I’m a dreamer, I always have been. Not in the typical gazing out of the window during lessons kind of way, rather in the over-think and plan everything in my mind kind of way.
Isn’t it funny how far a dream can go with a shaky foundation?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. As a stubborn redhead, brought up to believe she really can do anything she sets her mind to, when a dream pops up in that vast space between my ears, I decide it’s going to happen. If you were to ask anyone who knows me what my current dream is, I’m sure they would all tell you that I am desperate to move to South America to teach in an international school. They would probably even specifically mention Colombia.
So in the last couple of weeks and I’ve been firing out CVs to different international schools in South America. I then actually sat down and researched the cities in which I had applied. I’ve had my heart set on teaching in South America for about 5 years now, ever since I opted to take my Erasmus in Spain rather than going further afield (a boy may have been a deciding factor in that, look at how that worked out! Stay single boys and girls). And yet, as I read article after article, blog post after blog post, comment after comment I realized – I’m willing to sign away 2 years of my life on a dream I made 5 years ago because somebody else’s adventure seemed greater than mine.
Because that is the truth of it. I want my adventure to be the biggest, the best, the most exciting. Not for Instagram, or to make other people jealous, but to prove to myself that I’m not scared, that I can do anything that I put my mind to. But let me tell you something, I am scared. A city where it rains 50 more days in the year than it does in the UK? A city where it’s 4 times more crowded than London? (Which I hate, incidentally). A city whereby there is a real risk of being robbed at gunpoint**? No thanks. Or, alternatively, to a beautiful smaller city (albeit still 4 times the size of Edinburgh), with lovely surroundings and opportunities for adventure, but taking a crazy huge pay cut for what will likely be significantly more work? (Those private schools really like to get value for money I’ve heard).
It’s crazy when I think of many of the life decisions I’ve made that have been built on dreams I’ve whipped up out of thin air. A lot of my choices have happened simply because I told somebody once that I wanted to do it, and then it became a challenge in my mind, something to complete and tick off. I’ve always lived by the motto that if something scares you, it means that you will grow from it and therefore, you should probably do it. So far, these have all lead to incredible experiences, even if they occasionally lead to me having periods of crying, trying to remember why I decided this was a good idea. Flashback to being 15, sitting on a plane to go and live in Spain without my parents, brother or friends and suddenly realizing that I did not speak a word of Spanish. To moving to Wales to go to university, 2 trains, a boat and a bus away from anyone I knew. To muddling through my first year teaching, crying every night because it was such a challenge. To deciding to volunteer in a refugee camp where there would be no flushing toilets or electric showers. You get the gist of it; I cry a lot.
So what now? I guess now is time for my next challenge – to decide what my next dream really is. Should I stay in Scotland, and spend all my school holidays backpacking, or give up material goods in the name of adventure?
…Or should I follow my new dream, as of 10 minutes ago, to live and work in the Falkland Islands?
Does anyone else plan their life based on loosely formed notions like this? Let me know in the comments below!
**I am aware that times are a-changing and that South America is a significantly safer place than it was a few years ago! However the risk is still significantly higher than here in the UK, and I’m not the most switched on of travellers….
Laos is probably one of the most scenic countries I have ever visited – second to Scotland, of course – so during our short 8 day trip there, we decided to get off the beaten track and get up those mountains, and boy were we glad we did.
We did a lot of research prior to beginning our hike as is our tendency, and decided we were going to mosey on up to Nong Khiaw and do a two day trek with a local home-stay included. There are a few companies who do these treks, so make sure you have all the info you need. While we had a positive experience, there were some factors about our journey which took us by surprise.
The day started at a local restaurant – 45 minutes later my muesli finally arrived and I wolfed it down to head off to the office to get started. We were introduced to our lovely young guide, Peng. ‘It means expensive in English, you call me expensive’ he repeated over and over again. This young man was certainly full of energy, and we were able to ask him a lot of questions about Laotian culture and traditions which we would perhaps not have felt comfortable asking an older person.
