I have wanted to come to Africa for many years, but my travels have taken me frequently to South Asia. So, when I had clear opportunity to visit Kenya in East Africa, proverbial wild horses could not have stopped me.
Having been a frequent visitor to the Indian subcontinent, there was something familiar with the climate, vegetation, roadside stalls and shops and just the feel of the country. However, culturally, Africa is very different from India. Of course these differences only served to heighten my enjoyment of my new environment, if only for the sake of variety.
Kenya is without doubt a beautiful country, and one week in, I was really loving it. Staying with a family initially in Oyugis, we had met plenty of locals which is a fantastic way to begin to understand a nation and its culture. And culture of course is everything – the way a nation feels, thinks, reacts, behaves and basically does life is all part and parcel of what we call culture.
For me, travel has always been about the people you meet and not just the places you visit. Having said that, Kenya is massively replete with adventures and amazing places to see. Whether you love the coast, want to visit mountains, go on safari, explore a tea plantation, Kenya will keep producing the goods, again and again.
And without doubt, I will be returning to Kenya. I mean, why wouldn’t you? Admittedly, there were some security concerns with the current elections going on, and a potential terrorism threat mainly in the North East from Al Shabaab (a result of the Kenyan military intervention in Somalia), but the draw of East Africa is simply magnetic. So yes, I will definitely be coming back, and what is more, I would encourage you to do the same. Just be careful and vigilant, but more than anything, enjoy it…
So our host decided to drive us around Homa Bay County and show us his home turf. We went straight to Kendu Bay where the bright sunlight was reminiscent of a previous holiday in the Bahamas. Simply outstanding. Fresh fish, diverse birdlife and a gorgeous Kenyan blue sky, which was guaranteed to sweep away the winter and possibly, COVID blues. We sat in a cafe by the lake shore and drank bitter lemon, mango juice and and beer.
Actually, the birdlife really is amazing. In a few short minutes, I had spotted Little Egret, Cattle Egret, Great White Egret, Pied Kingfisher, Hamerkop, Cormorants and others. If that lot doesn’t get your ornithological juices running, nothing will.
In terms of birding, the whole of the Kenya trip was pretty much like that; one awe inspiring sight after another. Leaving Kendu Bay, we travelled a short distance to Simbi Lake where I witnessed a great wash of pink gathered at one end of the shoreline, iridescent in the bright African sunshine. It was my very first flock of Lesser Flamingos, and what a beautiful sight it was too.
Moving on, we eventually arrived at Homa Bay situated at the bottom end of the Winam Gulf, that feeds into Lake Victoria. This time, the birdwatching went up several more notches as the avian world blended seamlessly with the human one.
Two words: Marabou Storks. These large, and to be completely honest, somewhat ugly birds were everywhere. On the roofs of houses, on the shoreline, in the sky above us. In fact, they are so big, it felt like a scene out of Jurassic World when the beleaguered tourists were being dive-bombed by pterodactyls.
I don’t think Homa Bay is really a tourist town, from what I could see anyway. Down near the shoreline, it was just full of fishermen, birds (waiting for titbits from the fishermen no doubt), locals selling fish cooked and uncooked, and families enjoying the breezy sunshine down near the water. The whole place had a busy, but relaxed and laid back feel.
It may well be off the beaten track and not an obvious tourist destination, but I really recommend a visit to this remote part of Western Kenya – you won’t be disappointed!
“You have to decide the kind of life that you want to live, or the person that you want to be.” Those were the words, or something similar to them that my taxi driver said to me, as I sat in the back, en route to Athens International Airport. The story he told me during the short 30 minute night-time journey left me with a feeling of incredulity.
He lived and worked in Athens as a taxi driver but also owned a holiday home on a Greek island, which provided a valuable source of income. He told a tale of oil rich Arabs from the Middle East that had arrived on the island with literally holdalls full of euros, and my driver had provided transport for these visitors to the island. They would offer him 10,000 Euros to go and get drugs, girls or whatever they wanted. Money was no object whatsoever.
