Travelling soul – Remember Maggie

maggieI lost a traveller-friend whom I had recently met, Maggie – an exceptional woman who inspired me. She left this world. But I shall remember her.

We met in India in December 2015. You were one of the liveliest people in the group, the kind of restless creatures that catch the eye immediately. I remember your words in the coffee place in Varanasi where you told me we must always reinvent ourselves for the ones we love. I remember you starting to dance with your husband, Kerry, on New Year’s Eve and setting the example for those of us who were too shy to stand up and hit the dance floor. I remember you celebrating your 39th marriage anniversary, so discreetly and it was wonderful. I remember your complicity, it was an amazing thing to witness and I think that secretly, we were all watching you.

I remember you sleeping underneath my “bed” on the night train journey, always poking fun, always chatting. And who doesn’t remember you sitting on the floor in the lady’s section at the train station in Agra, teaching us yoga movements to the cheeky smiles of the locals who thought that us whiteys were a bit mad in the head?

I remember you convincing me to buy my scarves (not one as I intended to) and those wonderful oils that I didn’t really need either, telling me that us, women, we have to treat ourselves to life’s simple pleasures. The green scarf, by far my favourite, I have thanks to you. And I remember I dragged you 2 times out and into the Red Fort and through the security checks  so that you can get the money from Kerry and buy that “ruby” ring you negotiated for so much, because I knew you would have regretted otherwise. It was impossible to do shopping with you as you always found the words to convince me to spend my money! Such a nightmare, much worse than the Indian shop sellers themselves. Also, I don’t think anyone could say “no” to you.

Graceful Maggie! Your gestures, your attitude towards us all, such elegance in your choice of words and clothing items. Refinement, simplicity and taste have always sprung to mind when I looked at you, and I admired you for all this. I shall always remember your rapid, sudden head movement, springing like a little bird, always alert, always curious, so alive. I don’t think I remember you ever showing sadness or tiredness, but maybe these were carefully locked somewhere behind that generous smile.

Your face is engraved in my memories of an extraordinary far-away place. One brimming with never-ending energy and colour, the perfect backdrop for your sparkling personality. I was privileged to spend a full day in your company when everyone else had gone. We had a laugh somewhere in a park in Delhi when Kerry was taking pictures of a massive pile of garbage on top of which a dog had found comfort. And later, when we were having what became probably the most expensive coffee and cake during the whole journey, which outraged me – India does teach you the value of money so well. It’s also the place where you are sure to get comfort out of your system, at least temporarily. Because I couldn’t disconnect from the sadness and the reality of the streets of India and found it hard to be in a luxury hotel, you calmed me down gently and reminded me that everything is to be enjoyed and taken on board as experience. And that we were lucky to see both sides. How was it possible to always be so positive and wise? I looked at you like one the world’s mysteries.

Lakshmi! Here is a name I remember, because it came from you. I bought that little wooden souvenir and you explained to me who the gods and goddesses in the carvings were – you knew a lot about them and talked with passion. I can only imagine that Kerry and your daughters never really got bored around you. You were fun, Maggie, such a blast of optimism and an example to us all. Of how to treat and live life. How to take things as they come. How to enjoy while you can. How to be unique and happy with it. How to hold the head up high and laugh. How to be yourself.

I don’t intend to forget you or the things that our short encounter have brought to me. India wouldn’t be such a great story without you in it. You’re travelling again. Where to, no one knows. But I’m sure you’ll find someone to teach yoga to again. I’m glad we met.

India is not for sissies

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“You have to go to India. Once.” The man next to me, a travel companion, laughs devilishly as he says this to me, as if he is sending me straight to hell. When I announced that I was going to travel to India, another far-away friend typed back: “India? What’s happening? Sick of order, silence and drinkable water?”. Clearly, I was heading the right way.

Delhi. Welcome to India. The taxi driver whose services I requested weeks before I landed is not there yet. He eventually shows up. I quickly understand that you cannot be in a hurry if you’ve just landed in India. It doesn’t help your nervous system. If you feel an extreme urge to be impatient while you’re still at the airport, take a flight to somewhere else. If you decide to stay, no worries, India will cure you from that.

