Why I can’t go to the beach anymore

Living in Saigon, as I do, can get a little relentless and often requires a quick escape. Last weekend was mine, and I was booked to go to Phu Quoc: an island to the very south of Vietnam famed for its idyllic beaches and natural beauty.

As luck would have it, I came down with a fierce case of tonsilitis and couldn’t go. However – expecting to be bitterly disappointed – I was instead surprised to feel a quiet wave of relief wash over me. Through it, a small voice whispered: “Phew! Now you don’t have to see all the trash.”

As I was recently discussing with a French colleague, it is very difficult to convey to Europeans that have not been to Asia just how bad the global plastic pollution problem is.

At home, we are shielded from the realities of our packaging pandemic by efficient waste collection services. Here in the developing world though, these services are limited – if not entirely non-existent.

“It is difficult to convey to Europeans just how bad the plastic pollution problem is”

As such, with the exception of a few spots in Thailand, every single beach in every idyllic spot I have been to in Asia over the past two years has been littered with plastic trash – from bottles to food wrappers to take-away boxes to toothbrushes to car parts to fishing detritus to everything in between.

Sometimes it is lying on the shore, washed in on the tide from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch floating in between Asia and the US that is now reportedly three times the size of France. Other times, however, it is further back, sitting in half burned piles or floating in stinking, open sewage.

March 2018: Varkala Beach in Kerala, India from above
IMG_6908 (1)
Open sewage drain strewn with trash below
The smell is indescribable
Half burned piles of plastic

This is particularly the case in India, where a complex web of caste expectations is combining with a complete dearth of waste management infrastructure to turn its beaches – and indeed, the entire country – into one, big rubbish dump. It is heartbreaking to witness.

And once pristine tourist destinations such as Bali are catching up. I recently spent a month on the Indonesian island and every beach I went to, without, exception, was littered with plastic trash; as were the roads, the forests and the gutters of the rice paddies.

Tourist trash has nowhere to go

My despair reached something of an epoch in September during a trip to Atuh Beach on Nusa Penida, an island to the east of Bali, where I came to a realisation about the nature of this pollution.

Atuh Beach is a sheltered cove, reached only via a steep climb down a cliff-face. Crystal clear, temperate waters that lap gently against powder soft, glaringly white sand await those that venture down to it, and accordingly it is a top spot for eager Instagram snappers.

What those photos won’t reveal, however, is the horror that sits behind the food huts that now line the beach serving the tourists that flock to Atuh regularly. Here, piled metres high, sit mountains of plastic waste.

September 2018: Atuh Beach on Nusa Penida, Indonesia from the front
And behind the huts
Piles of permanent trash
More burned plastic
IMG_9011 (1)

As I surveyed this mess, full of my usual despair, it occurred to me that – well of course –getting rubbish bins up from this beach might be an issue. Indeed, this was why (as in India) much of it had been burned, leaving small black mounds of toxic sludge scorched into the sand.

Poverty, inaction, thoughtlessness: a toxic trinity

My friend and I brooded on this for a few days.

“But why doesn’t this happen in Portugal?” she asked.

“The beaches there are spectacular – no food stalls or trash in sight.”

I thought about the UK, which is similar.

“It doesn’t happen,” I answered, “because Europeans wouldn’t sit out for ten hours a day in the blazing sun selling bottles of coke and hacking at coconuts.”

“Why not?”

I pondered. “Because they don’t need to. They’re not dirt poor. Plus there are laws against it – you can’t just throw up a stall and trash a beach in Europe.”

“This is happening because people are poor, governments allow it and tourists don’t think”

And then it dawned on me, a small lightbulb moment. This happens because people are poor and governments allow it rather than safeguarding both their citizens and their environments through laws that ease poverty and protect nature.

Add to this the thoughtlessness of tourists not used to having to face the consequences of their consumption in the developing world (a situation set to change as China stops accepting our plastic waste) and you have a Holy Trinity of Trash.

Ultimately, tourism in developing regions is creating devastating pollution through a toxic cycle of poverty, opportunism, government inaction and the ignorance and apathy of visitors. And every single tourist that buys a bottle of water on a beach is part of the problem – including me.

Tokyo: where past and present meet in the future

From the moment I arrived at Tokyo’s Narita airport I felt as if I had stepped both back and forward in time. ATM’s with cube-buttoned pin-pads sat side by side with machines vending smart phone SIM cards pre-loaded with 4g data. Public bathrooms painted in soft pink pastel and bathed in muted down lighting concealed toilets that play mood music when you take a seat, do unmentionable things when you’re finished, and self-flush when you stand.