My taxi driver was clearly an ethical and righteous man and refused their generous, but outrageous offer. As we parted company at departures, I pondered his account of the corrupting influence of money and the Aristotle-like wisdom he had offered me – all included in the price of taxi fare! Later, before I caught my flight back to Thessaloniki, I encountered Miss Mykonos 2018 with a small child in tow, which was a salutary reminder that however glamourous your day job may be, we have all got mouths to feed and bills to pay.
In the preceding days, I had spent three enjoyable nights at the superbly appointed Hotel Sir Athens in Greece’s ancient, political and philosophical capital, having joined my friends, Emmanouil and Antigoni in the city whilst they attended a conference. Eleni, the boutique hotel’s part-owner really looked after me and made me feel very welcome. Sir Athens was modern, comfortable, well equipped and conveniently situated.
I really loved Athens, or at least parts of it. I wasn’t so enamoured with the endless, uniform rows of air conditioned accommodation blocks sprawled out across the city marching towards the horizon, but if ancient culture and civilisations are your thing, Athens has it by the bucket load. And understandably, it has tourists by the bucket load too, and whilst not on the same scale as Venice in terms of visitor numbers, be prepared to rub shoulders with crowds of adoring travellers from all over the globe.
The Acropolis pretty much stands at the top of the list, including the Theatre of Dionysus, Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the Temple of Athena Nike and of course, it’s crowning glory: The Parthenon. Don’t forget the Acropolis museum just across the way though – it is superb. Three main floors of ancient antiquity to keep you endlessly fascinated, and it is not to be missed. The Areopagus is nearby and the fascinating Temple of Zeus is located in a different part of the city.
Having suitably feasted on the sights and sounds of both ancient and modern Greece, I decided it was time to return to my hotel. However, I soon discovered that I was having trouble explaining to the Greek taxi driver where my hotel was, so I phoned Eleni and gave the phone to the driver. After a fairly animated discussion between the two of them in their mother tongue, the location of the hotel was identified, but having seen her WhatsApp profile picture on my mobile, the taxi driver then exclaimed in English to her, “You’re beautiful!”
Well, that’s the Greeks for you, and as an Englishman, I suddenly felt very dull and inhibited although I couldn’t argue with his conclusion about my host. That eclectic mix and splash of local culture and colour is surely what travel is all about, and I love it. Greece and her people will always have a special place in my heart, and I’m sure to return.
And if you haven’t yet sampled the delights of this enchanting country ringed by the sparkling Ionian, Aegean & Mediterranean Seas, then as soon as you are able, I encourage you to book your flight and go and see, not just things and places, but meet the people that make it so unique. I had the distinct feeling that this short trip to Greece was going to live long in my memory. Kalinikta Hellas.
Mount Rainier appeared like a mirage in the distance, summoning and calling us to ascend her snowy mantle. At last, my father, my brother and I set off towards her majestic peak beckoning to us for supreme adventure – and we were ready for that.
As we drove on and on, its icy cap filled the horizon with increasing dominance. Ascending higher and higher – we were heading for the Southern Cascades; that vast range of mountains that bisects Washington – reaching from the Canadian border down to the State of Oregon. We had arrived in the Olympic National Park, and our goal, the focus of our desire lay in front of us.
The excitement built and reached a crescendo as Rainier now loomed large in our field of view. Snowy vistas beckoned as we began our upward climb. Up and up through the snow we trudged, icy tentacles wrapping around our feet. The air was clear, still, and rarefied as we left civilization below us. The snowy peak was calling us, daring and challenging us to come up higher. Overcoming tiredness, aching limbs, and with a steely determination, Jonathan and I persevered and pushed on up the mountain.
This time with my brother was precious; bonding, shaping, and connecting. Separated by so much distance and so many years, at last we were together. Climbing, ascending with the Southern Cascades as our back drop, mighty rocky promontories reaching into the still, blue sky announcing their majestic and undeniable presence.
We reached 7000 feet, meeting triumphant and satisfied climbers who were descending from a much higher altitude. We were now up in the land of the gods: glaciers, snow fields, mountain goats and marmots.
Finding the source of the Nisqually River, I drank from its sacred spring. Clean, clear, cold and unimaginably refreshing, I allowed the water to invigorate and refresh my tired body. The glare of the snow continued to shine and dazzle in the afternoon sun. Photo opportunities abounded; I felt overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of our new environment.
