Kathmandu

Before I left for my travels most of you who know me shared your concern for my safety  – not really because of my narcolepsy or the fact that I am a solo female traveller  but more because I am ‘Grace’. I will be the first to admit that I have a long history of finding myself in one predicament or another.

To get to the point on 28th November I arrive in Delhi airport to get my flight to Kathmandu on time with my passport, tickets, accommodation and pick up from airport organised…..what else did I need…ah yes money, at the very least 100 quid for my visa fee! All I had was a misley 300 indian rupees due to misplacing my wallet and not being able to find a western union to draw money out of. I was fully aware of this on route to the airport but was hoping for some miracle.

Despite the mess I was in I was keeping it together…this didn’t last though after I was repeatedly informed that I should not get on the flight because I would  be deported back to India if unable to pay the Nepalese visa fee. This sent me over the edge and soon the tears piled in –  I could not stop them – although to be fair I didn’t try to or care what I looked like. Most of the airport was looking at me but this was no different to the last 3 months.

I was still holding out for a little miracle and  headed through to security.  Once in the departure land I felt surprisingly calm and with the incredible views of the mountain I nearly forgot about my visa issue. I was lucky to get a window seat despite my late check in….I have a feeling that the lady at the counter arranged this for me as she seemed quite concerned.

Lucky for me a miracle did happen in the form of a ginger scott named Greg who kindly paid for my visa (only a 100 dollars eh). For the millionth time….Thanks!!

As you can imagine I was pretty damn happy to be in Kathmandu and to meet Susma and Hari from Wahoe Nepal, a newly formed NGO in Nepal.

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My role was to support the team with administration tasks such as promoting the charity on social media and planning for future volunteers.

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In return I stayed in their apartment where the main office was based for a week which allowed me to spend the rest of my week exploring the many streets of the main backpacker area of Thamel and main sights in Kathmandu.

 

Thamel

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Boudhanath Stupa

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My favourite place was the Boudhanath Stupa, the largest stupa in Nepal and the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet. It is the center of Tibetan culture in Kathmandu and rich in Buddhist symbolism. Surrounding the Stupa are streets and narrow alleys lined with colorful homes, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and street vendors. I could have easily stayed here all day.

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Pashupatinath

Pashupatinath is a Hindu temple on the banks of the Bagmati River in Deopatan, a village 3 km northwest of Kathmandu. It is dedicated to a manifestation of Shiva called Pashupati (Lord of Animals). It attracts thousands of pilgrims each year and has become well known far beyond the Kathmandu Valley.

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The temple is barred to non-Hindus, but I was allowed to walk around the grounds on the banks of the Bagmati River where Hindu cremations were taking place. I was fine watching this from a distance but my guide insisted that I had a closer look.   A guide informed me that most Hindus come here to contemplate life and how they enter and leave this world with nothing. He thought of it as a peaceful place excellent for meditation.

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Swayambhunath

Swayambhunath is an ancient religious complex atop a hill in the Kathmandu Valley, west of Kathmandu city.

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It is also known as the Monkey Temple as there are holy monkeys living in the north-west parts of the temple.

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 These monkeys scared the life out of me….they were everywhere!!!

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I had a great week in Kathmandu but I must admit the highlight of my week was meeting up with Mr Langley and his lively cohort. His visit was short and sweet but we had a great evening eating, drinking and dancing the night away.

After a week the smog was really getting to me – sadly in Kathmandu the pollution is so severe that the mountains can no longer be seen. I was dying to see the mountains, so off to Pokhara I head!!

 

Heading to the hilltops!

Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India – November 2014

My next adventure takes me further north into the mountains – I was beside myself with excitement to get close to the Himalayas despite a 12 hour bus journey ahead. The first part of the journey went smoothly as I  slept, ate biscuits, played a ridiculous addictive game on my IPad while enjoying the incredible views in awe of the bus drivers who made me feel very safe despite driving like formula 1 drivers on the windiest roads.

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After a few months in India I am now well adjusted to local bus life this includes fighting my way on to the bus and squeezing on to a seat.

Given media attention to risks of solo female travellers such as the fatal rape of a local Delhi woman, and the gang rape of a Swiss tourist I was very much aware of potential risks and to increase my safety I would wear culturally appropriate clothing, avoid walking in the dark on my own and always get a seat near the front on a bus by a female or couple where possible. This had worked well for me and I was beginning to feel quite safe and at home on these buses.