There he is. We don’t drive straight away though. First, he takes me further into the parking where we stop in front of a very shabby version of a car in which a human is covered in blankets, sleeping. His girlfriend. It’s 4 a.m. I look at her as she wakes up and greets me in and hope she has the legal age to drive. She certainly doesn’t look like it. The hotel they drop me off is on a street that looks as if it suffered a bomb attack few hours earlier. Nothing looks like it will be standing for a very long time. Least of all the hotel I step into.

But hey, Delhi has a subway system, as I was to discover the following morning with fresh eyes and a new level of energy  propelled by a hearty curry breakfast. However, if you are a woman, don’t hurry to jump in the same coach as the men. There is a special waiting area reserved just for you, ladies. You can’t really miss it: it’s pink and nicely decorated with flowers. It clearly spells “Women”, too. The subway – now here’s evident signs of development (or of Britishness). And oh, there is a 200 rupees fine if you spit, irrespective of your gender.

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Getting to a subway station is a challenge though: there’s a big wave of creatures in the streets moving on various means of transport that will swallow you whole. Once the headache caused by such failed traffic flow to the first-time visitor comes to an end, it’s actually a magic place to be. Just try to pretend you’re in a roller coaster in an attraction park and you’ll make your life easier. The less thinking involved, the more enjoyable the ride. Don’t hesitate to strike a random conversation with your Indian tuk tuk neighbours (we all become neighbours whenever we get stuck in a roundabout, which is often). They are friendly people and will often want to know from which cast you are and whether you are eligible for marriage.

Also, don’t freeze if that big truck is heading towards your tuk tuk as if it has every intention to smash it. Your driver will probably manage to avoid the collision in extremis. So relax and sit back. Well, just sit back to begin with. It’s a long road home and there are plenty of opportunities for you to have a heart attack in case you missed your first one.

Oh, you decided you wanted to cross the street? Best of luck! In this case you’d have to do the “I surrender” gesture. Simply put your hands up as if you’re giving up on… life, for instance, or stretch them out to give the traffic people a hint that you’re about to commit suicide – you never know they might decide to spare you. Don’t close your eyes though as you attempt the crossing. It may be worth seeing what comes your way. Just in case you have the time to avoid it.

Now that you have made it safely to the other side (of the road), you’ll have to deal with the kids who’ve been chasing you for the past half an hour to take “one photo” with you. Don’t fall for it, it’s a trap. 300 pictures later, you’d be wishing you’d said no from the first time. But they are sweet and it’s so tempting to take those cool pictures with the natives. Read my lips: no. It’s a word that comes in handy in India.

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With my rickshaw driver in the streets of New Delhi

Have you ever felt fire burning down your throat? If yes, you must have had Indian food. The stuff is delicious, mind you, to the point to which no other food will ever be as tasty as you knew it. That is partly due to the fact that your taste buds would have gone numb after your first days in India. Some restaurants are merciful towards (white) tourists and serve a medium-spiced version. Just make sure you look like one.

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Sometimes – keep this one in mind when you go to India. “Sometimes” the train comes on time.” “Sometimes the ATM gives you back your card and possibly also the money.” This gives a heads up to the fact that most of the times things will not work. Not as planned, at least. But this is the beauty of India: it makes you escape the monotony of that reality where most things actually work as expected.

Yes, there are about a gazillion things that are wrong with India. It’s the ideal setting to play the “spot the mistake” game. Garbage bins or garbage collection trucks are nowhere to be seen. There’s a bull standing unbothered in the middle of the platform of the rail station and everyone acts like it’s normal apart from us, foreigners, who keep snapping pictures. There are more beggars and disabled people swarming around you than you would like to see in a lifetime and it’s hard to ignore that little hand asking for money. There’s no denying the fact that India is a very messed up place. Probably the craziest there is. But as a tourist, you still get the opportunity to see past its struggles and discover its beauties (for a small fee). Take advantage of that. Even if in reality you pay ten times more than the locals to go past the queue to do so.