Satisfied, and having gone as far as time, energy and the now waning sun would allow, we began our descent even pausing to engage with a Mountain Marmot who was very curious about what we were doing. Maybe posturing for confrontation or seeking food – we shall never know. But as we descended, we met more explorers, climbers and hikers who were also enjoying the icy delights of this snowy arena.
Regrouping down below and eventually drifting homeward, I reflected that it had been a day like no other. We had come and conquered, and now felt fulfilled, contented, and grateful for this time together enjoying the sheer magnificence that is Mount Rainier.
I have been travelling to India for almost 25 years now, and it is fair to say that I have seen a few changes over the years. I have seen this country dynamically shift in some ways, and in other ways not. I mean India still has masses of terribly poor people eking out a living from day to day, and admittedly, the very-poor have always existed alongside the super-rich. If you go to any major city like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, or Chennai, you will see the slums and the skyscrapers together.
However, what is different now here in the 21st Century, is the emerging middle class, the young, ICT literate and upwardly mobile – that generation of Millennials that have reached adulthood. This was never more evidenced than when I was riding the Metro in Delhi last year. Smartly dressed young men and women absorbed with their smartphones, as interconnected and aware as the rest of us on planet earth.
Delhi’s Metro is ever expanding and easy to use. Colour coded footprints on the walkways help direct you to the right lines; it really is a thing of beauty and an enormous asset for all city dwellers. Sprawling out like a spider’s web across the nation’s capital it transports the young and beautiful, and the not so young and beautiful to wherever they so choose.
My friend Varun, from Varanasi but now living in Delhi with his family, remarked that once you’re inside the Metro system, it’s like being in the UK. However, the moment you emerge, you are back in India again. I knew exactly what he meant; the metro is relatively new and modern and yet when you come out it’s almost like you have been in a time warp, because you are back to the rickshaw wallahs, the roadside vendors, the noise, heat, and pollution. But this is always the way that India has been – rich and poor living side by side.
This is a vastly different story from when I first arrived in India back in November 1995. There was certainly no metro and the preferred method of transport was nearly always an auto-rickshaw, or an old ambassador taxi. But I guess now in this age of climate change, something had to give, because as you will know if you have ever visited Delhi, the smog there is fairly legendary. In fact, at times, it will bring the whole city to a halt because the visibility becomes so poor.
I always knew that air pollution was going to be a challenge for this emerging economic giant. The moment our 400 ton 747 landed with a heavy thud at Indira Gandhi International at Delhi, and its tyres screeched and smoked along the runway tarmac, I could smell the definite bitter, poisonous tang of heavy smog in the air. I cannot say that the air quality has massively improved since then, but with initiatives like greener, less polluting auto-rickshaws and the Delhi’s dazzling metro, things are sure to improve over time.
Thirty years of age, from Tyre in Lebanon, Jabira had luxuriant, thick, tightly curled hair which contrasted with a complexion that was paler than what I would have imagined for someone from the Middle East. Faultlessly dressed in her pastel-coloured airline uniform, Jabira wore vivid red lipstick like a movie star.
Perching on the crew seat, at the rear of the aircraft by the galley, she told me that she loved to travel, and even travels on her day off. The conversation then moved in a more personal direction when Jabira told me that she was marrying a guy sixteen years her senior and that this was a good thing.
She preferred more mature men, and her rationale behind this thinking was that older guys are more experienced, they have seen lots of interesting things in life, were stable and are not always looking at other girls.
I immediately began to relax, because up until that point, I was going to be writing a stiffly worded letter of complaint to the airline head office. I was travelling to India once again full of anticipation and excitement, but I had just suffered the worst airline food and service in years of flying.
Feeling restless, I had torn myself away from the irresistible view of distant, foreign shores below me, and a vast, unending range of jagged, white-topped mountains interspersed with glacial lakes. Heading to the rear of the aircraft, I needed to do what every passenger must do after a few hours in their seat. That is when I came face to face with Jabira.
I interrupted her lunch break by remarking on the healthy and nutritious tuna salad that she was eating. Graciously, she then engaged in meaningful conversation with me and willingly surrendered up some personal and fascinating details about her life.
