Apparently this is how Ghana has been labelled, and having now spent time there I can understand this sentiment. English speaking, regular transportation and tourism savviness makes Ghana a good introduction to West Africa.
Religion is paramount to life here, and plays an enormous role in everyday existence. Most shops have wonderfully religious titles such as “Hallelujah Welders”, “Praise Be Hairdressers” and “Peace Be With You Ladies Fashion”.
One night when I was having street food in Accra I was asked by a fellow diner what my religion was, my answer clearly didn’t suffice so he then offered a string of biblical quotations as encouragement. So ingrained is Christianity* into the lives of Ghanaians that this ability to quote verses from the bible is widespread amongst the population.
I could write several paragraphs about the embracing of religion in Ghana, but I will just mention their view on death. I visited an interesting carpentry workshop who specialise in building personalised coffins. In an upbeat way relatives of the deceased select an important factor in their loved ones lives and the carpenters magically create it as a coffin. The examples on display included a spider, a capsicum, a video camera and my personal favourite – a bottle of talcum powder.
On a more sobering topic, sporting 37 forts on a 500km stretch of coast line Ghana was the key departure point for the most significant human migration ever
recorded – the slave trade. It is unclear exactly how many millions of men, women and children were shackled together, and led through the door of no return to the waiting ships. Taken from their homeland, their families and their existence they exited Ghana through this narrow doorway into a life of slavery in the Americas. A very poignant place to visit.
There are some other interesting and definitely more cheerful things I want to mention about Ghana. Sounds good I hear you cry.
- People are often called by the day of the week on which they were born, with different conventions for male and female. The most famous example of this being Kofi (Friday) Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations.
- A sign of respect is shown through shaking hands – but not your standard handshake. This is a special handshake that upon exiting you click your fingers, it’s quite hard to describe in words. But this manoeuvre takes skill, and I often felt like my fingers were going to break such was the force on my fingertips. One to practice for next time I think!
Christmas Day drumming
- I was there a few days after the 2016 General Election, which saw a change in Presidential power. The election passed peacefully and the subsequent Presidential handover went smoothly. As a nation such pride was taken in this process and billboards across Accra declared the Election as another triumphant success for Ghana.
- This is a country of typically happy and friendly people. Everyone wants to stop and chat, give you directions or make sure you alight from the bus at the correct location.
- Almost every second shop is a hairdressers. Women pride themselves on their appearance, and have the most creative large hairstyles. They are also comfortable, and I think even proud, to be seen in the streets with hair curlers in.
*there are also many Muslims living in Ghana, but Christianity is the religion of the majority.
… “have you seen Narcos”? This is the most frequent question when I mentioned visiting Colombia. Though this is a country working hard to dispel the violent and drug-riddled image left by one Mr Pablo Escobar*, and it is slowly succeeding.
I have to say outright I absolutely loved Colombia. The sheer variety of things to do and see, as well as unbelievably friendly people made this country a joy to visit. Yes getting a bus ticket was a challenge, yes Bogota felt ropey, and yes there was an exponential increase in the number mangy stray dogs after crossing the border from Ecuador. But wow was it worth it!
The scenery is breath taking, each bus journey opens up new vistas across the mountain ranges including the Andes, and wide sweeping rivers. The Amazon rainforest encroaches into Colombian territory, and there are beaches on both the Caribbean and Pacific coast.
The pinnacle of my trip was doing a four day, intense 44km trek to Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) high in the Sierra Nevada. This stunning walk through land previous claimed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), entails steep ascents and descents. It also throws in several cold water crossings, no bridges here and note that river depth is seasonal! This of course is all traversed in the sweltering jungle heat.
On arrival at Ciudad Perdida there is very little left of the city which was formed around 800AD. Only a series of terraced platforms, several of them hidden in the dense wilderness, remain. It’s eerily silent sitting on the platform looking out across the jungle stretching far below. So beautiful.
I have much more to write about Colombia, a place I really want to share with you. So stay tuned for the next blog instalment.
*for those not familiar with Pablo Escobar he was an infamous drug lord. In true high profile fugitive style Pablo was shot dead whilst fleeing across the rooftops of his home city, following an intensive manhunt. And no, I have not seen Narcos!
So the morality police. I’d heard this term many times before arriving in Iran but after being there for several days all thoughts of this self-governing group had been banished. That is until I met them. That is until I was apprehended for my lack of conformity to hijab and showing my hair – an illegal act for women.
For my first few days in the country the challenge of wearing hijab, which translates as “cover up”, proved tricky. Whilst feeling the heat in long sleeved tops and trousers, having to maintain the position of my headscarf proved the most frustrating. A continual tug-of-war between gravity insisting that my headscarf slide off, and me desperately clawing it back into place became the daily norm.
Thankfully I was given what I can only presume to be a warning in Farsi and directions to suitably amend my attire, by the rather fearsome morality police. The next person to be questioned on their dress code, a local girl, seemed to be given a much more thorough grilling and her tears were freely flowing.
