Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Slinks back with head held low and a bundle of contradictions on my back

Apologies, it has been way too long since I last wrote. Why, you might ask, or some of you probably don't care and are perfectly happy that I am no longer spamming your facebook feeds with my ramblings. Well, the answer is life. Life got in the way of me writing, that and the lack of a laptop. Over the last 4 months I have been working full time as an optometrist and reignited my love for having "the chats" with patients. I've talked about development and technology in Africa with an engineer from Vodafone, I've talked Barbra Kingsolver books with an 80 year old lady, I've discussed the merits of Mark and Spencers shoes for work with a woman in the banking industry and debated my career choice with a man in the Department of Education.

I am renewing my love for Dublin, a city I feel I never truly appreciated in the 6 years I lived here previously. I have amazing friends here who I can meet up with for a coffee or a drink, who, I know would be there at the end of the phone should I need them. Dublin offers live music, free events, cultural and fun events. I have wandered through the National Botanic Gardens, ran along the beach, drank wine with friends, went for brunch, attended friend's weddings and went to Dublin's Oktoberfest.

But most of all over the last few months, I have been looking after myself. I have started exercising again (yes, you did read that right, I went for a RUN and even more shockingly, have repeated this multiple times) and have renewed my love for cooking. I have decided that my health, both mental and physical needed some attention. As a result I am happy, healthy and have lost my Nsima weight. I am the fittest I have ever been in my life, I am comfortable with my friends and also with spending time alone. In short, I am in a much better place than I have been in months. I have gained perspective and am able to look back at things and smile.


However, now, my feet are getting itchy again. I am looking to far away lands, to sights I want to see, to cultures I want to experience and things I want to do. My wanderlust has not been sated just yet.

I am feeling uneasy with slipping back into the routine of my life here; wake up, exercise, work, cook, tv, bed. Repeat ad naseum. Now I know this is a broad generalisation and yes that is not EVERY day but for the most part that is what is happening and personally that is not something I want. I want to change this. My cousin is a personal trainer and often posts motivational videos or videos answering questions for people and this morning he popped up on my newsfeed on Facebook with a slightly ranty but very relevant video. It struck a cord with me. If I am not happy with how things are, I have to change that. I have to decide where I want to be and what I want to do.


However, I feel like at the moment, I am a bundle of contradictions, that I am two different people battling in the one life.
-I love my friends, love the familiarity, the closeness and the general amazingness of the people I am lucky to know and have in my life. At the same time, I enjoy meeting new people, forming new friendships, having new experiences. Some of those new friendships are ones I treasure now and cannot imagine being without. So who is to say that I will not meet more people who will shape my life for the better.
-Comfort and familiarity are things I have been enjoying lately. I enjoy cooking and being able to potter around the kitchen, I like having my clothes hung up and my friends in the same city. On the other hand, going out of my comfort zone, walking into a room where no one knows me, moving from place to place and exploring excites me.
- People who know me best could probably have never imagined me packing everything I need for a year into a backpack. I was (and am) someone who loves her 'things'. While the list of things I now treasure has changed, things that bring back memories of people and places now have priority over meaningless possessions. My photographs are probably one of my most precious possessions. Now I thrive on being able to carry my possessions on my back, to pack what is only necessary, to wear what is clean vs having too many options
- I have never denied it but I love getting dressed up. I like putting on a nice outfit, heels and make up and going out with friends. But at the same time, I am never happier than throwing on a pair of denim shorts, flip flops, pulling my hair back into a pony-tail and heading off to explore.
- I like routine. I like knowing how my day will pan out but at the same time, I love the unknown. I like waking up, not having a clue what I will do for the day and having a great day wandering or drifting.
- I have always been relatively independent, but I saw another side to me in Malawi. A side that loved being part of a couple, a side that enjoyed the companionship, the closeness with a boyfriend, enjoying another person's company and planning a future with them in it. This shocked me and although that is no longer there, I wonder what will make me truly happy again.

And so I am at this crossroads. I have work until the end of the year and I am happy to do that and lucky to have it. I enjoy this work for the most part and work with some lovely people. But I cannot help feeling that this is not where I am meant to be at this moment in time. But if I am not here, where will I be? What will I do? And more importantly what do I want to do? What do I want to be? A friend who was back in Dublin recently commented that even though I hadn't written a blog post recently I seemed conflicted, that I didn't know what I was going to do with my life and that is still the case. However, I am now wondering if that is SUCH a bad thing.