With an impending summer marriage, Jabira was trying to lose weight for her husband-to-be. She declared that at the age of 30 she was now old, and the older you get the more difficult it becomes to lose weight. Of course, I reassured her that she was neither old nor needed to lose weight.
Eventually, the Bursar came and interrupted our conversation, telling the crew it was time to attend to the needs of the passengers. I said goodbye to Jabira for now, and I wished her all the love and luck in the world.
Sitting down in my habitual window seat, now gazing out over a different landscape passing below like a geographical conveyor belt, I contemplated what had just taken place.
I had met Jabira and she had shared her life, hopes, and aspirations with me. My pent-up disappointment with the airline had all but evaporated because, at this moment, it simply did not matter anymore.
Later, she strode past my seat and gave me a knowing smile. I relaxed again knowing that I had been touched by the kindness of a stranger, and I was infinitely richer for it.
Rain, lots and lots of it. In fact, it was endless, and Sigra Road outside our hotel was rapidly becoming a river. It was September, and we were in Varanasi, North India, in the back end of the monsoon season. Clearly, all the locals were not bothered by it as everybody just carried on, even though by this time the street outside was under 1-2 feet of water.
Big, thick, deafening rain just kept falling out of the sky; heavily, incessantly, and persistently as we watched from the relative shelter of the Hotel Padmini, just around the corner from my friend’s house. I had never seen weather like it in the UK, and I was at once filled with excitement, awe and wonder at nature’s power to bring everything to a grinding halt.
The drainage along the road just could not cope. Too much water, too quickly with no let up. People were getting off motorbikes and pushing. Auto-rickshaws also could not withstand the deluge, and their beleaguered drivers had to dismount and physically force their vehicles through the dirty, brown water.
Cars broke down and again had to be propelled by human effort. But no one gave up, they just got out, got off and put their backs into it because that is what you do in this part of the world. You don’t let something simple like a massive weather system stop you from going about your daily business here.
Geneva, in Switzerland, is a short flight from Heathrow, and consequently, is easily accessible from the United Kingdom or anywhere in Europe. It was my first time exploring this beautiful country, and I was not disappointed at all. Geneva itself, hugging the shores of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), is a fairly cosmopolitan place by all accounts. But then, what would you expect from the city that is home to both the Red Cross and the United Nations? The Jura mountains provide a stunning backdrop to this lakeside metropolis, and the city itself is interesting enough with plenty of areas to explore.
Like in any city, street cafés abound where you can unreservedly indulge in a spot of people watching. Witness meetings between businessmen, couples enjoying each other’s company or maybe a pair of Swiss girls chatting excitedly in French in between cigarettes and food. To me, this is travel. It’s not just the places that you see but the people you meet.
Before you go anywhere though, pop into the Swiss tourism office in downtown Geneva. I found the staff, especially Anna who just paid a visit to London herself, very pleasant and helpful. Bulk up on useful local info about this city on a lake, grab yourself a city pass which will discount a number of activities for you, and of course a free map on which the staff will indicate key places though the useful application of a biro. Chris, my travel buddy, and I emerged ready to explore Geneva’s altogether lovely and engaging tourist offering.
OUT & ABOUT
Bus Tour: No city break would be complete without the ubiquitous bus tour. This particular bus tour was informative and interesting but sadly not open-topped. C’est la vie… can’t have it all I guess. The bus will whisk you around various points of interest, including of course the UN quarter of the city, home to various wings of this world-famous organisation: UNESCO, UNICEF, UNHCR and of course the UN building itself. The final part of the tour is conducted, rather uniquely, on a land train down some of the more narrow streets.
The Saleve: If you fancy something a little different, why not try a mini excursion up to The Saleve. A mini massif, just over the border in France, it affords amazing views across Lake Geneva and the city itself. Take a bus to the terminus, walk across the French border and ascend via a cable car to enjoy unparalleled views of the landscape below. It is well worth the effort indeed.
Boat Tour: No visit to Geneva is complete without taking a boat across, or around Lac Leman. It will certainly give you a different perspective on the city, and the boat tour I took was included in the price of the city pass.