Off we wandered down to the river’s edge, and hopped into a narrow, really rather rocky boat. I cannot explain to you how beautiful the scenery was, meandering down the Nam Ou river between rugged green mountains on either side. Along our little journey we watched young monk novices playing in the river while the elder monks bathed, families paddling by on their boats and local fishermen trying to catch that night’s supper. We also saw the heartbreaking pollution as plastic bags and tetra-packs floated down the river alongside us getting tangled in the tree roots at the river’s edge- completely unavoidable in South-East Asia, no matter how remote you think you are. Little reminder to say no to unnecessary plastic while travelling – does your take-away coffee really require a carrier bag?
Our boat pulled up on the banks and were greeted by a tiny village where we sat and had a cold drink before beginning our trek up the 100 waterfalls. Joined by a lovely french couple, we were impressed as their tour guide seamlessly switched from English, French and Laotian. Here we were greeted by a local guide who joined us on our trek, bringing up the rear of the group to make sure everyone got up all right. As we walked along Peng and the local guide (I’m afraid I don’t remember his name!) picked bits and pieces to supplement our lunches, including banana leaves to use as plates, and a strange berry that we all thought was disgusting but they were delighted by.
The hike was lovely, we got to climb up and through the waterfalls clinging onto a rope at some points. For the relatively fit, this hike is no bother at all and only took a couple of hours. For the less fit, the French couple were certainly older, probably about 50/60 and they took the walk at a more leisurely pace, supported by walking sticks their guide scavenged for them among the fallen branches. They also took an alternative route to climbing through the waterfall. Unfortunately going in wet season meant that there were leeches aplenty, and as I decided the clever idea was to wear my hiking sandals so that I could see them if they latched on, rather than closed toe shoes, meant that I was the lucky recipient of a wiley leech who hid himself under the strap of my sandal for a good 20 minutes. Thankfully after 30 seconds of me screaming like a little girl, Peng came to the rescue and flicked it off nonchalantly with a stick. Not my best “strong independent female” moment.
At the top of the waterfall we stopped for a lovely home cooked lunch which could have fed a small army. Huge portions of rice carefully wrapped in banana leaves to keep them warm and clean gave us sustenance for the (significantly easier) walk down. We hopped back into the boat to visit local caves where the Laotian people hid during a relatively recent war. Unfortunately Peng did not have many details for us on what the war was about or who was involved, but we did see the remnants of old war bullets and parts of bombs, as well as hundreds of bats swooping around the ceiling.
In the evening we had a lovely meal with our host family – trés spicy but delicious despite my tongue wanting to fall off – and wandered into a local wedding. This was absolutely hysterical, we lost our guide and were gestured to sit among benches of villagers who had started the drinking a few hours previously… we were then brought inside and got to give money bracelets to the happy couple. In Laotian tradition when a couple get married you tie string bracelets on their wrists and tuck a few notes inside to get them started. The couple then proceeded to keep filling up our cups with beer, then, as always, one person broke out the lao-lao whiskey – a distilled rice spirit of questionable and highly varying percentage – which kept getting passed around. I had a very strange exchange with a lovely older man who was intent on explaining every detail of the traditions to me, despite not having a word of English but not wanting to pause for Peng to translate, or allow me to look at him begging for help! And, not unsimilar to western weddings, we left as the groom vomited down a gap in the bamboo slats of the house. Some traditions really don’t understand land or sea borders!
