Travelling in time

Ploughing the fields in Tetebatu, Lombok, Indonesia
Ploughing the fields in Tetebatu, Lombok, Indonesia

Some of the best journeys are not just through geographical space, but back in time itself. We often read in guidebooks of places which are unspoilt and timeless. Many people dream of escaping today’s busy world and fleeing to faraway places that are not only remote, but give us an insight into ancient cultures and more traditional ways of life.

The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China

We might wander around gazing in awe at the Pyramids in Giza or the Khmer temples of Angkor Wat, magnificent buildings that were built to impress, but were also creatively designed. Or stand astonished on the Great Wall of China. Or we might stroll through still habitable places like Lamu Island in Kenya which has barely changed in centuries. Or marvel at the ingenuity of Inca farmers who adapted the land for irrigation or at how people in Indonesia and India still use ploughs and oxen to till the land today.

Rice fields at Selogriyo, Java, Indonesia
Rice fields at Selogriyo, Java, Indonesia

Travelling the world helps put so much into context that dry history lessons never managed to do. You can see what different civilisations were achieving, often at the same time, but separated by thousands of miles. People learned to control the land, constructing astonishing agricultural terraces from Peru to Papua. They built magnificent temples, palaces, churches and mansions which have lasted for centuries.

City Palace, Udaipur, India
City Palace, Udaipur, India

But, as so often happens with travelling, it only goes to highlight what is wrong or unsatisfactory with things back home. In the case with time travel, it makes you think about what we are achieving in the modern world. Islamic State is intent on destroying their culture and history. Chinese dam projects are destroying villages all along the Mekong. Today we are not just controlling our environment to survive, we are destroying it through greed.

Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), Kyoto, Japan
Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), Kyoto, Japan

In London, New York and São Paulo gentrification marches on apace, seemingly oblivious to the wishes of local people and the need to preserve our history for future generations. It’s not enough to keep building higher and higher. We need originality, creativity and vision. Where are the buildings of today that tourists 500 years from now are going to stop and wonder at? What cultural legacy are we leaving for those future generations of travellers?

Portuguese colonial architecture, Salvador, Brazil
Portuguese colonial architecture, Salvador, Brazil

I think the biggest question we should be asking ourselves now is, what do we want people of the future to think of us? What will be written about us in the guidebooks of the 25th century? In the meantime, though, let’s just be grateful that so many countries are doing wonderful work in preserving and maintaining their heritage. Just pop into your time machine and take a trip ….

Lamu Island, Kenya
Lamu Island, Kenya

The privileges of travelling

Gorilla and baby, Parc National des Volcans, Rwanda
Gorilla and baby, Parc National des Volcans, Rwanda

Travel has become a way of life for me. Work is just something I do to fill in the gaps between trips. I am currently working as a teacher in Brazil so I am not particularly well-off and usually travel on the cheap, backpacker-style. And yet, as I see the tragic pictures of people forced to leave their homes and embark on hazardous journeys, I realise how privileged I am to travel for fun.

A boy and his football, Rwanda
A boy and his football, Rwanda

I’ve met many local peope on my travels who confide that they also dream to take to the road, but the reality is that they’ll never be able to afford it. Travel is full of privileges, from being invited into a family home for a simple meal in an Indian village to having a conversation with someone which leads to a deeper understanding of their way of life. But I think one of the greatest privileges of all is entering the living space of wild animals and getting the chance to observe them in the wild.

Gorilla and baby, Parc National des Volcans
Gorilla and baby, Parc National des Volcans, Rwanda

Nothing can quite prepare you for your first encounter with a mountain gorilla with her baby clinging to her neck, while the sudden appearance of the silverback male really does make your hairs stand on end. A few years ago I visited East Africa and took a tour through Rwanda and Uganda to see the gorillas.

Silverback, Parc National des Volcans
Silverback, Parc National des Volcans, Rwanda

The Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda was my first stop. With my travel companions, Jon and Sue, plus guide, trackers and armed escorts(!), we walked up the lower slopes of the volcanoes, all heavily cultivated and farmed, and after about an hour came to the beginning of the park. From then on it was a muddy climb through thick bamboo forests. As we got nearer, we were told to leave our bags behind and proceed slowly. As we did so, we saw our first female gorilla with a baby doing cartwheels on her back. When the silverback suddenly darted past, it was a magical, if initially unnerving experience. We spent a lot of time watching the silverback who sat eating bamboo leaves and didn’t seem to mind our presence. The hour went by far too quickly.

Hut, Parc National des Volcans
Hut, Parc National des Volcans. Rwanda

It was also a privilege to meet the locals. If you take a walk in the village, they all rush out, especially the children, waving and crying hello. Most are friendly, some want money, one had even learned the phrase, “Help the poor!”  Provisions are bought and sold in the local market and brought back to the village on foot. The women carry huge bundles on their heads, of firewood or sweet potatoes for example. The men push bicycles, laden down with bananas or plastic jerry-cans of the lethal local brew – banana beer – a snip at 15 pence a litre.

