North India

The Indian Subcontinent is a world apart. Some people enjoy it while for some others its a shock. One thing is for sure: with a population growing by a million per month, you will never feel alone there. Let’s go to Incredible India.

Sikhs

New-Delhi: Hell on Earth

Immediately after getting out of the airport, I knew India would be disturbing. It was an official three-lanes road, which in India means five-lanes road: white strips are also lanes you can drive. New-Delhi is full of people and … cows. The animal is sacred in India, so a cow can live her own life in the middle of the street. If you didn’t put your feet in cow dung it means you never went in India. That was all right for me, but the crowd was something else. If you don’t what overpopulation is, go to Delhi. India seems to be a mess, but what’s really incredible about this country is that everybody has something do to, everyone is part of the process, and it works. This overpopulation doesn’t go without some problem, which most obvious one is pollution. 50 years ago, Indian were used to throw their rubbish in the streets, which were organics and eaten by the cows, but now this rubbish is in plastic and just remains there. And what to say about the air? Just to give you an example, I didn’t put any makeup during that trip, and at the end of the day, I could pass a kleenex on my face and watch the brown color on it. India suffers also a lack of women. Women are still seen as a burden for their family who’ll have to provide them with a dowry when they’ll get married, which means a woman cost a lot. That’s why some families choose boys rather than girls at birth. This has created an imbalance demographic: India has more men than women. A fact that doesn’t female tourists to feel comfortable when every man is watching you in the streets (and it’s worst if you’re blond).

India arouses all your senses. Your sight is caught by the colorful saris wore by Indian women. Your hearing is contently alerted by the uninterrupted movement all around you. Your sense of smell is attracted by the spices you can find on the market. Your taste is inflamed by very spicy food. Your sense of touch suffers from the heat.

Taj Mahal

Impossible to go in India without visiting its gem, one the seven wonders of the world. This monument is not only beautiful because of its architecture but it’s also because of its story. In fact, the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum built on the request of Shâh Jânan for its beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal (who died while giving birth to their 14th child). The legend says Shâh Jânan planned to get a replica of this mausoleum, but in black, on the other side of the river. But his son didn’t allow it, jailed his father, who finally laid in a tomb, near his wife inside the Taj Mahal.

Taj Mahal

The white marble is truly beautiful, with its decoration made of inlays of semiprecious stones. Unlike a palace, the Taj Mahal has always been a big empty place, which gives it a strange atmosphere, unlively.

The journey by train to get from Delhi to Agra can be exhausting. In India, trains are overpopulated, with fans fixed on the roof, but not efficient enough to provide fresh air.

Dharamsala

Dharamsala, located in the State of Himachal Pradesh, on the foothills of the Himalaya, is the place where the Dalai Lama is living, since his exile from Tibet in China. It’s a great place if you just want to breathe a little bit, in the mountains, between pine trees and prayer flag. When I went there, going to Tibet was difficult, because of troubles in Lhassa, as the Tibetans wanted to show their situation to the world, using the Olympic Games in Pekin. Unfortunately, during my trip, the Dalai Lama wasn’t there, I could only visit his palace, and met the Karmapa (one of the important dignitary in Tibetan Buddhism). I have to recognize I felt something when he gave me the white silk scarf, like if he had a kind of aura. I really enjoyed staying with a Tibetan family, as they taught me a lot about their culture, their religion, the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama (watch the movie “Kundun” by Martin Scorsese), their situation. I asked them a lot of questions while we were cooking together. As exiled people, I was wondering how they can travel and if it was with a Chinese of an Indian passport. In fact, they can’t travel, some people don’t even know where Tibet is located. Only the Dalai Lama travels. And they asked me if I needed a passport to travel. I explained to them it depends on the country, like for example inside the European Union, I don’t need it and can travel in 27 countries freely. That really impressed them, and for the first time, I realized how lucky I was to be European.

Rishikesh

This place is worldwide known because the Beatles used to retreat there. A lot of people still do the same, in an Ashram (place to meditate with a Yogi master), which explains why there are so many hippies in the streets. The place is also very important for Indian people who come there for some pilgrimage. Indeed, the sacred river Gange cross the city, and I took a bath into it (as it’s close enough to the Himalaya, it was quite clean enough for that). I don’t know if I was purified, but at least the coldness of the water gave me that impression.