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Agra, Orchha, Jaipur – There is something magical about the sunset in India

For me, the fraction of Northern India that I was lucky to have access to was a thrilling experience. From the crazy tuk tuk rides in Jaipur (the Pink City) or Delhi to “sleeping” on a night train, the evening rituals on the Ganges river in Varanasi, the strangely captivating moment of opening your eyes to the Taj Mahal for the very first time, the surreal mix of dogs, goats, cows and monkeys, all in one corner of a street, the rich cultural heritage and Mughal stories, the stunning architecture, the explosion of scents and colours, the medieval town Orchha and the charming and surprisingly quiet Alipura village , and last but not least, the erotic monuments in Khajuraho, it’s been a long and exciting journey.

This bit of Northern India seduced me beyond words. It pulses with the kind of energy that can only be lived to be understood and appreciated. Land of contrasts by definition, there are many ways to see and look at this strange place because it has so much to offer. And if you manage to see past its countless flaws, you may well fall in love with its peculiarity…So no, this is not a once-in-a-lifetime destination, as I originally thought, but one to go back to over and over again. And one to long for in the meantime.
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Belgium – no safe haven

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It’s a particularly grey day in Belgium. It makes for the ideal background of a funeral. The country mourns its victims today, the ones it couldn’t save from yesterday’s terror attacks. But mourning, a sky that seems to be crying in unison with us, the one minute of silence and the countless hours of anger are not enough. Something has failed again in Europe. Something important. The protection of civilians has taken three blows. There will be long-lasting scars.

While the whole world stands united in anger, stupefaction and frustration facing terrifying events that have come to be recurrent for reasons we cannot truly comprehend, our peace of mind and freedom fade away. Slowly, but surely, we find ourselves in circumstances that many other countries outside Europe have got used to, but that we wouldn’t have expected here a while back.

On the world map, Belgium is not a big country. That’s easy to see. It also shouldn’t lack the necessary resources to invest in the protection of its people, considering that it hosts some of the most important international institutions. Yet culprits slip through irresponsible fingers. Clearly, there are weaknesses.

How is it possible that neighbourhoods such as Molenbeek-Saint-Jean or again Schaerbeek breed their terrorists unhindered? It’s not like the Belgian authorities didn’t have a clue of what was going on there. After all, it is not yesterday that these districts started to make such a bad reputation for themselves. While Belgium is doing pretty well at exporting small arms and light military weapons (with the Middle East as prime market), it also seems to rank as a top exporter of Jihad, with the highest number of foreign fighters recruited by Syria and Iraq. How can these details be missed out systematically (or deliberately disregarded?) in a country of only 30,528 km²? Something is wrong in the picture.

Also, why would any country put the European Headquarters –presumably a main target for terrorists- right in the middle of the city and have a metro run just underneath? I’m sure one day I will get the point of this, but until then, all I see is EU employees being exposed to risk every day along with people who simply live in the area. How is that safe?

Last but not least, how can an international airport become so unsafe few days after a most-wanted terrorist is captured? Wasn’t it potentially the very first building that needed reinforced security, with the knowledge at hand that Salah Abdeslam had friends out there? Had this occurred months later, I would have understood that the Belgian intelligence and Police could have been caught off guard. As such, I struggle.  But it’s always a good thing to put the whole country back in lockdown after people died and many were injured. It gives a strong sense of reassurance. It is an attempt to show that the situation is under control. It isn’t.

I think someone needs a shake. I get red spots when I hear passive, resigned, powerless remarks such as Prime Minister Charles Michel’s: “We feared an attack and it happened”. It sounds as if “oups, we feared a tsunami would strike and so it happened”. This lax attitude is sadly pretty representative of how things “happen” at many levels in Belgium: slowly, painfully slowly. But while I can wait forever for a document to be sent to me by the Commune because they cannot decide whether to mail it in Flemish or in French, other things require immediate action. And now, getting the bad guys is one. No, this is no time to accept things as they come and pat security services on the back telling them they did all they could. Of all evidence, they could and should have done better. This cannot “happen” again. Because some things can be (here it is) prevented.