Sunday, 20 July 2014

How was it? Marking 2 years since I left for the Warm Heart of Africa.

My first African sunset
"Was it completely different?" "What was it like?" These are all questions that I have been asked repeatedly over the last 3 months since I moved home from Malawi. To be honest, I really have no idea how to answer them. Every answer I give seems hollow, like I am doing my time there a disservice. How can I sum up my experience in a few sentences? How can I give people a glimpse into my life there without boring them to tears with minute details? How can I do this wonderful country justice?


Some of my students


Even now sitting with my laptop I am wondering how to say the things I want without turning into one of those preachy 'My life changed' type person. But it would not be an exaggeration to say that Malawi changed me. It challenged me in ways I could not imagine and could not even to begin to describe and did truly change me in ways, I learnt loads about myself and my comforts and had a crash course in development, aid and public health. My attitude towards aid and charities changed seeing small NGOs with small budgets achieving so much at grassroots level, while the bigger NGOs have CEOs on huge salaries with huge shiny landrovers. Organisations such as Butterfly SpaceTemwaPhunzira and Determined to Develop are achieving so much with a fraction of the budget of bigger NGOs with an emphasis on sustainability in the areas they work in. I also saw the aspect of working for a big international organisation whose intentions were brilliant but often ended up spreading themselves thin trying to cover all aspects at once as opposed to perfecting one aspect.

First up a little background about the Warm Heart of Africa. Malawi is a small landlocked country in South Eastern Africa that has made the news most recently regarding their presidential election that was, most definitely, fixed. It often makes it's way into the 'poorest countries in the world' lists and last year made international headlines when a dispute with Tanzania over Lake Malawi and a potential oil find, could have led to war (if you were to believe the papers). Lake Malawi is the third largest and second deepest lake in Africa and the ninth largest in the world and is a huge reserve for the country. It draws tourists to it's shores to snorkel and dive among the, more than 1000, species of cichlids and it provides a life, and an income, to thousands of people who live on it's crystal clear shores. I moved to this beautiful country having accepted a job at the Malawi School of Optometry programme (see What I do for more information) and having to actually google the country to see where it was! I spent 18 months in this country and made memories, and friendships, that will hopefully last a lifetime.
Sunset over Lake Malawi
How could you not want to jump
into those waters?












How do I explain the little things in me that changed? That I could bathe myself using a bucket and a cup, heating the water on my stove if the mains water had been shut off. That I read by candle light on the frequent Sundays without power, that awaking on a Sunday morning involved me straining to hear my cistern or fridge, if I heard neither then there was no point in getting up, that forward thinking involved me making coffee on a Saturday night and having iced coffee on a Sunday morning when there was no power. How can explain my daily life that involved shopping in markets, kicking up the dusty red earth as I went, and jumping into a shared taxi that looks like it is held together with sticky tape and the prayers of it's owner to go home. The hopping into a 12 seater minibus with 25 people, a goat, some chickens and about 50 kilos of dried fish that became normal to me as did eating with my hands and eating parts of chicken I had never eaten before (neck, gizzards and feet anyone?) . It's the little day to day things that are hardest to verbalise.

My bedroom
Bucket Bath






My lovely house



First night in Mzuzu, ending in the hotel
Mmmmm Double Punch
And then there are the people I met. I am not exaggerating when I say the people in Malawi are special. Both natives and expats. The friends I met in this country will hopefully be with me for years. The people I danced to P-Square with, the friends who crowded into my house to watch Sister Act 2 on a tiny laptop, the friends who greeted me with a hug and a cold green when I arrived in their bar, the friends I shared Gold Label and boozy coffees with on Chikale Beach and the friends who were always at the end of the phone for a quick drink and chat or numerous mugs of tea,  the people I played slapshots with. I'm not sure what I expected when I moved to Mzuzu but I sure didn't expect to meet the range of kind hearted, amazing people I was fortunate to spend time with. The people who are making their lives in Malawi, the people who are there working to help Malawi in various ways, the people I am proud to call friends. From my first night in Malawi I was welcomed into this amazing group of people, where, like many Friday nights to follow, we drank greens at the Zoo, celebrated the arrival of Hassan with numerous whisky shots and danced until the wee hours in the Hotel, to my last few weeks in Mzuzu that involved lots of dinners, numerous afternoon beers and many tears, and like many before me, I bade Mzuzu a fond farewell. (See here for some amazing people who left before me). I of course cannot forget the amazing friends on the lake, my 2 other Desperate Housewives of Nkhata Bay (TM), my Izo Izo dancing buddies and my swimming friends at Butterfly who welcomed me into their families and their lives with open arms.