In conclusion, to visit India, you need to get a good stomach. Of course because of the spicy food, and all the gastric trouble you can easily get, but mostly because of what you will see. Don’t see what I mean? Watch “Slumdog Millionair” and you will understand.

April 2008 – Group tour by ZigoTours – 12 days

New-Zealand: best things to do

I have to admit it: I am a big fan of New-Zealand, and so far, it’s my favorite country. Here are the reasons why and the best things I did and enjoyed there.

Queenstown

1. Swimming with dolphins

In the East of Northland (Northern part of the North Island), there’s one of New-Zealand gem: the Bay of Islands. The flora is quite Mediterranean, and it’s one of New-Zealander best spot to spend the summer holidays, especially on boat sailing between more than a hundred of islands. There I had the occasion to swim with dolphins. NZ has one of the rare growing population of dolphins in its natural environment. This means swimming with those dolphins is a different experience than swimming with dolphins in some aquatic park. For example, you can’t touch them, because they remain wild. But it’s definitely a great experience, just to be in the water with them, swimming and playing around you, and you can hear their songs. This experience is quite physical because they swim very fast, but it’ll make you feel part of nature and its beauty.

In the Bay of Islands was also signed the Waitangi Treaty. You can visit the historical site. Nearby in the forest, you can see some of the tallest trees on Earth, Kauri trees. On the other side of the coast, there’s the mythic 90 miles beach, an interesting drive, before reaching Cape Reinga, the most Northerly point of NZ, with its beautiful scenic.

2. Speleology with glow-worms

Still in Northland, you should make a detour to visit the Waitomo Caves. If you’re not claustrophobic, speleology is the best way to discover it. I never did it before, and I really enjoyed abseiling along a waterfall, crawling in a small tunnel, climbing rocks. The underground is another world, not cold, not warm, sometimes there’s water, and sometimes it’s dry, but it’s all mineral. I quickly understood why I had to wear a helmet, as I was not really used to get a roof so low. I banged my head several times into it. The great reward for all this is the glow worms. It’s almost the only life you can find there. In a large cave, the guide asked to shut down the light, and suddenly a sky full of stars appeared. There are thousands of glow worms shining in the dark, a magnificent show.

3. Geothermal Wonderland


Rotorua is a must-see in New-Zeland, its geothermal area. Honestly, it’s true, it often smells like a rotten egg because of the sulfur in the atmosphere, but it worths it. There you can see some geysers, like the Pohutu which gushes at 30min or the Lady Knox which gushes every day at 10:15 am (I let you guess how this is possible). There are two great sites you must visit. In Wai-O-Tapu you’ll see of course some mud pool boiling, but also some caves from which hot stream is escaping, silica terraces, some lakes with strange colors with the most famous one “Champagne pool” (be carefully it’s really hot, 74°C, and acid). The other great site is Waimangu Valley, which was created by the eruption of the volcano Mount Tarawera in 1886, which means it’s the youngest geothermal site on Earth. You’ll see smoking lakes, like the Frying Pan 55°C (very acid PH is 3,5), a 50°C little river, and the Inferno crater with its 80°C lake (Ph 2,1). No need to mention: don’t touch anything and strictly follow the path.

Rotorua is also a great place to discover the Maori culture, there are daily representations of the Haka, the famous Maori dance performed by the All Blacks the national rugby team, before every match.

4. Tongariro crossing

This is the best hiking day you can in New-Zealand, across the Tongariro National Park, and its volcanoes. Probably the most famous one is Mt Ngauruhoe (2287m), used as the Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings. The walk is 17 km long and can take 7 hours for the slowest. It’s not really a hard walk, even if the ground is made of ashes. Sometimes the landscape made of volcanic rocks looks like Moon ground. The reward is at the top, where you’ll discover beautiful blue lakes you must not touch as there are very acid. From the top, if the weather is good enough, you can enjoy a wonderful 360° view, including Lake Taupo.