The city’s taxi’s – beautifully maintained old 1990’s saloons driven by smartly dressed, straight backed, white gloved cabbies – also evoked a bygone era of brick sized cell phones and shoulder pads, while its tiny black and red electrified public buses seemed to belong in a steampunk fantasy. Markets selling loose fitting, short sleeved blouses and tapered, high waisted chinos reminded me of my mother’s wardrobe, while the candy-pink haired girls of Harajuko belonged only to now, or maybe tomorrow.

A friend described Tokyo as ‘retro-modern’, which is a neat summary. The effect is certainly defamiliarising: making the every-day seem strange. While I (a child of the 1990’s) felt constantly nostalgic – every line of every sleek black leather sofa soothed me – the high tech gadgetry of Akhibara left me mystified. Yet, the robots and immersive arcades also seemed only the logical outcome of the future I imagined in 1995 – only it was as if I were seeing it then, rather than now.

Single file, no pushing

Despite all of it’s familiarity, though, Tokyo also rendered me genuinely clueless. Very little in terms of signage or menus outside of the main tourist areas are in English, making some of the more interesting places – like the top floor dive bars best for cheap beer and tasty snacks – inaccessible. Without Google maps I’m sure I would have found the metro system impenetrable.

However, this was not the stressful experience it might have been: I found I was guided by an orderly flow that seems to underpin life in the city, gently carrying its inhabitants to their destinations. Locals answer inquiring looks in rapid Japanese, but they do so with such warmth and respect that you feel you understand every word – and somehow get where you need to go.


An easy self assuredness seemed to emanate from the Tokyo-ites (apologies if this is not the correct term) I surreptitiously watched on the many metro rides I took during my flash visit – more so than anywhere else I’ve been. Dressed in fashions of every conceivable ilk, yet generally silent and always respectful, I was envious of what seemed a deep, pervasive serenity. Another friend remarked on how hard it was to believe this was the nation famed for a brutal work culture that ends in premature death, known as karoshi.

Shinto serenity

The city’s temples gave a hint of the source of this inner calm, particularly the Meiji Shrine in Shibuya. As we entered from the surrounding forest, the vast courtyard echoed with the sound of a large skin drum, marking the beginning of an elaborate ritual performed by two men in immaculate, highly starched white kimonos. The grace and poise of these figures, moving in careful, harmonised steps around four earthenware jars inside the soothingly sparse temple was breathtaking.

I later read that Shinto is grounded – like many Asian religious practices – in the worship of ancestors, however it is specifically practiced as a method of keeping ancient and modern Japan connected. This struck me as fairly symbolic of Tokyo as I had experienced it – and even as it is divided: traditional East and modern West linked by a web of highly efficient transport.

I also wondered if this connection with the past – through the strong sense of identity it can bring – could be the foundation of the confidence I sensed in so many of the city’s inhabitants, and how this might inform Japan’s future. Might it ever – as is currently happening throughout the developed world – lead to an anachronistic nationalism? An isolationist drive based on delusions of reviving an economic and cultural dominance long past in a globalised world? Or are the Japanese, as ever, ahead of the West there too? I sensed the latter.


Don’t pick zits: getting treatment for an abscess in India

You really shouldn’t pick zits – but if you do, and it gets infected, and you’re in India – this is what to do.

There is a reason we are told not to pick our spots. This is thought to be something to do with scarring. But, faced with a revolting puss-filled bulb on our faces, most of us opt for short-term relief and squeeze away. The consequence few of us consider, though, is infection; especially if you are from the UK where the tap water is clean and the climate cold enough to kill all but the most determined bacteria.

Certainly I didn’t think anything of squeezing a particularly fierce spot before I hopped on a plane to India. However, almost immediately after arriving in Kochi the fairly modest zit on my jaw began growing – and at an exponential rate. By the time I reached the Sivananda Ashram in Neyarr Dam four days later, I was drawing horrified gasps from concerned onlookers.

What I was now toting on my face was a fully-fledged abscess. On the advice of Ashram staff and community members – all of whom instructed me not to ‘f**k around’ with this and get straight to a ‘real’ doctor (the on-site Ayurvedic healer being ill-equipped with antiseptic anything), I headed to the PRS Hospital in Trivandrum, the nearest town.

Now, I am unlucky/careless enough to have visited many a hospital in the developing world – South Africa for a sprained ankle, Goa for a motorcycle accident, Thailand for a smear test, Cambodia for something else and Myanmar for a friend with a very dangerous tropical disease. What I have learnt through each experience is this: healthcare in the developing world is accessible, efficient, reliable and unbelievably cheap.

