisy precession that woke me up dances along, my own ignorance to the events dumbfounds me. Then I realise stumbling into an event the size and scale of Maga Sapthami with no prior warning is unlikely to occur twice — a real treat. This festival, also known as the Chandrabhaga Mela, has not made it on to the backpacker’s calendar yet. This is surprising, as the night before I was hanging out in the well established backpacker town of Puri, with all present as ignorant to the festivities as I was. Puri is only 60km away from this cultural behemoth — practically spitting distance. The pilgrims are here to worship the sun, bathe in the sea at sunrise, and give offerings to the Navagraha stone (nine gods) after a circumambulation of the shrine. Conversely, I’m here by accident. Some of these guys have walked for one month to arrive — I got here by auto rickshaw! The two miles or so between the sea and the temple ensure a steady torrent of people tramping the road between the two sacred sites throughout the night, holding deities and performing puppet shows of the religious legends that surround the festival. The Chandrabhaga Mela is a huge event, even by Indian standards. It turns out to be Odisha state’s second-biggest festival — one seemingly only available to those in the loop. Stumbling into such chaos without the slightest hint until the rude awakening at 2am — well, that’s what good planning is all about. Now we’re all in the...

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RUN the Silk Road: A Central Asia Marathon
May26

RUN the Silk Road: A Central Asia Marathon

Good travel is often about pushing boundaries and testing out limits. Sometimes these things are mental boundaries that must be overcome: situational fear like eating fucked-up foods and interacting through a language barrier. Sometimes limits are physical, like pushing your body through 42km of running on a hot day at high elevation. Sometimes, travel gives us opportunities to tackle both. Such is the case at Kyrgyzstan’s ‘RUN the Silk Road’ marathon — at least for some. I didn’t run of course, because that isn’t me. Plus, it would have made it WAY harder to take photos! Plenty of people did run — around 500 across the various distances. Many of these were on the 5k — but in a country without much of a running culture, even a 5k can be a personal boundary. Much more ambitious, of course, are the folks who decided it was a good day to run 42k alongside Kyrgyzstan’s most famous tourist attraction — the Pearl of the Tian Shan — Issyk-Kol Lake. Above and beyond the physical stress, a number of these runners actually came all the way from their countries just for the marathon. For some, like the Russian and Uzbek winners, the trip wasn’t far. Quite a large portion of the Full and Half Marathon participants were from Japan, largely due to the strong ties between the governments and the huge number of projects in Kyrgyzstan that are supported by Japanese NGOs (the Marathon is being one of them). Even that small fact has, as it turns out, been an impetus for personal growth. According to one of the event’s organizers, many of the volunteers that work with RUN the Silk Road have their career goals aimed at Japan. For them, this is an opportunity to learn the language and culture, and even try the food. For others who clearly knew what they were doing, the challenge is speed. There was some cash on the line, and not a small bit of it by Kyrgyzstan standards. Yet I wonder, was that the impetus? OR was it just the chance to once more test personal bests and see how much further they could push those...

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Witness The Unseen Africa with Francis Tapon
May24

Witness The Unseen Africa with Francis Tapon

Africa: often considered to be one of the least explored, dangerous, truly wild continents on Earth, and yet so romanticised. Why is this the case? Is it that, despite the constant stream of images of turmoil, corruption, crime, and general catastrophe we see on the news, there are still echoes of laughter and love amongst the people, or elephants and lions roaming free along the plains? Is it that we don’t actually get to see a sizeable chunk of Africa’s countries due to inherent danger and inaccessibility? Or is it a combination of both things? Francis Tapon, author of two books and an avid traveller, wants to set the record straight. His upcoming series, The Unseen Africa, aims to expose all elements of this great continent – not just the most dramatic, romantic, or newsworthy. “The premise [of the show] is that we’re constantly seeing the same tired, old images of Africa,” he says. “They always fall into one of two categories: the good – safaris and wildlife, tribal dancing, pyramids etc., and the bad – war, famine, disease, and chaos. Furthermore, the media usually covers the same countries, like Kenya, Tanzania, Egypt, and South Africa. “What I hope viewers will get out of The Unseen Africa is the other 90 per cent – the part that isn’t at war or suffering; the part where people live normal, healthy, happy lives; the part that lives in countries we never get to see or hear about, such as Comoros, Benin, or Guinea Bissau. And when I go to a well-known country, like Morocco, I go to parts that few others do. “By the end, viewers will have a more accurate image of Africa.” The show is based on a four-year journey across all 54 African countries, and scaling the highest mountain in each – an ambitious feat. But Francis is no stranger to travel to epic proportions: he’s walked across America four times, hiked the Continental Divide Trail (and back again!), and spent three years exploring the back roads of 25 Eastern European countries. His books, The Hidden Europe and Hike Your Own Hike, chronicle his adventures. “I adore travelling, exploring, and hiking,” he says. “I prefer sinking my teeth into countries instead of blazing through them in a few days. It’s much easier to understand Ghana if you spend a month there versus one week. “I’m trying to achieve depth and breadth with The Unseen Africa – it’s that kind of profound travel that gave me the material to write my books.” (It’s worth noting The Hidden Europe is 750 pages long). Francis, a collector of over 1000 hitchhikers,...

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Windsurfing Nine-Foot Waves: a Crash Course in Finding My Adventurous Side
May06

Windsurfing Nine-Foot Waves: a Crash Course in Finding My Adventurous Side

I’ve wanted to be a surfer ever since I got my first bodyboard, aged eight. I was immediately hooked: the strength of the ocean all around you, that delicious moment when the wave finally picks you up (or disappointment if you’re left behind), and that tiny twinge of fear when you’re certain the board is going to plummet into the belly of the wave, just before you pick up speed and soar towards the beach in a flurry of excitement and foam. About 20 years later, I found myself living on a beach in the southeast of Brazil, and decided it was time to make my surfing dreams come true. I tackled my new hobby with absolute conviction: I bought all the gear, hired a surf teacher, and tried out various beaches and types of boards. All to no avail. Surfing on my own turned out to be terrifying and lonely; plus, I found I simply did not fit into the local surfing culture. Blaring funk music at the surf shop and the teenage assistant’s incredulous look as I squeezed myself into a wetsuit should have warned me. Most of my fellow surfers were male, young, and completely baffled by the idea of a 20-something girl learning to surf. To top it off, I’ve never been cool, I don’t listen to reggae, and love deadlines. It seemed that, despite how much I wanted the surfing lifestyle, my personality, age, and gender condemned me to the sidelines. I gave up. And then an equally uptight, deadline-loving, writer friend invited me to start windsurfing with her. Our first lesson was disappointingly tame as we learnt basic manoeuvres and glided up and down the wind-sheltered bay. I missed the excitement of the surf and the waves, but at least there were no teenage boys staring at me. Then, one perfect, windy morning, our instructor told us it was time: we were ready to head out beyond the bay. I felt the first hint of adrenaline as he warned us of bigger waves and stronger winds. As we sailed beyond the low hills surrounding the bay, the wind and swell picked up. It became harder and harder to keep my balance on the board. My tame beginner’s sail turned into a bucking bronco. The gentle waves I became used to in the bay turned into massive breakers, unrelentingly bearing down on us from the open sea. Every wave looked like it was about to break over my head before my board crested the top and sailed down the other side. My stomach refused to get used to the movement, and lurched every time I climbed...

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