I mean look at these cuties
The first 12 pubs of Mzuzu


















I did truly fall in love with the country, with the people I met and indeed with one special person, a person who, in his own special way, changed me and the way I look at life and for that I will forever be grateful. A person, I could have happily spent the rest of my life with, someone who I talked about this with and someone I was willing to go back to Malawi to be with. However that person also taught me what it was like to experience true betrayal and intense heartbreak, things I was not prepared for and that knocked me for six. Picking up the pieces of my life and moving on was one of the toughest things I have done. Another lesson learnt, another chapter in the story of life.



People have asked me a lot would I go back. And the answer, "In a heartbeat". Even though things have fallen apart with my relationship and my work, Malawi is a very special place that has wormed it's way into my heart. I took me into it's grasp and continues to draw me to it. I am proud of the little things I achieved in Malawi; I saw the first ever optometrists graduate, I taught students who will provide a much needed service to Malawi, we did vision screenings that involved thousands of people who might never have had their eyes tested, I made friendships that I value, I saw animals and places I never imagined, I camped all over Sub Saharan Africa, I had experiences I had previously only imagined. And while I have regrets about how things ended, I am glad I got to give a little back to this fantastic country that gave, and continues to give me so much.
A baby monkey visited me in my house!
             
                    Hundreds of school children waiting to have
              their eyes tested




Quote for the Day: "I went to sleep dreaming of Malawi, and all the things made possible when your dreams are powered by your heart" - William Kamkwamba, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Robben Island: A pilgrimage for Nelson Mandela

When you think of South Africa, you think of Nelson Mandela, the country's first black president, someone who fought against apartheid and was jailed for his belief that blacks and whites should be equal in his country. And then you think of Cape Town and you think of Robben Island, the island where Mandela and so many other political prisoners were held. Having just finished reading 'Long Walk to Freedom' on my 18 hour bus journey from Windhoek, I was eager to visit this place that Mandela started his autobiography and the place where he spent most of his adult life.

Having read a lot about visiting Robben Island, not all good, I was not expecting much. Having read about being rushed around the island and not having time to explore, I still wanted to visit this place shrouded in so much history. I had visited the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront at enquired about availability. The horror stories about week long waits for tickets were false and I was there during the summer in February and could have left that afternoon if I wanted. Granted, if you were a larger group then you may have to wait a day or 2 (and in Cape Town, that is no hard thing, read about it here) but as I was looking for 2 tickets, it was very straightforward. I paid R500 for the 2 tickets (approx USD50) for an 11am sailing. Ferries run at 9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm daily and it's recommended you are at the Gateway 30mins prior to departure. Realistically there are 2 boats that go across at the time and you could be on either. TIP: Try to get there earlier and get the first boat as then you can look around a bit before going to the prison for your tour.

As a result of  going through some fog en route. 
Robben Island is about 9km off the coast of Cape Town and was used as a metal health asylum and as a leper colony in previous times. It is most well known for having been the site of internment of South Africa's political prisoners during the apartheid regime and served as a maximum security prison until 1991. The boat trip over was all part of the experience. Seeing the seals that gave Robben Island it's name swimming next to the boat and the island being shrouded in a low lying fog giving an eerie, and damp, trip into the harbour.
Our guide giving the ANC salute

The tours are run by former inmates and the inmate running our tour was arrested as part of the Soweto uprising and was housed in the D block. He talked of his experience in the prison and of the strong solidarity among the political prisoners, something that Mandela touches on in "The Long Walk to Freedom". Touring the prison grounds, seeing censored letters and the famous garden where the first draft of Mandela's autobiography was hidden and getting a chance to peek into that famous cell, adorned with a wreath and a memorial candle, all added to the poignancy of the day. Yes, you are herded around in a big group, yes there is not much time to explore on your own and yes, it can be irritating if you are used to slow exploring but these reasons are not enough to warrant you passing up this opportunity. Having read the book, and seen the mild undercurrent of racism that still exists in South Africa, and indeed all across the globe, it gives you a strong feeling of what these people were fighting for. They were fighting to be considered as equals, to be given the basic human rights that the white people were given. Simple things like interracial relationships were illegal under apartheid, black people were only allowed live in certain areas and in the case of District Six, were force ably removed if the area was reallocated to a different racial group. Education, welfare, even park benches were segregated. Mandela talks about how this segregation even continued within the prison walls with differing uniforms and food for White, Blacks and Coloureds.
Mandela's cell