We dragged ourselves out of bed the next day to recommence our trek through other tribal villages where we were greeted by more local children who dropped everything to guide us to the waterfalls. This was a huge culture shock for us – 5 children, between about 4 and 10 years old just ran off on a two hour hike without any word to their parents. It just reminds us the level of bubble-wrapping that goes on with western children – sometimes with good reason as you can’t just trust the random foreign strangers who walk into your village in the UK, but it’s a sad fact that we can’t. As Peng explained “The children here, they raise themselves.” These kids hopped into the waterfall to play, and sped off home as soon as they heard the distant rumble of thunder, squabbling the whole way down. I can honestly say the return trip on the boat was less than enjoyable as we got thoroughly soaked to the skin as the heavens opened. Well, I got soaked to the skin. I got off the boat to find my two travel companions had been quietly handed ponchos while I was sat breaking the rain in the front seat…
This trek was a fantastic experience, and although the second day was mainly trekking along dirt-roads as opposed to through the mountains, we were told this was to avoid the tangle of leeches found on those paths at this time of year. We got a lovely insight into the local tribes and their way of life, as well as a bit of a reality check – while we’re off travelling the world, taking out 2,000,000 laotian kip to last us 5 days in Laos, there are families in the villages earning 5,000,000 kip a year, as a good wage. Despite the obvious discomfort and white-privilege guilt that presents, is this not what travelling is about, expanding our knowledge and giving us opportunities to re-frame our thinking?
What do you think the purpose of travel is? What can we do to travel respectfully and support local communities? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
*Disclaimer, this post is speaking generally and does not reflect the experience of all Karen people in Myanmar. I am by no means an expert, and my knowledge is based almost purely on discussions with refugees in Thailand.
Ever heard of the Karen people? Nope, me neither.
One of the ways that we try to keep our costs down whilst backpacking is by getting involved in volunteering projects that offer food and lodgings in exchange for a few hours work a week. We stumbled upon Project Kare on Workaway.info and thought that this would be an incredible opportunity to give back and extend our thinking whilst swanning around the world on our ‘gap yeahhr‘. Through Project Kare we organised to spend two weeks volunteering in Mae Ra Moe Refugee Camp in Thailand, about 6 hours from Chiang Mai. After a lovely three-way Skype chat with Ron where he filled us in on the real-life practicalities of being in a refugee camp, we officially signed up to teach in Bible School (third-level education, the students are studying to receive a Bachelor’s in Theology). Ron kept in touch in the 6 weeks before we arrived, letting us know all and any steps that we needed to take, and putting us in touch with the other volunteers we would be arriving with as well as some past volunteers who could give us hints and tips.
Quick history lesson for you: the Karen people are one of the largest ethnic tribes in South East Asia – about 5-7 million. They hail from Karen State, (Kawthooli in Karen) in Myanmar and have been at war with the Burmese government since 1949. Yup, it’s one of the longest standing civil wars in history, and most of us have never heard of it. Over 150,000 Karen have left Myanmar and are now in refugee camps in Thailand and further afield. And have been. FOR SIXTY YEARS.
What’s the war about? Well, the Karen People want Karen State to be an independent nation. I have to be fully honest here: I do not understand the full extent of the development of the conflict. Despite all my googling and reading, everything is a little fuzzy. Some of this is due to a lack of reliable information – even when trying to establish the population of Karen people in Myanmar, one link suggested the last reliable census was taken in 1931. We did however have the distinct pleasure of meeting the lovely Steph, a politics major based in Washington University who has spent a lot of time in Mae Ra Moe and was able to help us with a few of the details. What I do know is that the Karen are persecuted in their own country, denied education and jobs. Many of the children in the camps are there with no family in order to receive an education.
But the Karen people are so much more than their refugee status. They are resilient. Despite everything they have been through in Myanmar, when you speak to them they have a distinct sense of hope, and determination to end the conflict. We taught English in a Bible school to students from 17+ in their first year of further education. These classes were both hysterical and eye-opening in equal measure. Many students were so driven to learn English in order to emigrate to the USA, fuelling our hatred of President Trump as new laws stopped students who previously would have been reunited with their parents and siblings from having this opportunity. Others wanted to return to Karen State to join the KNU (Karen Nationalist Union who also have an armed wing) and fight for their nation, while others still just wanted to join a missionary to share their truth with the world. What about this was hysterical? The conversations we had, the terrible, terribleScottish ceilidh dancing and teaching the conditional tense through many, many rounds of ‘Would you rather?’ Not a day went by in that classroom where we weren’t in stitches laughing at least once.