I have no intention of this sounding like a negative post, as I truly enjoyed my time in Iran. Though I did on occasion struggle with the intensity of the rules imposed in the country and the impact of these. On a more positive note, here are some of the things that I witnessed in my travels:
- The art of bread making is quite unique, I didn’t see two bakeries alike. My favourite one which I was invited behind the scenes of, though they spoke no English, made their flat bread in a hot gravel oven. Once baked part of the process, to ensure no teeth are broken, is to pick out the hot chunks of gravel. This is done on special wire mesh containers by the buyers just in front of the shop. And for the record it tasted delicious!
- An unbelievable level of kindness and warmth oozed from everyone I met. Iranians are a very proud race of people who are keen to display their country in the best light. People frequently seemed intent on sharing their food with me, I was given free lifts by relative strangers and was even let into and shown around closed mosques by caretakers and builders alike. Such a breath of fresh air being made to feel welcome in an unknown land.
- Surprisingly Esfahan boasts the second largest square in the World. The largest being Tiananmen square in Beijing.
- In the countries holiest mosque, Haram-e Razavi Shrine in Mashhad, devout worshippers swarm the vast complex. The majority of women wear the traditional black chador, a shapeless piece of material which covers you from head to toe, making it impossible to identify individuals from behind. I saw one ingenious group who had all pinned a white tag on the back of their floor length gowns. I couldn’t help but smile at this bid for individuality in the strictest place in Iran.
- Often claimed to be the birth of civilisation, there are several ancient sights in Iran. Dating from 520BC is the most famous sight of Persepolis, with a fantastically intricately carved stone staircase.
Everyone has been keen to hear about my trip through Iran, and with good reason. Whilst not many people I know have been to this political hot potato of a country; most know of it’s turbulent past along with it’s current on-going sanctions and alleged uranium processing facilities.
My first impressions immediately blew away my pre-conceived thoughts that this would be an authoritarian country where woman were not treated as equals. From the word go I found the country illuminating and culturally intriguing. Both men and women were keen to chat, and I learnt much about their thoughts and dreams for the future of Iran.
The things that surprised me in Iran were numerous, I’ve listed some here:
I think I’ll post more on Iran soon, as there is so much to this country that I want to share.
… and I think I know why!! This country is tough even for the hardy traveller, into which category I firmly place myself. The difficulty in getting a visa and then enduring the immigration experience, places you in good stead for what is to come.
Lone travellers are rare, and women even more so, as most visitors are on organised tours. This makes finding an English speaker tricky, including in hotels. In my three days there, I found just one person who I could converse with. So lots of gesticulating and smiling occurred. Everyone was friendly and wanted to have a conversation, people just kept repeating the same thing again and again, as if I’d suddenly become fluent in Turkmen in their presence.
Interesting things about this relatively unknown former Soviet state:
- The forlorn beautiful UNESCO world heritage sight of Konye Urgench, has several ancient buildings all leaning perilously due to earthquake damage. I was convinced the 59m tower was going to topple at any time.
- Prestige and opulence are the order of the day in the cities, particularly the capital Ashgabat. Huge sweeping avenues are lined with large sparkling white buildings, but where are the people? Only officials and gardeners were present in the newest area of the city.
- The previous president seems to have been a character – filling the cities with gold statutes of himself, renaming the months with names of his family, and banning television reporters from wearing make-up because he said he found it difficult to distinguish males from females.
I visited Turkmenistan en route from Uzbekistan to Iran, with the view of just spending three days there. I think this is a country worthy of more attention, but the transport limitations, difficulty communicating and most importantly the government restrictions make Turkmenistan a challenge.
… and so much more. Genghis Khan did a reasonable amount of damage to this fair land, as have numerous serious earthquakes over the ages. However several amazing historic structures remain – huge domed mosques, medrassas in brilliant hues of blue, and ornate grand entrance portals. In each town these seemed to generally be grouped together surrounding a central courtyard for the ultimate wow factor.
To fight the fierce heats of summer and cold harsh winters the older towns are all walled, with mud houses accessible through low doors off the numerous twisting turning alleys. Bazaars here are typical to the region, brick structures with arched roofs crammed full of stalls selling all kinds of paraphernalia. This is where all the action happens. People congregate to shop, chat and get out of the cold biting wind – I know as I happily joined them.
Now whilst Uzbekistan has a fairly quiet backpacker trail, a certain amount of tenacity is still required to surpass the language barrier. There is an expectation that as a tourist you speak Russian, which was a rather optimistic view in my case!
So what else did I experience in this interesting far flung destination? Well….
- Taxi? What taxi? Just flag down a car driving past and if it’s going your way it’s a win all round.
- I thought that the imaginings of Roald Dahl’s character *Veronica Beauregarde and her chewing gum habits were one of pure fantasy. But oh no, not here. I saw chewing gum stored behind ears and on fingernails for re-chewing later, all a bit yukky!
Simply stunning architecture!