The garden where the first draft of
'Long Walk to Freedom' was hidden.
Cell block D


















Following the tour of the prison we boarded buses to travel around the small island seeing the lime quarry where Mandela and his fellow inmates conducted their physical labour and held meetings and taught fellow inmates, stopping off to admire Cape Town with the majestic Table Mountain towering over the city. A sight that was so near but yet so far for the inmates. A view that tempted more than one inmate to attempt to swim to the mainland. Once again the guide on our bus was fantastic giving insights and facts about apartheid, even going so far as to explain to the whole bus that if Puncque and I had been together during apartheid, we would have been breaking the law!
Under apartheid laws this would have been illegal

















Rows of letters between the
 Irish government
and the Irish Anti Apartheid movement
Coming back to the mainland we took some time to walk around the museum at the Gateway. For me, there was a huge surge of pride as we wandered around an exhibition on the Irish Anti Apartheid Movement. To feel that my little country on the edge of Europe had a role to play in the anti apartheid movement. From the brave 10 women and one man who picketed Dunnes Stores for nearly 3 years when they refused to handle South African goods, to Nelson Mandela being given the freedom of Dublin city and him choosing Ireland as his first European country to visit after his release.




Mandela receiving the freedom of Dublin in 1990
At the end of the day, when you attend a major tourist attraction be it Robben Island, Ankor Wat, the Louvre or Maccu Picchu you will battle with crowds, you will have the things you are allowed to do dictated by the people who run that attraction. Is this a reason not to visit it? Not at all. If you miss out on these places you will be missing out on a piece of history, an amazing sight or an experience of a life time.


NOTE: Today I went to the world premiere of Blood Fruit, a documentary about the Dunnes Stores strikers and their role in the Irish anti apartheid movement. It was an amazing story that finished with a letter from Archbishop Desmond Tutu congratulating all involved in the making of the documentary.

QUOTE FOR THE DAY: "Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living." Miriam Beard

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Throw Back Thursday: Inca Trail

On my first trip abroad in 2011, I went exploring in South America and of course a highlight was hiking the Inca Trail to see the sun rise over Machu Picchu in Peru.

To hike the Inca trail you need to do so as part of an organised tour and book permits in advance. As I was going to be traveling with Gap (now G) Adventures as part of a longer trip, this was all organised for me. Now fear not, if you still want to hike to Machu Picchu but did not secure one of the Inca Trail passes there are other options including the Lares trek and even in Cusco you will be offered treks walking around the square. It is also possible to visit Machu Picchu via train and bus from Aguas Calientes without the multiple days hiking!

So what is Machu Picchu and why does it draw people to it? Machu Picchu is an Incan site believed to have been built in 1450 and abandoned a century later when the Incans heard of the Spanish invading. However the Spanish never made it as far into the Sacred Valley as Machu Picchu and as such the abandoned site was left to nature and became overgrown. It was discovered by Hiram Binghan in the early 1900s and was remarkably well preserved due to no army coming in and knocking it down I guess!

The Inca Trail, and indeed Machu Picchu, lie at what is considered high altitude and to minimise the risk of altitude sickness it is advised that you spend 2-3 days at altitude prior to starting the treck. This can be done in Cusco, or in my case spend nearly 2 weeks at altitude travelling through Bolivia.