They are generous. The Karen in Mae Ra Moe treated myself and Kerry like queens. We were escorted everywhere, students insisting on carrying our bags; cooked for (despite our begging them to please let us help, they were probably well aware we would be far more of a hinderance than a help, having very limited experience cooking over an open flame!) and cleaned up after; if they noticed we bought ourselves something, they would make sure they had it for us the following day as well. It’s not just foreigners that are treated this way; but all guests. Two guest Karen Theology teachers working in the camp for two months received the same generosity and respect.
Their generosity does not just extend to food and hospitality. We met one amazing woman who, as it turns out, did not need to relocate to a refugee camp. Her husband came to work on a church missionary, and they decided as a family that they wanted to do more for their people, despite the obvious upheaval for them and their children. They both work to educate the students, teaching them English and theology and are now unable to freely and safely return home to visit friends and family as they would be persecuted.
They are innovative. So here’s the thing. Typical privileged white girl speaking (or rather, typing) and I have ZERO knowledge of refugee camps. Yes, I have seen the news, the ads for charity and pictures online, but nothing prepared me for this. All we see are starving, dirty children crying next to ramshackle huts. This may be the case in some camps but it is not the case in Mae Ra Moe. Seeing as how the camp has been around for 20+ years and houses 20,000 people (the largest has existed for 60 years and boasts a population of about 60,000), the people have used their skills to build a community. There is a hydroelectric generator for electricity and little wifi huts. The houses are bamboo, but they’re sturdy, and some people have tvs. While Steph was doing her interviews for her thesis one comment stuck out in particular. She asked how the first refugees in MRM build a sense of community, and the man answered ‘There was so much to do. We had to work together to build the village. We didn’t have a choice.’
So, now the scene is set. My English teacher always said that was very important. If you’re reading this Mr. E, let me know how I did. Typed preferably, that handwriting was like cracking a spy’s code…
Camp was a HUUUGE culture shock for us. Our contact, Ron (co-founder of Project Kare, a charity to help support the Karen people) had tried to warn us what it would be like. Even after two weeks of backpacking, with our new and significantly lowered standards, it was a shock. We were the lucky owners of a Western toilet! It did still need a pail to be flushed but was very convenient when a certain travel buddy of mine – I won’t name her to try and maintain her dignity- caught a stomach bug. Pail showers were fun. I kept forgetting that due to the painful amount of rain – I swear to God I kept expecting an arc to rock up – the electricity was off and I had to shower in the dark. Refreshing and shocking every time.
We also weren’t quite braced for how religious the Karen people are. While Karen people follow many religions, the majority are Christian. Very Christian. Being asked as a first introduction whether we believed in God and why not, had we read the Bible? never failed to shock us. However it was all well-meaning and led to some very interesting conversations. Interactions between boys and girls are really interesting to watch – even as young adults there is a playful innocence about them. We gave up trying to have male/female partners for ceilidh dancing and there was absolute hysteria when one boy put his arm around our shoulders for a photo on the last day.
When we left our students created a beautiful ceremony for us. It involved a speaker announcing in Karen what would be happening (kindly translated by the teacher), songs played on a guitar and sung by individuals and the class, being escorted up and down the room for gifts and speeches – one girl, in tears thanked us for our time and apologised for when they are bad and make us angry, something that never happened! We were given a Karen shirt, necklace and bag, another Karen bag from a different class and one of the girls who took care of us literally hand-weaved a beautiful embroidered traditional shirt for us while we were at work. I can barely even sew a badge on my backpack.
I wish that I could share with you all of the funny stories, experiences and phenomenal characters that we met while in MRM, and maybe over time I will, but for now I will leave you with this:
The Karen people need our help. Those in refugee camps are given provisions by the Thai government but not allowed into Thailand. They cannot even work the field for a few pennies for a local farmer without running the risk of being arrested. And we won’t talk about what happens in Thai prison. Not only are the police dangerous, but the environment. In our time there, three young men went to work at a local farm to earn some money, and took the long route back across the river to avoid being caught. The rain had made the river rapid, and two of them were washed away along with all the money they had worked for. During rainy season, the schools wash away and need repaired, the hospital does not have the provisions it needs and schools struggle to provide even the most basic resources – students must find their own ways to purchase pens and paper. Most staff in the camps are volunteers, working unpaid for their shifts as teachers, doctors and camp management. If you have a few spare minutes please check out Project Kare’s website. If you’ll be in Thailand and would like to volunteer I urge you to – please feel free to hound me with questions via my email or on Instagram if you prefer!