Walking Tour of the Old City: This is also well worth doing. Old Geneva is fascinating, interesting and of course historic. You can wander around the old streets of Geneva, and in fact you should do – it’s immensely satisfying and relaxing. Strolling at your own pace, you can simply take in the sights and sounds of the old city. This is what holidaying is all about surely? We opted for the walking tour with an audio guide which was great. All the info you need right there in your hand and you can take things at your own pace. Perfect.
THE DAY WE WENT TO LAUSANNE
Well, it had to be done didn’t it? Hopped on a train we did and headed for that ultra-Swiss town of Lausanne. A train ride along the shores of sparkling Lac Leman on one side with row after row of vineyards on the other will bring you to this mini metropolis by the water. Like Geneva, Lausanne is interesting, historic and engaging. A climb up to the cathedral is well worth it (for the cathedral itself and the panoramic views across the city itself), so make sure that you include that in your tour, however brief.
We even found time for a jaunty boat ride across to Evian, the home of spring water, on the French side of the lake. We didn’t really have the time to disembark, but the journey was worthwhile nonetheless. As we headed back, Lausanne loomed large on the horizon. Soon enough we found ourselves sat outside café & bar drinking a local brew. Like I say, travelling is all about the people that you meet and soon enough we found ourselves chatting to Pete and his buddies.
Turns out that Pete was from Cardiff, but had found himself in Lausanne some twenty years ago, met a girl and never left. Well there’s a story that has been repeated a few times around the world I should imagine. Pete seemed quite content with his life as an English teacher who regularly topped up his wages by busking on the street. Well, Switzerland is an expensive country you know. Soon, we were joined by his friend Christine and I somehow managed to end up paying for her drink. A chance encounter with the locals (ex-pats included); now that is travel.
THEN WE WENT TO GSTAAD…
On the final day of our trip, we decided to leave the sparkling shores of Lake Geneva, and head on up to the majesty that is the Bernese Oberland. We skirted by Lausanne, heading purposefully for Montreux where we would change trains and start the long climb through the beautiful Alpine meadows that are so typical of this part of the world. One Swiss chalet after another seemed to float by, as the train carried us inexorably up and up towards our destination. Eventually we arrived in Gstaad which according to my learned friend was an uber-posh Ski resort. However, since it was early April, it was a deserted uber-posh ski resort.
After a quick visit to the tourist information centre, we were directed to the PostBus nearby that would transport us to the Aerial Cableway (very large cable car). The cable car runs every 20 minutes and takes approximately 15 minutes to reach the snowy peaks and ski runs of Glacier 3000. Halfway up, we stopped briefly only to be joined by a horde a skiers and snowboarders (unsurprisingly) and we were suddenly feeling very under-dressed.
Actually, as we emerged at the top of Glacier 3000 Snowpark, I definitely was under-dressed because I was, well, basically freezing. However, the views are simply stunning and literally take your breath away (sorry about the cliché). Prepared to be dazzled by an array of no less than 24 x 4000m peaks including the Eiger, the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. If you’re feeling daring and not afraid of heights, navigate the spectacular Peak Walk by Tissot between two summits – it is stunning. For more information on all this, check out the Swiss tourism website: https://www.myswitzerland.com/en-gb/destinations/glacier-3000/
No doubt there is much more you can do in this wonderful country, but I don’t think that is half bad as a starter for 10, don’t you? I invite you to come and explore Geneva, Lausanne, Lac Leman, Gstaad and the beautiful, stunning, incomparable Bernese Oberland. You’ll definitely be coming back for more!
Delhi, with a population of more than of 25 million, is one of the mega cities of South Asia. And if you haven’t been yet, then you really should go. I’ve flown into the nation’s capital more times than I can remember, and yet it still retains a certain magnetism for me. Delhi is an ideal place to start your exploration of India, because there are so many other places within relatively easy reach. However, before you start trekking the length and breadth of India, stay a few days in the city and see what it has to offer.