5. Te Papa Tongarewa

Wellington is New-Zealand capital city, more commonly known as Windy city, and home of the National Museum Te Papa Tongarewa, well located on the seafront. This museum is really well made, interactive. At the same time, it’s interesting regarding the History and Culture of New-Zealand, the Maori people, the colonization, but it’s also artistic.

6. Whales Watch

If there’s a place on Earth where I’ll probably settle myself one day, it’s in Kaikoura. Located on the East coast of the South Island, Kaikoura is a small peninsula, from where you can see the Southern Alps ending into the Pacific Ocean. People don’t visit this place because of its rocky beach, but because of its underwater pit, which attracts Sperm Whales. It’s the best place in New-Zealand to watch whales, and also black and white dolphins (as well as seals along the road).

7. Fjord cruise

On the Southwestern coast of the South Island, there’s the Fjordland National Park, where you can fjords. The most famous and visited one is Milford Sound. You can book a trip from Queenstown (capital of adventure sports) across this Park, to reach the fjord where you can enjoy a cruise. I really recommend you to do this cruise. The boat can take you under giant waterfalls (especially after rain) and you’ll probably see some seals, laying and sunbathing on the rocks.

November 2007 to January 2008 – Working Holiday Visa

Introduction to New-Zealand

Welcome to Aotearoa, the country of the long white cloud, as it’s named in Maori. This is probably the country which is the most often missing on a map, so just to help you: it is located in the bottom right corner of the map. This means it’s even further than Australia, 2000 km away, in the Pacific Ocean.

A very new country

New-Zealand is one of the latest land discovered by human. It was first colonized by people from the Pacific islands, which settled there around 1300 AD. They are the original indigenous people named Maori. Later, in the 17th century, Abel Tasman was the first European who discovered the New-Zealand coast and left his name to the sea which separates the country from Australia. But it’s only a hundred years later that the explorer James Cook made the first map of the two islands which form the country, and left his name to the strait between these islands. So the colonization of New-Zealand by Europeans really started in the 19th century. In 1840 was signed the Waitangi Treaty between the Maori tribes and the United-Kingdom, making New-Zealand one of the British colonies, and still seen as the foundation act of the country, and the warrant of Maori’s rights. This treaty didn’t avoid two wars between Maori and Pakeha (name of the Europeans) in that century. New-Zealand became officially independent as a dominion in 1907

Maori

First, it was colonized by whales and seals hunter, then farmers, as the green lands offered great possibilities to grow sheep. There was some gold fever in the late 19th century. But New-Zeland remains few populated, with less than 5 million.

What I like about New-Zealand is it’s a very socially progressive country. It was the first to give the right to vote to women in 1893. All the official key positions of the government have been occupied by women. Queen Elizabeth as Head of State, the Governor-general, the Speaker, the Chief of Justice, and the Prime Minister. The actual one, Jacinda Arden, even gave birth during her mandate. Unlike its neighbor Australia, New-Zealand has a better consideration for its indigenous people, since the Waitangi tribunal formed in 1975, which intends to give back land to the Maori tribes to which they belonged. Maori is one of the official languages, and the Maori culture is pushed forward, as many tourists can see.

I also love New-Zealand because this country is ecological, or at least which tries to be “green”. NZ is completely nuclear-free, which means no nuclear energy, and also that no nuclear weapons can enter its waters (even American submarines).

Middle earth

New-Zealand landscapes became very popular thanks to the Lord of the Rings, filmed by the local director Peter Jackson. But what does NZ really looks like? As I said, the country is divided into two main islands, North Island and South Island (no need to explain where they are located), plus several smaller ones, which most important is Stewart Island, located at the south point of South Island. North Island is known as the “smoky island”, because of its volcanoes, and its geothermal area. South Island is known as the “jade island”, because, yes you can find jade stones there. There’s no volcano in the South, only the Southern Alps chain of mountains. One important thing to know about NZ is the tectonic plates. Indeed, the country is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, onto the geological rift between the Pacific plate and the Australian plate. That means NZ is a seismic country, which also explains the geothermal area.