- Finance was interesting, I changed $200 into the local currency of Som. My new currency was so vast it came in a carrier bag containing 600 physical notes! Only recently has a note for a larger amount been introduced, however these are still rare. Hence the requirement for carrying your funds in a backpack as opposed to a wallet.
- A previous post mentioned the tradition of not turning bread upside down. I had dinner with two locals, and one actually reached over to the others plate and turned his bread the correct way around. I was flabbergasted, but it seemed quite usual behaviour here.
*Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s third golden ticket winner and claimed to be the world record holder for chewing gum.
or should I say, bizarre facts loosely connect to the travel genre.
- Plants grow more quickly if you talk to them in a Geordie accent (a strong accent emanating from the North East of England) I quite like this fact, but also find it most weird….
- Only 22 of the world’s 193 countries have never been invaded by the British.
- A topical fact, in time for the FIFA World Cup. In a 90-minute football match, the average player is in possession of the ball for just 53.4 seconds.
- Andorra’s army has ten soldiers.
- The Marianas Trench in the Pacific is so deep that a coin dropped into it will take more than an hour to reach the bottom.
- And lastly, a whopping 500,000 Italians visit an exorcist every year. I had no idea Italy had a ghost infestation.
Categories: culture, people
Whilst not specific travel facts, these are somewhat interesting titbits from around the Globe.
- It is illegal to show TV adverts for haemorrhoid cream at meal-times in China. A most sensible idea.
- Ransom payments to kidnappers are tax-deductible in America.
- More chemical elements have been discovered in Britain than in any other country. Now that one totally surprised me!
- The letter Z is worth only one point in the Polish version of Scrabble.
- Turkmenistan public holidays include Melon Day and Carpet Day – can’t wait to visit, though sadly I miss these celebratory holidays!
- A glass of milk left in the Lut Desert in Iran will not go off, the heat is so intense it kills all the bacteria.
- Britain’s rarest flower is the lady’s slipper orchid: a single specimen grows on a Lancashire golf course under police surveillance.
* Thanks to the ever interesting and always random QI for these pearls of wisdom.
Categories: culture, people
I personally find it hard to summarise Timor-Leste. It’s struggle for independence was finalised over a decade ago, and it is continuing to grow into itself as a solo country. Mixed political views (particularly around language), crazy Chinese led construction everywhere and a high rate of poverty add diversity to what is a beautifully scenic place to visit.
Whilst a well versed traveller and no stranger to adventures, this country was a difficult one to get to grips with. A strong influx of well paid overseas workers has put high cost voyeuristic tourism on the map, driving disparity between the local population and visitors. Subsequently it makes backpacking and integrating with locals difficult, though any effort you make goes a long way with people.
Enough of this negative spiel, there were gems to be discovered in Timor-Leste. The island of Atauro across the Wetar Strait from Dili was idyllic, climbing Mt Ramelau for sunrise was breath-taking and of course taking the public bus along with a host of local people, their shopping and farmyard animals always proves interesting.
In a nutshell, here are some of the facts and figures…
- Apparently an average of one person a month gets taken by a crocodile, no mention of that in the Lonely Planet. Reassuring to know I’d been swimming in safe waters…
- “Chester” graffiti in Dili. Never expected to see my name emblazoned in pink spray paint all over the capital!!
- In 1991 the Santa Cruz cemetery saw the massacre of over a hundred unarmed people protesting for independence, it led to the World putting Timor-Leste on the map. This colourful, crowded cemetery still hosts groups of wailing mourners and is a moving place to visit. Several graves were recently adorned with personal gifts and decorations. One grave had a teacup and saucer, whilst on another two lit cigarettes were smoking away, a unique offering to the deceased.
- When on a long bus ride and the driver stops for a break, it appears essential for everyone to buy a Pot Noodle. Once the journey continues, the perilous task of eating the boiling hot water snack whilst sitting on the bus roof and gripping on for dear life is commonplace.
- The official language has been designated as Portuguese, which only 5% of the population speak. This has caused controversy, with a general preference appearing to be Indonesian or English in alignment with neighbouring countries.
- And did I mention the crocodiles….
Bet you didn’t know that fact!! But yes, in May 2002 it gained independence under turbulent circumstances.
A mere one hour and twenty minutes from Darwin, Australia, I feel this small country is overlooked due to it’s sizeable neighbour Indonesia. However, during the Easter holidays, I’m heading there and hoping to find out more. In the meanwhile this will give a view of Timor-Leste:
- The International Monetary Fund has declared the country as the most oil dependent economy in the world – bizarre but true!
- At the Sochi Winter Olympics 2014 Timor-Leste made their debut in the alpine skiing, but didn’t feature in the finals.
- Sadly, and to me shocking, it rates as the 4th hungriest country in the world according to the Global Hungry Index.
- On a positive note, through a training program with Cuba the expectation is that by 2015 there will be more doctors per capita than any other country in southeast Asia.
- Lastly the second key driver of the Timor-Leste economy is exportation of coffee of which most goes to Starbucks!