Zoom in on… AGRA! One Day in the City of the Taj

Hey all! My day trip to Agra deserves its own post, I think, despite the fact that I only did a couple of things; I had an amazing day and there’s definitely a lot to talk about.

So, there’s pretty much one reason anyone goes to Agra, and that’s the Taj Mahal. The typical symbol of India, and one of the top tourist attractions in the world, the Taj Mahal really is something special. I mean, it’s famous for a reason, right? And it’s just one of those places that can’t be missed if you’re close. The “Golden Triangle” of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur if probably the area of India most frequented by tourists and travellers, and I am no exception.

Because Princess Diana has nothing on me...
Because Princess Diana has nothing on me…

I really wish I had more time in India to go south and see some other places, as the variation between regions in India in terms of language, culture, and of course food, if enormous. Another time, hopefully! I’m going off on a tangent again…

So, I’d booked my train tickets to and from Agra at the tourist booking office at the New Delhi Railway Station; this is a total lifesaver as it’s open 24/7, and the staff there don’t charge commission. The attendant who was booking my tickets seemed fairly exasperated with me from the word go, and remained churlish the entire time I was there. Some people…

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When The Road Gets Tough…

I’m going to hold my hands up to the fact that I’m a little guilty of sugar-coating my travels. Not so much on this blog, because I’d like to think I don’t hide anything from you guys, but on my personal Facebook and Instagram, I do a fairly good job of making it seem like everything I’m doing is exciting and cool and indie and making my friends jealous, and pretty much presenting a rose-filtered version of reality. Nobody wants to hear moaning on Facebook, right?

But I won’t lie, there are times when it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Yesterday, I had to go and sit in Starbucks for a while just because of the familiarity – label whore much – when it all got a bit much.

I’m not really one for getting lonely, but I just felt quite overwhelmed all of a sudden. I like my own company, but sometimes it’s nice to have people to talk to, to have someone else to hold the camera and tell your stories too. I was lucky enough to meet a couple of other English girls on the train back from Agra the other day, but they left the next morning, heading to Bangkok. And my hostel isn’t particularly conducive to meeting other people.

I’m not really uncomfortable in India. And as for Delhi being quite different to where I was before, I feel like it’s one of those places which some people love and others absolutely loathe. For my part, I’ve really taken to it. I love the contrasts of New and Old Delhi. I love that you can turn the corner from a busy shopping street in Old Delhi and come face-to-face with a beautiful old mosque or fort. I love the wide avenues and parks of New Delhi. However, I won’t deny that the place has its drawbacks.

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Just Because I’m Foreign… Doesn’t Mean I’m Stupid!

I’ve been living in India for more than six weeks now. It doesn’t feel like anywhere near that long! Although the vast majority of people have been lovely and welcoming, there have been a few times, particularly out in the city, where I’ve been really ticked off by people’s attitudes to me. Especially as a young woman travelling alone, it’s important to be aware of possible scams and avoid being taken in by people waiting to exploit your ignorance of local behaviours.

It’s my first experience of being an ethnic minority; I’m starting to appreciate the discomfort which many immigrants to the UK must feel; especially in the not-particularly-diverse South West of England, where I live. Although the nearby tourist spots of Rishikesh, Haridwar and Mussoorie are full of foreigners, I’ve yet to see another white person in the local area. I stand out everywhere.

Clearly, I have it remarkably easy. I’m living in a safe place, and the exchange rate from GBP to Indian Rupees is extremely favourable. I’m by no means rich, but the assumption is that all foreigners are. And we are, comparatively. Coming to India from the West puts you in a very good position in terms of expenditure, but that doesn’t mean you should let the scams slide! Some things are just downright annoying.

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Why Workaway? A Beginner’s Guide to Travelling for FREE!

Being a broke kind-of-student leaving midway through the year, I don’t exactly have a ton of money to spend nearly half a year travelling the world however I like. This is why I’m a huge fan of websites like Couchsurfing (see my beginner’s guide HERE!) and Workaway.

But Bea, what is Workaway?

So many volunteering projects charge participants extortionate amounts, knowing that naïve gap-year students will willingly pay a lot of money to go to a developing country and make some kind of contribution. But a lot of this money is never seen by the people it’s supposedly helping, so it’s my opinion that you’re much better off skipping the middle man and contacting NGOs and projects directly.

This is where Workaway comes in. It’s a work-exchange website where NGOs and individuals can post requests for volunteers to come and help them at short notice, throughout the year. The sheer range of placements is amazing, and with hosts in pretty much every country in the world, wanting help with all kinds of projects and jobs, there’s something for everyone.

You set up a profile with a picture, a few paragraphs about yourself, and an idea of how long you’re travelling for, where you’re wanting to go, and what you’re willing to help with when staying with a host, and hey presto, you’re ready to find a host!

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WHAT’S IN MY BAG?  Packing List – 4 Months in Asia

I’m just going to start this by saying that I am a notorious over-packer, and I’m not ashamed to admit that my mother’s help was instrumental in me managing to get my life for four months into a 45L backpack… I’m spending 4 months in Asia; 2 months in India and 2 months split between Thailand and Cambodia in SE Asia.

I’m currently only a month into the trip, and still stationary in India, so I don’t know if all the stuff I’ve brought will be useful when I’m on the move, but I’d hazard a guess not for some of it, so I imagine I will end up dumping some things. I will reserve judgment on the usefulness or lack thereof of some of the stuff I brought with me until the end of my trip!