Hobbiton

Due to its remoteness, New-Zealand has a very well preserved nature. There was no mammal before the arrival of humans, only birds, like the Moa (a kind of ostrich, now disappeared) and the famous kiwi-bird with no wings. It also means there’s no dangerous species in NZ, not even snakes (only a very rare venomous spider, the Katipo). I’d say that, what characterizes most the NZ landscapes, apart from millions of sheep, is ferns, especially tree ferns. Maybe it’s due to its subtropical climate (mostly in the North, the South is more temperate climate).

Working holiday visa in Kiwiland

I went to New-Zealand with a Working holiday visa. With that visa, you can stay for 12 months in the country (only 3 months without it) and you’re allowed to work if you’re aged between 18 and 30. Honestly, I wished I could stay longer in NZ, but as I was only 19, and it was the first time I traveled so far away from home, and alone, my mother wanted to be sure, that I would not stay too long.

  • Transports: due to my age, I wasn’t allowed to rent a car, and I didn’t stay long enough to buy one, so I traveled by bus. The network is really well made, and you can almost go wherever you want. I also took the Tranzalpine train, just for the view. There only 3 railways in NZ, which is understandable in such a shaking country. Also remember, they drive on the left side.
  • Accommodation: I mostly used the BBH network (Budget Backpacker Hostels). Remember smartphones and applications didn’t exist in that time.
  • Language: English is the other official language, that everybody speaks with a very strong accent. Trust me my first phone call was a nightmare. But after two months, I felt really proud when I was perfectly able to make a reservation by phone.
  • Working: the easiest way to find a job is in agriculture. In the Bay of Plenty (North Island) and in the vineyards of South Island, they need a lot of workers, so being a fruit picker is very common (apples, grapes, etc.). I was a kiwi fruit picker, and very happy to work with that symbolic fruit of NZ. Until I learned it was originally a berry from China, renamed “kiwi” to make it sounds more NZ.
  • People: New-Zealanders are very friendly, welcoming and very relax people. “Sweet as” is the way to describe them.
  • Sun: this is the main danger in NZ, due to the hole into the ozone layer. Less protected against UV, sadly NZ has the highest rate of skin cancer. So, suncream must be part of your daily routine. And I mean it, I had my worst sunburn there.

November 2007 to January 2008 – Working Holiday Visa

Ecuador

Ecuador is a small country, located, as you can guess on the equator, and it’s a little mass of South America, with volcanoes of the Andes Cordillera and the Amazonia jungle as well. Let’s get ready for adventure!

The Inca trail

Laguna de Quilotoa

The first thing you see about Ecuadorian is their size: usually small with a big rib cage. Why? Because their body adapted to the altitude (Quito the capital city is located at 2850 m, and most of the country is like that). Which means your body is not really made for the lack of oxygen at this altitude, and it’s exactly what happened to me when I reached the Laguna de Quilotoa. When I got off the bus, it was the first time I found my self at 4000 m. I was lucky because if breathing can be quite strange for a moment, I never suffer any trouble regarding mountain sickness. Quilotoa is, in fact, a volcano, with a lake in its crater. We walked down to this “Laguna”, getting from 4100 m to 3900 m. It’s very easy to get down, but the way back was another story. The sides of the crater are made of sand and ashes, which is already something hard to walk in normal conditions, but with the altitude, it was much harder. Despite the effort, the view really worths it. My group enjoyed a folklore evening, sleeping homestays, but at this altitude, and even if it’s the equator, the night was very cold, despite all the llama hair blankets the local people put on us.

Chimborazo

With its 6263 m, this volcano is the closest point on Earth to the Sun. Wait a minute, why it’s not the Everest? Just because the Chimborazo is located on the equator, and Earth is not completely round, it’s flatter at the poles. With my group, we tried to climb it. We packed ourselves (16 persons) in a minibus (made for 14 persons) which took us to the starting point the walk, at 4800 m. There, we discovered hundreds of Ecuadorians wearing shorts and ready to run. There was a race starting at this altitude and going down the volcano to Riobamba. Did I mention it was snowing? In fact, the snow helped us a lot, because it made the air more breathable, and it froze the ground, making it easier to walk. I reached 5000 m without troubles. Then, things started to be more complicated. The snow made the path invisible, I couldn’t see the summit as well. So I walked another 100 m until some people started to get down, telling me that it was too dangerous to further, as there could be a risk of avalanche. So I turned back as well, already happy that I was able to reach such altitude.