Luckily, there are services to be grateful for. Less referred to in the press but nonetheless pivotal, the hospitals doubled their staff and deployed all possible efforts in Brussels and throughout Belgium to receive and treat the wounded. Ambulance drivers, medical staff, firemen, Red-Cross and volunteers, donors, the whole country was mobilized to offer help to the attack victims or simply to one another. Solidarity was truly the watchword in the chaos that was 22nd March 2016. Taxis were free of charge in Brussels for the day to help commuters go back home and many people offered car sharing and accommodation when transport means were at a standstill. There is so much potential for good in us, humans.

The reactions extended beyond the Belgian borders. I haven’t yet counted the number of people who made my phone buzz the whole day and flooded my social media pages with their concern for me and their comforting messages. France, Germany, UK, The Netherlands, Romania, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Sumatra, India, United States, Canada – a whole universe of people was there for me offering priceless support. No doubt, multi-cultural, borderless friendship is a true blessing to be grateful for.

I get it: there is nothing more frightening or dangerous or hard to grasp than a human bomb, a being who only lives for the sole purpose to detonate himself/herself in a public place, making sure he/she never quits this world alone. There is nothing more evil and pathetic at the same time. Possibly, there is also hardly anything less foreseeable than the nature and behaviour of such individuals. But I refuse to think that we allow them to outnumber or outsmart professional intelligence and security services.

Today, the sun will not shine over Belgium or in my heart. But after we all bend our heads to keep a minute of silence, we have to stand up again and face tomorrow. And hopefully, we will wake up to more responsible leaders who take better actions and make faster decisions. Belgium, cry, wipe you tears and go back to business. There’s work to do.

Mada in a snapshot

Melancholic lemur

Melancholic lemur

When people think about Madagascar, they think about cute lemurs and huge baobabs. They imagine an exotic land where tourists feed themselves lavishly on papaya and pineapple for breakfast and treat themselves to coco rum as the sun goes down. They imagine green forests and hidden waterfalls. And they certainly cannot pronounce the name of its capital: Antananarivo.

All of this rhymes indeed with Madagascar. But there is so much more to find there. Here is a crash-course into Madagascar and why it left an indelible mark on me.

Madagascar is the world fourth biggest island and is located in the Indian Ocean off the African South-East coast, at Mozambique level. Its separation from the continent makes it truly unique: because of its isolated position, close to Africa yet surprisingly Asian in many respects, Madagascar is home to species that have developed there and nowhere else in the world. In spite of its abundant diversity, Madagascar is one of the poorest countries on the Planet. Having suffered 90% deforestation, it struggles to preserve its unique wildlife on the one hand and feed its population and provide them with essential resources on the other. It is a challenged land. It is often the doom of beautiful countries to be also needy.

Cherry on the top, the country does not exactly receive support from its government and corruption is the true currency, much stronger than the Malagasy ariary that make you a millionaire when you convert them from dollar or euro. Because of instability, poverty, poor governance and everything that can go wrong in a God forsaken country, Madagascar tends to be less appealing to the ill-informed tourists.

With no reported traffic lights or street names, Tana (short and affectionate for Antananarivo) could give headaches even to a GPS. A European driver would have to navigate on a sea of hens, zebus (local cows), and humans who constantly feel the urge to cross from one side of what we shall call the “road” to the other, which to me looks more like a suicidal desire than anything else. Yes, Tana is the human jungle.

However, have no fear: Madagascar is an amazingly beautiful place, the sole possessor of some of the world’s one-of-a-kind treasures, a country of farmers and hard-working people. If you love nature, discovery, a  bit of adventure, if the taste of dust does not frighten you and if you hunger for new, extraordinary experiences, Madagascar can hardly disappoint.

What Madagascar desperately needs is tourism and jobs. With tourism, jobs opportunities are created. Most of the restaurants and hotel owners are still French people, but they do employ locals. An increased awareness that tourism brings in money will hopefully also educate people more on the reforestation programmes that have reportedly started throughout the island.