I’ll start with the bag itself. My main piece of luggage, and the one which is cabin baggage on planes, is the pink rucksack pictured below. I do have another rucksack at home which I bought for my trip to and across America last summer, but it’s about 80L, and I didn’t want to have to lug it around like I did last time. *war flashbacks to my bulging backpack knocking out old ladies on the New York subway*

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Couchsurfing for Rookies; 5 Tips for First-Timers

I’m not claiming to be an expert on Couchsurfing. It would be enormously presumptuous of me to think that I can speak with authority on something I’ve done only a couple of times. But although my first couple of Couchsurfing experiences were very positive ones (as I hope all my further ones will be), I know that not everyone is so lucky, and so based on my stories and those of others, I’ve compiled this little list to make your first Couchsurfing experience as great as mine was!

I first used the Couchsurfing website when I was in Germany, and stayed in Munich for a couple of nights before flying home after my first Workaway placement (post on this to come later). I found my host about a week before I was due to arrive in Munich at the end of March, and everything went very smoothly! I then used the site again to find a host in New Delhi towards the end of my travels in India.

In Munich, I stayed with a young couple, and my host was lovely and very accommodating; she came and met me at the bus stop after my late-night train to Munich, which saved me a lot of faffing around and probably getting lost! Not only was she a great host, but she also came with me on my trip to Neuschwanstein Castle with some other international friends living in Munich!

With my lovely host, Sabrina, in Fuessen after our trip!

Without further ado, here are some tips to make sure your first Couchsurfing stay is the best it can be!

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Travel aims a.k.a. what am I doing with my life?

I’ve already written a bit about my reasons for travelling in my article on “voluntourism” and gap year travel, but here’s a rundown for those of you who aren’t sure. Please note that the fact that I gripe on about my problems a little in no way means that I’m not aware of just how insignificant they are in the grand scheme of things, and how lucky I am compared to most.

Thoughtful pose?
Thoughtful pose?

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The ones you left behind; friends, family and travel

I haven’t written anything personal for a while; I feel like most of my blog entries do skate on the surface somewhat and you’ll have to forgive that if you can; I’m still new to this and am probably still developing my style of writing. So it’s time for a more introspective, and maybe advisory article?

Missing the people back home has never really been that much of an issue for me whilst travelling. Whilst my travel experience is probably considerably less than many other people, my time at camp in Maine last year and the subsequent road-trip across the USA, and my month so far in Asia being the first long-term travel experiences I’ve taken alone, I’d say I’ve probably done quite a bit more than many other young people my age.

I’m often taken to be older, the usual guess is mid-twenties. On the one hand, YESSSSS. On the other hand, why? Apparently I look a bit older, but I’ve always felt a little bit more mature than many others my age and I’m sure it comes across in my interests and conversation. Eighteen going on nineteen is a normal age for gap-year tourists, but not so much for longer term backpackers or longer term volunteers. So, people are often a little surprised at my age. However, I never feel like being so young disadvantages me.

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Nepal earthquake; devastation and relief

This is a few days overdue, but I thought it was important to take a break from the usual diary entries and articles (not that they’ve been particularly regular) to talk about a current event which has devastated places not too far from where I am living.

I’m talking, of course, about the earthquake in Nepal. The epicentre of the natural disaster is located in the mountainous region of the Himlayas, near a region named Gorkha, and the earthquake has caused thousands of deaths in the country. Most of the media coverage is centering on Kathmandu, as it is easier to get to than many of the rural communities which have also been terribly hit. Foreign aid is sent in every day, and I’d urge everyone to donate money to the relief efforts if you can.

When I first heard about the earthquake, I had gone to Shruti’s apartment at the school to collect a letter from my mother; the previous day, I’d been out and about in Rishikesh, a city about an hour away from Dehradun, on the banks of the river Ganges. So I hadn’t heard about the earthquake at the time it was happening; around 11am our time (6.30am in England) the previous day. I was shocked that I hadn’t heard about something so huge, but why would I have? Any Hindi conversation about it, if there had been any, in the streets of Rishikesh, would have gone straight over my head.

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Benefits of being a polyglot; life with languages

Polyglot; noun; a person who knows and is able to use several languages.

Recently, when I was in Germany, it occurred to me that its quite rare for me to travel somewhere where I don’t speak the language… In the last couple of years, I’ve visited (not counting English-speaking North America!) Germany, Spain, the Czech Republic, France and Poland, and in all of these places, I can at least get by with the native language. I’d point out that my Spanish is VERY basic, though I’m trying to improve it, and the only reason I can understand most Polish is that it’s very similar to Czech, which I speak fluently. I can easily make myself understood in Poland with a mixture of mostly Czech and the small amount of Polish I know.

Admittedly, I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. I’ve been brought up in a bilingual family, speaking both Czech and English at home (though Czech rather less frequently aka never these days…) I have always had an affinity for learning languages, always enjoyed it, and always been supported by my family I my desire to learn and travel.

Let’s not talk about that trip to Morocco when I went to a rural area speaking no Berber at all, and only a couple of phrases in Arabic. Marhaba? (Hello?) It didn’t get me very far. Thankfully, it is still a partially French-speaking country, so that was good enough in some places! Speaking of, I quite miss speaking French; ditched it after I finished the IB and it only surfaces when I’m talking to international students at uni. Usually when I’m a bit drunk. Don’t judge.

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