However, here’s my recommended ‘must see’ list. I hope you find it helpful
The Rashtrapati Bhavan, otherwise known as the Presidential House, was designed by the renowned British architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens in the early 20th century. Built originally for the Viceroy, it now houses the President of India. Built from red and cream sandstone, it is striking in it’s appearance and makes a good starting point for your tour. Bordered by government offices on either side of Rajpath, you can simply view the Rashtrapati Bhavan through the black iron gates, and the tall Jaipur Column that stands sentinel in the foreground. Or, you can arrange to explore the presidential buildings, grounds and gardens by visiting: https://presidentofindia.gov.in/rbvisit/rbvisit.aspx
The construction of this red sandstone tower was completed in 1193 by the Delhi’s first Muslim ruler, Qutb-ud-din Aibak. It was built to commemorate his military victories, and standing at 73 m it is definitely worth a look-see. Once upon a time you could actually go inside and climb to the top, but when a stampede killed 45 people inside the tower during a power failure in 1981, it was closed to the public. Continued fears for public safety have kept the interior closed to this day because of the sheer height of the tower.
But you can still experience it’s impressive dimensions, and marvel at this neck craning piece of ancient architecture at ground level. With some interesting ruins and delightful gardens to explore, it’s definitely worth asking your driver to apply the handbrake. Don’t forget to call into the government emporiums during your tour to pick up those all important quality souvenirs, although you will buy cheaper from street vendors.
Lal Qila, the Red Fort, was completed in 1648 by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, in what is now called Old Delhi. This same emperor commissioned the Taj Mahal at Agra in memory of his beloved wife, Mumtaz. You cannot fail to be impressed by its lofty sandstone walls and battlements, which stand as mute testimony to the ruling Muslim dynasty across Northern India at that time. Accessible from Netaji Subhash Marg, the road running past the front entrance, the fort sits on the banks of the Yamuna River to the rear.
Worthy of your exploration, you can easily while away an hour or two roaming around the museums and fort grounds. Visit http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/231 for more info. Be aware that every tourist hot spot tends to attract a myriad of street sellers flogging every souvenir conceivable. If you are not interested, just say no or if you like, then barter!
The Lotus Temple
The Bahá’í House of worship is built in the shape of a lotus flower, and was opened in 1986. Whether you’re a follower of the Bahá’í faith or not, you will find the cool interior to be a restful haven of peace and quiet from the heat, noise and bustle of Delhi. The temple is set within manicured lawns and surrounded by nine serene pools of water. Be careful in the crowds outside temple though, as pickpockets can operate in the vicinity. Keep your hands on your bags and possessions to be safe.
Lodhi Garden, east of Nehru Park and located in the south of Delhi, is one of the green lungs of the city. If you want to get away from it all, and that’s only a matter of time, then this is the place to go. Romantic couples can be seen walking or sitting together on the grass, whilst others amble through and just enjoy the natural beauty around them. A wide bridge spans the lake there, and paved walkways invite you to delve deeper into this green oasis. The verdant seclusion in the heart of the city, provides peace and tranquillity and a welcome relief from the urban sprawl of Delhi. It’s very historic too as the gardens contain tombs dating back to the Sayyid and Lodhi Muslim dynasties of the 15th and 16th centuries, otherwise known as the Delhi Sultanate.
Built to commemorate the sacrifice that Indian troops made in WW1, it looks like an Asian version of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but on a smaller scale. Also designed and built by Lutyens, it is situated at the end of Rajpath and looks towards the Rashtrapati Bhavan at the far end. Flanked by the Children’s Park and the August Kranti Maidan on either side, it is a natural meeting point and a great place to gather socially. Here you will find Indian friends, couples and families coming to relax, chill out, get an ice cream or maybe indulge in some tasty street food. Again beware, as it tends to attract every street hawker imaginable, but it is a great photo opportunity and not to be missed.
Now we all like a bit of Shakespeare, don’t we? Well, what about some Shakespeare outside then? That is exactly what you’ll get if you turn up at Shakespeare’s birthplace in super Stratford-upon-Avon, and wander through to the enclosed garden and courtyard at the rear of the property. Just call out your favourite play by the legendary bard, and the two or three assembled Shakespearean actors, suitably attired in period costume, will enact a pithy scene for your listening and viewing pleasure.
These guys (and girls), are real pro’s. Making it look so effortless and easy, the impromptu audience are lavishly entertained with scenes from ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ ‘The Tempest,’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’ – and everything in between. To be quite honest, I could have sat there all day and lapped up this eloquent street theatre (or courtyard theatre if you want to be pedantic), and that would have constituted a perfectly acceptable day out, with time well spent.