The road of the Inca: 2 days on horseback

Never trust your guide book. It was written “easy ride”. After several hours, we learned from our guide, that the author of the guide book came 2 years before but never made that ride.

It was already an adventure to get to the starting point of this ride: Achupallas. We had to spend several hours in a cattle van, on an unpaved road, bordered by a huge ravine and swerving wide to avoid potholes or animals in the middle of the roadway. But we survived it. The worst was to come: horseback. There, I learned that my butt was definitely not made for a saddle. After only one hour, it was already very painful. Imagine how I felt at the end of the day after 6 hours? But honestly, it really worthed the pain. We crossed wild landscapes (in opposition to fields Ecuadorians grow even on the highest mountains), with a pass at 4000 m half in the snow, getting down in an untouched valley with a lake reflecting the sun lights. We spent a very cold night at 3000 m under a tent, but I really enjoyed it just because of the sky. It was the first time in my life I could see so many stars, and it was breathtaking. Getting back on horseback the morning after was really hard, and the weather was really cold (I have to admit, we put a little bit of vodka in our morning juice), and finally when we reached Ingapirca, I just let me fall from the horse, as my legs were too painful to move it.

Baños

That’s a very well name city, as we were soaked as soon as we left the bus. In fact, the name “baños” which means “bath” comes from the hot pool (50°C-60°C) near the town, heated by the volcano Tungurahua. Good to know, if the volcano erupted, you only have 15 min to evacuate the city (which means: impossible). Nearby, there’s the Rio Negro, on which we did some rafting. And if you wonder why it’s named like that (black water), maybe the black sand left in my swimsuits can give you an idea. We also went to see some waterfalls, such as “El paillon del Diablo” (the devil’s cauldron) you can get close enough to touch it.

Lago Agrio – Cuyabeno park

Welcome to the jungle. Honestly, I was scared of this kind of place before that trip because of anacondas, spiders, and all other dangerous creatures you can find there. Finally, I found myself quite comfortable with all of that.

To go deep inside the jungle, we spent 2 hours in a dugout canoe before reaching our base camp. It was almost dark when we arrived. The atmosphere was strange, warm and wet, bright eyes looking at us behind the leaves, and there were so many strange noises. For sure, the jungle is all but quiet. In the morning, I was surprised by the number of butterflies, they were beautiful, and if you remain motionless enough, they might land on you. Our guide took us into the forest, making a path with his machete. He showed us some tarantulas, some weird trees (one of them if you knock on it, the sound can be heard 100 m around), and made us eat ants. It’s not so bad, the taste is like lemon, because of formic acid. The only weird thing about it is to watch the ant running in your hand before eating it. Then, we went into the river, we swam into it, before learning there was anaconda inside, caimans (our guide caught a small one) and piranhas we tried to fish, unsuccessfully for me. Piranha tastes like any other fish, and in that case, I supposed it’s better eating it rather than being eaten.

One more thing about that part of Ecuador. When we arrived in Lago Agrio, I wanted to read about this area in my guide book, and it was written: “we do not talk about this region, as it serves as a support base for the FARC”(Colombian terrorist group which kidnapped Ingrid Betancourt). Nothing to worry about this.

Traveling in Ecuador

Here is a list of some tips, or things you need to know, before visiting this country:

  • Transport: mainly by bus, like the local people, traveling with their chicken, listening to pan flute all night. In the bus station (“terminal terrestre”) to find your bus, just listen to drivers shouting the name of their destination. Roads were in poor conditions in that time, and I was thinking of sending money to the government to make them tarmac it.
  • Food: if you don’t want to get sick, avoid water. Your daily meal will mostly be chicken with rice and coke (just ask for “pollo con arroz y coca”). You can try to eat “cuyo” if you’re brave enough (roasted guinea pig).
  • Shopping: the best place for that is the market of Otavalo, very colorful. I found a hammock and a reduced head for my little sister.