Sadly it was on this bus where I had a stark reminder of the problems solo female travelers endure in India and the inequality between men and women. Not wanting to miss out on the incredible views  I placed myself by the window next to a couple rather than the aisle seat. The man started off by being quite nice offering me some samosas which I munched on before falling asleep. After a snooze I woke up to the man staring at me……after 2 months in India it became normal to have people staring at me so I thought nothing of it. However I soon realised he was not just staring…..(I have struggled to find the right words to describe what happened next without sounding too crude but this has been an impossible task)….disturbingly the man had his penis out masturbating while staring at me. Just to remind you he was also sat next to his wife who was timidly tapping him on the shoulder muttering something in Hindi which I presume was ‘what the hell are you doing’.

Given my history of hallucinations as a result of Narcolepsy I looked for the third time  just to check, unfortunately for me I was not wrong – not wanting to get past him I stood up and started shouting to the people behind, none of whom spoke English so I then grabbed the hands of the women sat behind me and pulled them to stand up. Now the next bit is a bit of a blur…….as in seconds the bus had stopped, the guy was removed from the bus without his luggage and wife……hahahahaha.

I then had a three seater to myself and for the rest of the journey was handed a variety of delicious yummy food….not a bad deal. All jokes aside on a serious matter it was a depressing reminder of the views that some Indian men have on women and the power and inequality between men and women.  However I was comforted by the responses displayed by the bus driver and other people on the bus. In 2011 the International Centre for Research on Women published an article on Gender equality and Indian’s men Attitudes. They found that even though many Indian men support policies that promote equal opportunities for women, they also feel that they lose out if women are afforded more rights. And while they are aware of laws against violence against women, this knowledge does not always coincide with their values: 65 percent of Indian men surveyed said they believe there are times that women deserve to be beaten.

For further information read http://www.icrw.org/media/news/gender-equality-indian-mens-attitudes-complex 


After the excitement I continued to enjoy the amazing views, bearing in mind that although it has been eventful it was only 2pm and a lunch stop was due.

10690052_10154984864680637_7678746436554898521_nDue to the plethora of food given to me I was not hungry and decided to stay on the bus. In seconds I was covered in flies…. I looked around and soon noticed that everyone else  were ignoring the fly’s. To get away from the flies I dare getting out of the bus.Instead I walk around and suddenly start laughing to myself as everyone is staring at me,some more subtle than others. I am laughing cause I doubt that no one has noticed that I am wearing my top back to front and have a tag hanging out.


I finally arrive to Shimla at 9pm and go straight to sleep. Shimla is a beautiful hill stations of India which as a small, unknown village before the British discovered it in the year 1819. Around the year 1864, the British declared it the summer capital of India.  The British influence is evidence through the cathedral and council building.

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My first impression of Shimla was how clean it is…..there were lots of bins everywhere and no rubbish on the floor. This is thanks to the many rules implemented by the local police.

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The Jakhu Temple of Simla is dedicated to the monkey God, Hanuman. The Jakhu temple is located at a height of 2455 meters and is situated on the highest peak in Shimla.

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The temple has an interesting legend behind it. It is said that a deadly arrow injured Lord Rama’s brother Lakshmana when he was fighting the battle with the demon king Ravana. A priest diagnosed Lakshmana and said that he needed a particular Sanjeevani herb from the Himalayas to cure Lakshmana. Hanuman was sent to get that herb from he lofty mountains. Upon reaching the Himalayas, Hanuman couldn’t make out as to which herb was the Sanjeevani. So he dug up the entire mountain and flew back to where Lakshmana was lying injured.
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After Lakshmana was cured, Hanuman went back to place the mountain in its original site. He rested on top of the Jakhu hill for sometime. It is said that the top of the hill got flattened due to Hanuman’s weight! The temple has been built around the place that is supposed to have the footprints of Hanuman. It is a highly revered religious place of Shimla and devotees throng in huge numbers to pray.
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At the bottom of the hill there was this sign which unfortunately brought out the competitive side in me and in seconds I find myself running up this hill. I completely exhausted myself, not a great idea as is had been feeling really ill. I was chuffed with doing it in 19 minutes though.

Views from here were pretty sensational but the shrine is a hotspot for monkeys who flock here in great numbers so I had to be on monkey alert though when I was taking photos as they have been known to take such items. A local girl who had taken her shoes off to go in the temple had 1 taken by a monkey. It caused quite the commotion but 30 minutes the monkey got bored and the girl got her shoe back.

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There is lots more to see in Shimla but due to time constraints and feeling ill I missed out. From the little I did see of Shimla I loved it and will definitely be returning.