Our group at the start
Anyway, we started our trip in Ollantaytambo which is about a 40mins drive from the starting point of the Inca trail, Km82 where we met our 17 porters and after passing through passport control and showing our permits, we were off. The permits need to be kept onto and stamped at each campsite
Dinner time
Day one was relatively easy, a 12km hike through farmland and relatively flat. We stopped at one point to view an Incan ruin, Llactapata, and our 17 porters trotted past us having packed all of our stuff and carrying 25kg each on their backs. Our group arrived as the first group to the camp as we decided to press through and not stop for lunch. This turned out to be a great idea as we got to camp by 1pm and so had lunch, learnt there was a villager nearby who sold twixes and played many games of Presidents and Assholes which was to become the game of choice for the hike. As the other teams were arriving, the skies opened and we all remarked on how glad we were that we were playing our 10th round of cards and not walking in the rain. That night we camped at 3,300m. 
All of us with guides, porters and chefs
At Dead Woman's Pass
View from the campsite on the
second night














It was an early start the next day for a 9km uphill portion to the infamous Dead Woman's Pass, called so because it looks like a woman lying down, which is at 4,215m. A snack was served at 3,800m asl and at this stage the altitude was starting to get noticable, breathing was more difficult, simply walking to the toilet caused you to get out of breath. The uphill portion was pretty much steps the whole way which is a killer on the knees and you really have to just take it at your own pace. Luckily the second guide Miguel stayed at the back with Sam, Bex and I and kept encouraging us. On reaching Dead Woman's Pass, the three of us celebrated with those infamous twix bars before starting off for the 4km downhill stretch to the next camp. Here I powered down with the thought of a hot mug of tea and some quinoa soup on my mind. As with the day before I received high fives from the porters who passed me out in the first hour and arrived hours before to set up our camp. At this point some groups continued on the cross the next peak the same day and I cannot imagine how they managed it. After admiring the view from our tent and layering up as it was getting really cold once the sun went down (3,600m asl), it was cards and dinner time while all thinking about the peak we had to tackle first thing in the morning. The highlight of dinner was the below cake. Who would expect a cake on the Inca Trail.

And food got better the next morning with pancakes with the porters names written on in dulche de leche. Personally I enjoyed the third day the most, there are more ruins to explore and you get lower in altitude, into rainforest territory so the views and the surroundings were gorgeous. This day was the longest, 16km in total, with 2 high passes to cross but honestly after the Dead Woman's Pass, I was ready for anything. It was tough and as we started to get lower it altitude, it got hot and sweaty but the views, the sounds and the promise of a shower at the campsite that night kept us all going. We explored two ruins and walked through rainforests before arriving at a ruin that overlooks the Sacred Valley to talk about our last day. It seemed fitting that we could view the Willkamayu river which means Sacred Valley in Quechua as we discussed our final leg to the Sun Gate and finally seeing Maccu Pichu. That night we presented our tips to the porters as they would not be continuing into Maccu Pichu with us, the oldest of our porters was 55 and the youngest was 18. Some music, dancing and clapping made it a very festive occasion. An early night was had by all as we were waking at 3:30 to be at the control gate when it opened and to hopefully make it to the Sun Gate by sunrise. 
View over the Sacred Valley
At the first peak for day 3



Waiting for the control gate to open


Finally, the Sun Gate
When the control gate was 15mins late opening, our group was getting a little tetchy as we all wanted to be at the Sun Gate for sunrise. We powered through and managed to make the, what should be, 90mins walk in 45mins. And boy was it worth we. we turned the corner to a beautiful panorama over Maccu Pichu and to had it pretty much to ourselves for about 30mins. As the sun was getting higher in the sky we could see it would be a perfect day, sunny and cloudless. Picture perfect for viewing the ruins. However, for a pasty Irish girl such as myself, there was a real risk of me frying so during our tour of the ruins, I could be found standing in any shade I could find. At one point I snuck underneath a rock outcrop to be in the only portion of shade in the old quarry area. 






You can spend hours, and indeed days, wandering around the ruins. Discovering places that you have all to yourself, climbing up and down terraces, wondering and exploring and imagining. Even turning corners to find llamas. It is truly a spectacle what the Incan empire managed to build and it makes one wonder that were it not for the Spanish Invasion and the addition of small pox, would Peru be a major player on the world scale? What this empire achieved with rudimentary tools is simply amazing. The fact that areas are still being uncovered and that this huge city was abandoned and lay, unknown, for thousands of years is mindboggling. 

Is it worth it? Most definitely. The sense of achievement on making it to the Sun Gate after 3 long trekking days was immense. We all felt we had earned the right to explore the ruins, to take it all in. The friendships I made on this trek are ones I will remember forever, even being invited to Sam and Bex's wedding, a tad different to sharing a twix at Dead Woman's Pass. Machu Piccu, while very touristic, is one of those 'must-see' sights. The ruins are so big that we were often alone exploring and at times you felt like you were the only person around.