Locals, Rwanda
Locals, Rwanda

The next day we went on a long, hard, steep and muddy trek to Dian Fossey’s grave. Dian Fossey spent years in the mountains here studying the gorillas and campaigned hard against illegal poaching until she was found murdered. Sigourney Weaver played her in the movie, “Gorillas In The Mist”. The scenery was beautiful and the whole place was very atmospheric, but sadly the poaching and killing of these incredible animals continues.

Dian Fossey's Grave
Dian Fossey’s Grave

Our tour continued into Uganda to the magical Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and we stayed in a lodge superbly situated opposite the slopes of the forest which rise up steeply, shrouded in mist. Despite waking during the night to discover I was sharing my bed with the biggest, hairiest spider I had ever seen, I felt deeply contented to be staying there.

Kids carrying firewood, Uganda
Kids carrying firewood, Uganda

Too often today I see hordes of tourists descending on places, people and wildlife, wielding selfie sticks above their heads like sabres as if they are about to do battle. Recent items in the news have reported Chinese tourists kicking bells in a temple in Chiang Mai and Western hikers posing nude at the top of Mount Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo, a peak considered sacred by the local people. We need to remember travel is not a right, it’s a privilege.

Diane Fossey’s diary was found in her hut with her body. Her last words were, “When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.”

Grave2

Some Favourite Boat Trips

River trip to the Indonesian border in Borneo
River trip to the Indonesian border in Borneo

It was T.S. Eliot who wrote, “The journey not the arrival matters.” He’d obviously never been on a long-haul flight with Iberia or TAP. Or had to deal with security at JFK. But when it comes to boats, I couldn’t agree with him more. Like trekking, it’s a great way of leaving road traffic behind and travelling much more lesiurely. It also gives you an insight into the life of local people who often depend on the waterways for their very livelihood.

Shooting the raids in Borneo
Shooting the raids in Borneo
Kinabatangan River
Kinabatangan River

I’ve been down the Amazon and the Nile, the Mekong and the Ganges, the Rhine and the Thames, but last year I finally got to ride down the great rivers of Malaysian Borneo. I stayed at a lodge on the River Kinabatangan where several boat rides were included each day, at dawn and dusk. It’s the longest river in the state of Sabah, but, sadly, much of the jungle is being destroyed and replanted with palm trees, endangering a lot of the wildlife. However, I was lucky enough to see not only pygmy elephants, but also some orang-utans in the wild.

Pygmy Elephants
Pygmy Elephants
Wild Orang-utans
Wild Orang-utans

I also went on a fabulous if pricey eco-tourist project called Orou Sapulot whose owners work closely with local people to make them see that tourism can be a much better and longer-lasting way of making money than selling their land to timber and palm oil companies. We went on a thrilling journey complete with unexpected rapids-shooting right to the border with Indonesia. There was not much wildlife to see, but the verdant jungle, which rises up from the chocolate-brown river, was pristine.

Sunset on Danau Tempe
Sunset on Danau Tempe

On the same trip I also visited the small town of Sengkang in Sulawesi, Indonesia. There’s nothing much to do there except take a boat trip on the Danau Tempe, a beautiful lake with fishermen’s floating reed houses and surrounded by wetlands. There are no organised trips, you just have to find a boatman and haggle a price. I was the only tourist that evening and I experienced one of the most stunning sunsets I have ever seen.

Sunset on Danau Tempe
Sunset on Danau Tempe

Staying on a house-boat in Kerala is a popular activity for many, but, if you’re on a budget, you can also just hire a local guy to show you round the Backwaters. It’s not as peaceful as you might expect (this is India!), but the glimpses you get into local life are fascinating. For example, you can see the Chinese fishing nets that have been used for centuries.

The Backwaters
The Backwaters
Chinese Fishing Nets
Chinese Fishing Nets

In the north of Uganda lie Murchison Falls, While not the most spectacular waterfalls on the planet, the sight of the Nile River squeezing through a narrow gorge is superb and the boat trip there takes you past plenty of wildlife, from African eagles to hippopotamuses. It was also used as a location for “The African Queen” with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.

Hippopotamus
Hippopotamus

Sadly, a lot of classic boat trips are becoming a thing of the past like many great train journeys. Transportation needs to be quicker in today’s demand for speed and Chinese dam projects are threatening the sustainability and lives of villages along the Mekong for example. But boat trips are something I always seek out. It’s an essential part of “slow travel”.

Murchison Falls
Murchison Falls
Falls1
Murchison Falls