Hippie Hampi

Hampi was not on my list to see but nearly everyone I have met has said that it is a place not to be missed………I thought it would be rude not to see if the rumors were true. After a long and boring bus journey to Mysore I decided to treat myself to a sleeper train to Hampi, this is one of my best decisions yet as the beds were very comfy and as a bonus I bumped into Alex and Ana, lovely dutch couple who were also heading in the same direction.

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After the unpleasant experience in Mysore we decided to be much more prepared and headed straight for breakfast and researched places to stay. We went slightly over the top and ended up seeing most of the guest houses; this would have been fine but we had seen so many we forgot what they were like (not going to get a career for trip advisor). At one point me and Ana found ourselves on the back of a scooter with this guy who wanted to show us his family guest house – only 1km he said – 3km later we arrive at the guest house,  it was lovely but too far out for us. We caused quite a stir on the back of the scooter as the rickshaw drivers went crazy at the scooter guy because they thought he was taking their business. An hour later were returned where Alex was waiting patiently with our bags. We eventually settled on a cute little guest house, one of the first we saw.

On day 2 the 3 of us rented out a scooter each and went off to find the lake. I nervously got on the scooter, nearly crashing immediately but after a few minutes I got the hang of it and loved it…..

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We were stopped by a group of children who were beside themselves with excitement….I actually thought the 1 holding the umbrella might pass out. After a few thousand photos and sight of the rain clouds we said our goodbyes. As we left I thought I had problems with the scooter as it was stuck……I turned around to see 3 of the boys holding on to it. With some stern words from Martyn they let go and we were off.

Not anticipating the rain, within an hour we were freezing and soaked through. We took respite in a little cafe on the side of the road where we were soon joined by another group who were also sheltering from the rain. Making the most of it we enjoyed some lovely fried fish and shared a beer. When the rain eventually stopped we went back to the guest house and had a HOT shower (well bucket of hot water)…..I cannot being to describe how amazing this was!

Hampi is most famous for its old ruins so on day 2 we decided to leave the scooters behind and hired a rickshaw guide to take us round for the day.

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elephant stables

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We could have walked it really but it was helpful for me as I was able to have a quick power nap in the back of the rickshaw while the others went to see another ruin. I woke suddenly to a family standing over me fascinated by me sleeping.

On day 3 the lovely Alex and Ana left for Goa……shortly after I met Sam, crazy cyclist. Crazy as he started cycling on January 1st this year in Indonesia and is planning on cycling all the way back to London. He only has 10 months left…..easy peasy.

Inspired by Sams monster cycle I decided to hire a bike and test my knee.

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Good news on the knee front as so far it seems to be in good working order and despite my love for the scooter  I was so happy to be back on a bike. We spent the next 3 days cycling, eating, drinking and swimming in the nearby lake ignoring the sign that says ‘swimming prohibited, crocodiles in the water’.

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lake boatamazing view

I had a great few days but was soon reminded by my cataplexy as I had numerous episodes including falling off my chair at a restaurant, struggling to walk and generally having minimal control over my body when laughing. Oh and please don’t worry I had none on my bike.

Luckily I had warned Sam and most of the other people were so stoned I don’t think they even noticed (although this wasn’t helpful as it was making me laugh more). Seriously everyone was very accepting and for the 1st time ever I met someone who has a friend with Cataplexy. A few people seemed really interested and were asking lots of questions….. luckily I was well prepared for this and gave them some Narcolepsy UK leaflets. A great way to promote narcolpesy awareness.

The guidebooks don’t lie when they describe Hampi as the place for hippies, lots of people were walking around randomly playing instruments or singing. I loved it (if only I brought my recorder with me). Every evening a group of people gathered at the tops of 1 of the many rocks for a jam session. There was a collection of  randoms…..French girl playing the flute,  a handful of European guys playing the guitar,  a few locals drumming, 1 eastern European playing the triangle most excitedly, an Iranian couple loudly times singing Iranian songs, local kids singing and the local Baba clapping every so often (although he was so drunk he was always out of time).  Random as hell but I loved it.

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singing isralei and kids

One of my many highlights of my time in Hampi was watching the sun set from the top of monkey temple and seeing the elephant from the local temple have a wash in the lake each morning.

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I planned to stay here for 3 nights but this I ended up staying for 7 nights….my verdict is that the recommendations were correct – HAMPI A MUST SEE!

Sab Ka Gar: A home from home

Naurtuwala, Uttarakhand, India – November 2014

In November I spent a few weeks volunteering in a children’s home ‘Sabkagar’, meaning a home from home, a place for children who lost both their parents in 2012 floods in Uttakashi. The home is based in a quiet and tranquil place with the most incredible views.