August 2007 – Group tour by ZigoTours – 3 weeks

East USA

United States East coast has some unmissable cities that you must visit. Let’s start with some historical ones and finish by the most famous.

Washington

Better known as D.C (for District of Columbia, and not to mistake with the Washington state on the West coast), Washington is the federal capital of the United States. It means there you can find most the federal government buildings. The most famous is the White House, which looks quite small in reality compared to how it’s shown in many movies. Or maybe it’s just because I saw it only in the long distance from the garden gates. One the other federal government building is the Capitol, and I had the chance to visit it. I was quite surprised when the guide told my group, that, in fact, it’s almost an empty building under the cupola. Actually, when it was built between 1793 and 1812, the USA had not yet 50 states, which means now, there’s not enough place to host all the parliament, so outbuildings had to be built later.

There are several important buildings and monuments along Pennsylvania Avenue, which links the White House to the Capitol, and you might have seen in some movies, such as the FBI head office, the departments of justice and the treasury, the National Art Gallery, the University George Washington. Nearby, on the National Mall between Madison and Jefferson drive, there are very interesting museums, such as the national museum of American History or the National Air and Space Museum. They are definitely not boring museums, very well presented, especially if you’re visiting it with kids or teenagers.

Washington is also known for all its memorials, located close to the Washington monument, that giant obelisk. You probably know the Lincoln Memorial, with the statue of 16th President of the USA, who was assassinated. There are also some memorials dedicated to some of the wars the USA were involved, such as the World War II and Korea War. In my opinion, the most impressive one is the Vietnam War memorial, because it’s original and the artist had a great idea to represent it: it’s a black reflecting wall carved in the ground, with all the names of the soldiers. It represents a scar in the American ground.

I really enjoyed that city, because it’s flat, with no skyscraper like in many North-American cities, and it’s green, with a lot of trees, so a pleasant city to visit.

Philadelphia

I visited Philadelphia, because it’s on the road, between Washington and New-York. The main reason to visit this city is Independence Hall, where was signed the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776, and where was adopted the American Constitution. Nearby, there’s “Liberty Bell”, a symbol of American Independence. Philadelphia was also an interesting stop, just because taxes were lower in Pennsylvania State, which is a good excuse to do some shopping.

New-York

What can I say about the Big Apple when everything has already been written about it? If I had to pick a word to describe it, for I’ld choose “Big”. That’s true, everything is big in that city: the buildings, the streets, the cars, the people, even food. You must visit New-York at least once in your life. Personally, I felt like if I was in a TV series or in a movie, as I recognized many places: the Flat Iron, the National Library, Wall Street, the Rockefeller Center, and its Christmas tree the Brooklyn Bridges, etc. Like the White House, the Statue of Liberty seems smaller in real life than on TV; but the cruise to get to Ellis Island, really worth it, has it gives a great view to Manhattan. You have to feel the atmosphere on Time Square, with the smoke escaping from the sewer plates, between the yellow cabs. You can’t resist eating a hotdog on Broadway and shopping on the 5th Avenue. You must get to the top of the Empire State Building at sunset, to enjoy the city enlighting.

I can’t talk to you about the new tallest building of the city, the One World trade center, because when I visited the city, it wasn’t built yet. In that time, they were just finishing to extract what remains of Ground Zero. I kept a sad memory of this place because it was just a big hole in the ground, with pictures and explanation about the September 11th attacks. There was a woman crying, and asking God why He let that happened. I could still feel the horror of that day.

I think my favorite place was Central Park. Honestly, I don’t see my self living in New-York, where the horizon is always blocked by buildings which are so tall you feel oppressed. So it can explain why I enjoyed so much this big green island in the heart of the city, with its lakes, its squirrels, etc.

Of course, they are so many places to go, to visit in New-York, that I can’t tell you all, so I’ll just recommend you the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) which might one of the best in the USA.

Just one last thing: the subway. It’s probably one of the most complicated systems I ever met. Sometimes it doesn’t stop at all stations, and some lines stop earlier than others. Disturbing.

April 2006 – Teens camp – 1 week