The reality as I see it is rather simple: no lemur, no tourism. Which means there is no other choice but to battle to keep these species alive (90% of the lemurs – which can only be found in Madagascar and some neighbouring islands –  are estimated to vanish forever if urgent action is not taken, aka start planting those bloody trees). Madagascar simply cannot afford to lose this tourism opportunity. Its people depend on it. Hopefully, again, this will also become a governance priority with traceable results. Right now, the country seems to be more kept afloat by the support of dedicated NGOs which, as I imagine, have not only the hard task of righting the wrong, but also fighting the authorities on the way.

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I have seen some of the most beautiful faces in Madagascar (the Malagasy are an interesting mix of Asian and African genes), trekked canyons and changing landscapes, bathed in crystal blue waterfalls, watched spectacular sunsets, tasted zebu in all its cooked forms, held hands with the locals while dancing by the camp fire, woken up to tens of sparkling rice terraces, went through dust and burning sun and took comfort on the beach, spent my birthday with a lemur on my head (if that is not magic!), enjoyed the local rum, collected hundreds of smiles and memories. Madagascar is no doubt an experience like no other. It is a place of colour and warmth, and above all, an eye-opening destination. I have never been thanked so much for choosing this country over a starred beach resort.

But it is I, the Vazah (white tourist) who am grateful to have witnessed and have been a part of a small fraction of Malagasy life. It is not every day that I get the privilege to wake up in a remote place of the Earth where everything is so different that you’d better forget where you come from and just observe this new universe that develops its wonders in front of you.

Madagascar, you have swept me away with your variety. A much rewarding surprise and nothing short of a treat for the eyes and soul. Merci. Milles fois merci.

Giving Love a Chance

IMG_4142My brain is an awfully selective instrument – breaking news and here here. Somewhere along the way of establishing my reading criteria it decided that books written by female authors displaying the word “Love” in the title were not of a burning interest to me. This is one of the reasons I have been postponing reading “Eat, pray, love” indefinitely, for instance , in spite of some passionate recommendations. Maybe because the storyline is all too familiar to me. Just by looking at the title, I feel that I already know what’s inside the book, and so the time manager side of my brains whispers: why would I invest time into reading something that is not new to me? The “L” word signals that there will be something cheesy, flowery and very girly that I am widely not interested in investing time into. Clearly, I had mentally labelled this type of books and carefully stored them in my own personal category of “Not my thing”. And I was very much convinced that that’s where they would stay.

Luckily, Waterstones (bless them for being open on Sundays) put “Love with a chance of drowning” into the “travel writing” section – my favourite part of their building. Headed for holidays, I decided I could do with a no-brainer, a type of read that wasn’t going to ask much of me. “Funny” – one of the reviews said. In an act of rebellion against my ready-made ideas, I become spontaneous, buy the book and give my too-serious self a kick in the “give me a break” pit. “I want to be girly. It’s my holiday”.

“Love with a chance of drowning”, as it turns out, is an exceptionally well-written book. It is so exciting, fun and vibrant that it drags you into the author’s world of exceptional adventures completely and that is precisely what I appreciate about a good book: the gripping effect. I enjoyed getting lost in those pages so much that the book became my mornings’ delight, a great companion to join me for my 6 a.m. coffee during my time in Ifaty, Madagascar. Caught in the flawless post-card picture that reunites coconut tree with the deep blue of the sky and ocean, the sun dancing gently in my hair, I sipped freshly brewed liquid at Chez Cécile and turned one page after the other. And even though my reality was simply perfect then and there, the book managed to snatch me away.

For this is a book one cannot put down. One that will make you frown at a friend who wants to join you for coffee (and I think I must apologize here if such thing happened) and deter your attention away from the wonderful adventure that Torre and boyfriend are living on the Pacific ocean that makes the pages so alive. One that you will remember, because of the unique, honest and thrilling writing style. This is a true story, a love story, yes, one that is skillfully rendered through a personal mix of words. Torre DeRoche is inspired enough not to exaggerate on the romantic side of the story, but focuses more on the funny and adventurous journey of a girl who is afraid of the Ocean yet ventures into the Pacific to follow her significant other, discover the world and ultimately herself.

A very charming account of a trip of a lifetime experienced first-hand and narrated by a seriously talented writer. Love…all the way and a great travel read.

Check also Torre DeRoche’s blog Fearful Adventurer.