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Alongside the home there is a Boundary-less Initiative programme created by local people who aim to create a Boundaryless World. The Boundaryless Initiative is intended to overcome the artificial boundaries we create amongst ourselves.

On the long winding path to Sabkagar there are several signs explaining this idea of a boundaryless world:

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For further information follow the link below:

http://www.boundaryless.net/

Baalm, Sabka Gharor Boundaryless Initiative is neither about charity nor is it an organisation. It is a ‘network’ of human beings willing to assume responsibility (in varying degree) for the future of humanity. It is this that links the initiative with the home for these children who have lost their parents.


As I arrive I meet lots of happy smiley faces…..it took me a few days but by day 3 I finally learnt all their names. My next task was to be able to pronounce them all correctly, I never mastered that!

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My days here involved getting up bright and early with the girls as they get up to do their morning chores. I admit I was always the last to get up and by the time I got outside I would catch glimpses of the younger ones aged only 6 carrying water in buckets down to the kitchen and the older ones aged 11 and 12 making sure the water is running correctly from the pipes. The boys get up a few minutes later but are soon busy with their chores. By 8am chores are done and breakfast begins before the make their way for the hour walk to school. The children race down steep hills jumping over rocks while I just managed to not fall.


In the evening I played games with the children to develop their English.

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Girlie Time

Poor girls….they were so excited about looking in my make up bag were quickly dissapointed when they found only 1 mascara and 1 eye liner and a rare collection of nail varnish. At least we managed to get some pretty feet.

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Little Posers

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Since being in India I have met lots of children and families who are in need and have sad stories but there is something about these children which is affecting me differently…..I just can’t put my finger on it.

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These children have experienced the worst losing both parents but despite such tragedy they are bright and have a spirit about them which is magnetic.

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36 hours of my life that I do not want to repeat!

In all the guide books and all over the internet the advice is to not eat Ice cream unless you can be sure that it won’t make you ill. What do I do….buy a chocolate ice cream from the station. To make it worse at the time I  thought that it was extremely melted….but then went ahead and ate it anyway. I didn’t even really want an ice-cream, I was just very bored -:)

My first 5 hours on a 36 hour train journey was pretty fun, met a lovely Indian family, enjoying the views and feeling excited about Rajasthan. I was even glad that I was in sleeper class and thinking that there is no need for me to go in AC class.

I very quickly changed my mind as I got increasingly more and more sick (literally). I spent the next 12 hours being sick on my bed, in the aisle, in the toilet and out of the train door. I honestly have never ever felt so ill in my life. I lost all my dignity and sat on the floor despite it being wet everywhere from people missing the toilet. At 1 point the train driver told me off for having the door open as it was in the night but after very nearly being sick on his shoe, he re-opened the door for me and left me to it. After holding on for nearly 4 hours I thought that I cope being back on my bed….as soon as I climbed up I was climbing down and running back to the door. I was glad that it was in the middle of the night as most people were sleeping.

Not all though!!!! One man was so fascinated he felt the need to take a photo of me being sick out the window. I am used to my photo being taken but I really have no words for this, I dread to think where this photo is now.

I finally stopped being sick after 12 hours and spent the rest of the journey huddled up on my bed, feeling pretty sorry for myself. I finally arrived in Jaipur and spent the first day recovering in my hostel.  It was a family run hostel who were amazing and kept checking on me and giving me boiled rice to eat.

Oddly but interestingly my narcolepsy on this day is the WORSE it has ever been. I was laying on my bed having horrific hallucinations alongside sleep paralysis which was then causing me to have cataleptic attacks over and over again. I didn’t time it exactly but my cataplexy lasted for at least 30 minutes.

I’m sorry for the awful picture but it really does sum it up well.

On top of this I kept having repetitive vivid dreams of normal daily tasks for example I kept dreaming that I was having a shower and getting dressed. I know this doesn’t sound that bad but these dreams are unbelievably vivid, so much that I wake up suddenly in complete confusion and realize that it was a dream. The best way I can explain it is that I feel like I have been drugged… I could be laying in bed for 5 and 10 minutes but I genuinely still think that I am up and dressed.  I am experiencing this more and more these days….it is really quite irritating.

My consultant (who is a very good Narcolepsy expert) is of the view that having a virus as a child could have caused my narcolepsy and that over the years the illness has manifested. I’m no doctor but I think that there is a clear correlation between becoming unwell and an increase in my narcolepsy symptoms. I wish my narcolepsy wasn’t affected to this extreme but at the same time it is hopefully that maybe at some point in the future treatment to address the cause rather than ‘just’ the symptoms will be found.