You know that annoying child sat behind you on a long-haul flight, whining about being bored and kicking your chair? Yeah, that was me.
I’ve been travelling as long as I can remember.
By the time I was 8, we had lived in 10 houses and I had attended 6 different schools. I wasn’t quite so exotic as those military kids – our travels were based in the UK, Ireland, and the USA. We can all thank Poppa Hepburn and his career for this one.
So picture this, the perfect happy family road-tripping across America (or rather, two very frustrated and fed-up parents trying their best not to just open the car doors and get rid of the two arguing demons in the back seat), visiting beautiful landmarks such as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the 4 Corners where 4 states intersect, all the National Parks… and do you think I remember any of this? Nope. Turns out the memory of a 5-year-old is pretty similar to that of a goldfish.
“Where did she get it from?” My parents beg each other as they board the plane to relocate to Arizona, their nest finally empty with their two adult children having moved out. “We just don’t understand it!” They say on their 30-mile cycle around Italian lakes. “It must be from your side of the family.” My mother tells my father as they reminisce about their summer inter-railing around Europe as young adults.
I would argue that travelling is definitely in my blood. No matter what my parents say, they have wandering spirits too – Dad had the option to accept a post in Ireland or to travel to the other side of the world to an arid landscape with his family, which would entail further relocations over the years. His reasoning? ‘We looked at the weather forecast in Arizona, and it was like nothing we’d ever experienced before – 40 degrees Celcius with 0 humidity? We had to go.’Boom. Traveller. His first realization of what they had done arrived when I was 14 and asked to go to Spain for half a year. ‘Sure,’ he replied naively, ‘if you sort it out yourself.’ You can bet your butt he didn’t expect me to do that. I’m sure my mother gave him quite the row that evening. Moral of the story for all you fathers out there – never underestimate the determination of your teenage daughter.
Being exposed to all of this at such a young age has developed in me the sense of being a minute part of such an enormous world, and I want to see it all. It’s also made me a massive commitment-phobe, terrified of the concept of a mortgage and a job contract and not having the freedom to hop on a plane and run away to sunnier climates. It’s gotten to the point where travelling has become almost instinctual for me – hence the blog name The Flight Instinct (See what I did there?)
With this in mind, I relocated to Edinburgh 3 years ago to finish my teacher training, and I love being based here and watching my little cousins grow up, going to dinner with my grandparents and settling into the city where my mother bought her first flat… so long as every few months I can run away from it all in search of new adventures. I hope you enjoy following my journey around the world and perhaps are inspired to commence a similar journey! And hey, perhaps if you’ve made it all the way to the end of this you’ll be interested in hopping on over to instagram and giving https://www.instagram.com/theflightinstinct and https://www.instagram.com/flightydaughters a follow for daily updates on my travels!
I’ll just leave this here for you all… working on my instagram poses from a young age!
Since returning from my 10 week trip to South East Asia – my first proper backpacking trip! – I’ve been inundated with messages from friends planning similar trips. One of the messages I get time and time again (and I sent to all my backpacking friends before leaving!) is ‘HELP ME! How the hell do I pack for 3 months in a BACKPACK!’ Well, ladies and gentlemen, your prayers are answered, here lie the contents of my backpack. If you’re already bored, scroll on past the list for my top tips – hindsight is a wonderful thing.
I have an Osprey 55l in S/M. I’m 5′ 1 1/4″ (the quarter is highly important) and weigh about 50kg so I had to find a backpack the right size for me. I went for the largest possible to fit my frame. My recommendation? Go smaller. 40l is what can be taken as carry-on which will save you a lot if you’re taking flights.