As you can imagine I was feeling pretty pissed off and exhausted but when I got to “extreme sorry for myself mode” I reminded myself that at least I wasn’t being sick out of a train window anymore. Next thing I know is I have fallen off my bed….evidently I found this funny -:)

Thankfully the next day although I didn’t feel 100% I was tucking into a rather large pizza on the roof terrace…..I was definitely ready to start to explore Jaipur.

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I had a whirlwind tour of Jaipur known as the pink city (although I thought it was more of a brown colour)pink city

Here are a few of my highlights;

  • Amber fort

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amber fort

view from amber

  • Palace on water – Jal Mahal

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Pushkar’s Crazy Camel Festival

I have been sat at my computer for a while thinking about how I can describe my time at the camel festival – words just do not seem to reflect the 8 days I spent here. Whilst writing I am having crazy flashbacks of some amazing, disturbing, insane and hilarious moments.

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To put things into context the camel festival is one of the many major festivals in India. An astonishing 50,000 camels converge on the tiny desert town of Pushkar alongside thousands of sheep, goats and trillions of people. I have never seen so many people in 1 place. My favourite things to do was to people watch in one of the rooftop cafes, my chance to do the staring.

The original intention behind the Pushkar Camel Fair was to attract local camel and cattle traders to do business during the holy Kartik Purnima festival, held in Pushkar around the full moon in the Hindu lunar month of Kartika. Pilgrims come to this festival to bathe in the holy waters of Pushkar’s lake and be absolved of their sins. The two days around the full moon are considered to be the most auspicious time of the year for bathing in the lake. Those who bathe on the day of the full moon are said to receive special blessings.

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Unfortunately some of these pilgrims were men whose priority was to scam tourists and make some money. The first time I walked down to the fair I got harassed by lots of young boys offering me ‘free’ flowers. I kept refusing but I started to feel guilty as I thought that I was being disrespectful. Minutes after accepting the flowers myself and a Australian couple got accosted by a few men wearing orange robes wanting to pray with us. I stupidly went along with it and found myself sitting next to the holy lake. This ritual went on for some time but I was happy to stay as it seemed very interesting. At the end he requested that I paid 1000 rupees per person he had prayed for (I had lost count as he was going on for some time) his total was 8000 rupees, the equivalent of 80 quid.

Bugger…I had been scammed!!

When I declined his request he started to get increasingly more aggressive shouting ‘Dont lie at the holy lake’ I very calmly but surprisingly firmly shouted back ‘Don’t cheat people at the holy lake’. In the end I gave him 200 rupees just to get away. Sadly I met many people who had also been scammed 1 couple who gave 50 quid each!

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The camel festival itself was insane. It is one big carnival with an array of musicians, magicians, dancers, acrobats, snake charmers and carousel rides to entertain the crowd. This was fascinating and a great opportunity to witness an old traditional style Indian festival.

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girl dancing

Mr Desert 2014

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There was also different competitions every day. Of course this includes the mustache growing competition, camel race and horse show.

Runner up in the Moustache competition.

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camel race

The organisers were keen to get the tourists involved so  lots of the competitions were tourists versus locals. The tug of war was a lot of fun but much harder than I expected. It wasn’t until I saw this photo that I found out that our opponents were sitting down – Cheating me thinks!

Much harder than I thought it was going to  be cheats

As you can see we won the tug of war!!

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Following the win and award ceremony I then took part in several radio and television interviews answering questions like “so how does it feel to be a winner”.  Normally I would love the attention but this was too much…even for me.

I honestly did not think my day could get any stranger. But 10 minutes later I found myself running in a water pot competition.

This all happened before lunchtime. Obviously I went back for a nap but so did everyone else I was with. Luckily I was staying in a guest house 30 minutes walk away from all the mayhem where I was able to re-cooperate. The guest house was lots of fun where I met some great people.

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Once the festival had finished we decided to escape the city and head to the desert on a camel. We spent the night eating delicious food, drinking rum and playing cards under the stars.

The camel riding itself was fun but camel riding is NOT in my blood. I think our guides would agree after having to rescue me as the camel attempted to kick me off. Poor camel!!! BUT  I would like to point out that I don’t think this is entirely my fault – my seat was wonky and  had come unloose leading me to slip, nearly ending up on the poor things neck. Although the next day Rob had the same camel and didn’t have any problems.

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rob and cristen

Incredible Sun Rise

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I had the most an amazing week……the horrific 36 hour train journey was all worth it after all!!