Suits and Boots
10 pairs of pants (I got dragged into my research and invested in moisture-wicking underwear to fend off the sweaty crotch syndrome often suffered in the humid climate of SEA… while I didn’t suffer this humiliation, neither did my travel buddy, who is less susceptible to peer pressure and did not invest.)
1 bra, 2 sports bras and 2 bralettes (I can honestly say the bra maybe got worn once #freethenipple)
3 pairs socks
11 shirts (Way too many, I only wore 5 of these!)
3 sports tops
2 vest tops
2 nice(r) strap tops for going out
1 short sleeved blouse
3 crop tops
1 thick strapped linen shirt.
2 lightweight jumpers to cover up
1 pair of exercise leggings
1 pair of harem trousers (embrace them, you will soon be living in pyjamas)
1 pair of denim shorts
1 pair of sports shorts
2 maxi skirts
2 pairs of pyjamas
Bits and Bobs
microfibre travel towel
sleeping bag liner
chargers and adaptors (I packed EU, US and UK chargers, you can buy a universal one but I had these lying about)
bank card, and back-up bank card, and back-up back-up bank card
passport photos for visas
USD for visas
hairbrush and hair tyes
diaries and pens
Kindle Fire (gotta have me my Netflix for those infernal 23-hour bus journeys)
pack of cards
dry bags (I’ll write more about these later)
waterproof cover for my backpack
The Powder Room
2x 400ml Boots Once Factor 50 3hr Protect and Swim (This ginger needs her protection)
2x 50% DEET bug spray
LUSH solid shampoo
Cleanser and Make-up Remover
Basic make-up bag
Basic first aid kit – hand sanitiser, paracetamol, plasters, allergy tablets, rehydration salts and prescribed medication
wet wipes and toilet roll
small ziplock with washing powder for handwashing underwear.
I need all that…?
As you can see, I packed everything but the kitchen sink. I have always been known as a terrible packer, and recently turned up for a 6 day trip down to Birmingham for a friend’s wedding with the same backpack rammed full. However, this does mean I feel fully qualified to tell you what is worth bringing, and what just to leave behind.
My first tip is DRY BAGS. These were recommended to us, and I can honestly tell you they were a life-saver. Or at least a comfort saver.
‘Why were these so great???’
Well, my faithful readers, you may have heard about the humidity in SEA. In the UK we do have 98% humidity but IT IS NOT THE SAME. We found that the air was so hot and damp that anything left out of the dry bags got damp and would not dry. The other handy thing about dry bags is they also double as those infamous packing cubes you’ve been reading about on other travel blogs, and when you pack them and squeeze out the air they’re like little vacuum packs. Having everything categorised makes packing up at the end of your stay much faster as even when you’ve pulled everything out in search of that dress that will look just perfect for your Instagram feed; you’ve only actually disturbed a small portion of your bag.
As for toiletries, if you’re fairly confident in your appearance, ditch the make-up. I dragged mine all around SEA for 10 weeks and hardly wore it; backpackers don’t glam up. I did, however, get my eyelashes dyed (ginger eyelashes make you look like an alien; it’s highly attractive). The same goes for jewellery, straighteners, hair dryers etc. That hair is gonna be a frizzball no matter what you do, so own it girl. Solid shampoo, conditioner and soap were also a huge convenience. They take up next to no space, and no plastic means you’re doing good for the environment. If you have sensitive skin like me, it’s an idea to bring your suncream etc out with you, but realistically you can get everything you need there and it is mainly the same brands. Dry skin sufferers, take moisturiser unless you enjoy bleaching your skin cuz these cultures hate a tan. You’ll be swapping your Dove Golden Glow for Pearly White.
Logistics. Not sexy but very important. I would definitely recommend bringing USD as it’s cheaper than paying for VISAs in local currency. Having passport photos ready also speeds up the process and avoids a cheeky unofficial fee from the guards.
My final tip is to take whatever you want to pack, and half it. Get your staples (denim shorts etc) and plan your outfits around that. Research where you’re going and pack appropriately for there – make sure you have cover-ups for going into temples.
So there you have it, advice from the front line. If you have any questions about what I packed let me know down below!