In most developing countries, if you require a doctor you simply go to the hospital the locals recommend, get treated and – for most run-of-the mill ailments – the bill doesn’t even graze the excess required on your well researched and almost entirely useless travel insurance certificate. This is even more the case if – like I did in Goa – you find yourself in a government hospital where the floors may be a little less clean, but where they will patch you up in no time for bus fare.

Such was the case at PRS Hospital in Trivandrum – a modern, well-organised and breathtakingly efficient institution. Upon arriving I was ushered by infinitely helpful staff to the registration desk, where I presented my passport for photocopy, filled in a form, was given a very smart laminated membership card and paid £0.55p to see Dr N. Jasmine in dermatology, who prescribed me a course of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and a topical cream.

The entire process took less than 30 minutes and registration, consultation and drugs cost 750 rupees, or £8.33.

Sadly, my case was rather advanced. Over the proceeding five days the lump grew to – literally ­– bursting point. And so at the end of the amoxicillin course I returned to Dr Jasmine – hope for a non-violent solution to this problem shattered – to have it cut out.

Despite the praises sung above, though, I was nervous; memories of a somewhat heavy-handed approach to my RTA wounds at Panjim’s government hospital came flooding back. Nonetheless, I lay on the bed in the doctor’s office ready to endure – at this point I would have settled for a switchblade disinfected in whisky just to get this thing out.

I needn’t have been worried, though. The good doctor wrote me a prescription for the instruments and materials she needed, which I was sent to the surgical pharmacy to buy and fetch back (a slight oddity for me, but ensured sterility, I thought) and included a needle and local anaesthetic. I barely felt the prick as it numbed the entire area and again, within thirty minutes the procedure – through which my wonderful nurse Preeta held my hand tightly – was over. This cost a total of 800 rupees (£8.88).

To ensure that I didn’t contract further infection the doctor insisted I returned to the hospital daily to have the wound redressed, which I faithfully did over the next three days and during which I developed a sort of photo based correspondence with Preeta’s husband and daughter. I am not being hyperbolic when I say I was genuinely sad to be discharged.


In the past five days since I have been faithfully dressing and redressing using Dettol and – thanks to the advice of the organic health restaurant and pharmacy I visited in the city – Pathayam – a turmeric paste; disinfecting first, then applying the mix of turmeric and water and bandaging up. I am pleased to report that I am now sporting a glorious dry scab as the erstwhile gaping hole in my face closes up.

So, key takeaway’s:

  1. Don’t pick zits.
  2. Don’t hesitate to go to a hospital in a developing country, especially India. They are clean, well run and efficient and affordable*.
  3. Unless you are hospitalised for malaria or require airlifting off a mountain (even then read the small print), be aware that almost all routine issues will not even meet the excess required for a pay-out on most travel insurance policies – even the most expensive ones. Decide on whether and which to take accordingly**.

I want to caveat this by saying I am aware that for many – including a vast swathe of the poorest Indians – this is not true. I hope the government of India and all developing countries work harder to make it so.

**If something truly dreadful happens to you and need extensive hospital care I say again: travel insurance will save you money. I only report my experience – in which it has not.

Sivananda Ashram, Neyyar Dam, India

Six days inside an Indian Ashram

Life in an Ashram is very hard work. Far from my notions of endless leisure time in relaxed bliss, what I found at the Sivananda Ashram in Neyyar Dam was a gruelling (and compulsory) 16-hour daily schedule involving three hours of meditation and chanting, four hours of yoga and one hour of hard labour carried out on two uninspiring vegetarian meals a day ate in silence, on the floor with your right hand. Spiritual enlightenment, it seems, is not for the feint hearted.

Spiritual enlightenment is not for the feint hearted

Thus the Eastern tradition is very much in line with the austere Christian Catholic regimes of Europe, with physical deprivation and bodily mastery the keys thought to unlock the door to heaven/Nirvana/enlightenment etc. Again, like the Priesthood, this includes sexual abstinence, or Brahmacharya yoga – as it is called in this tradition. This is reflected in the rules of the Ashram, where sex and all of its familiars – flirting, touching between the sexes and even the exposure of knees and shoulders or the wearing of tight clothing are strictly forbidden.

The latter was a particular inconvenience for asanas (or yoga postures), for which Lycra makes the perfect partner, but which instead we performed in restrictive baggy pants and t-shirts, melting in the 35 degree Keralan heat. Many opted for the school uniform of white bottoms and yellow t-shirts worn by the yoga teacher trainees and which could be purchased for a reasonable sum in the Ashram boutique (though only between the hours of 11am and 1 and again 6.45 and 7.30pm – our daily ‘free time’). I succumbed to my inner child and am now the owner of a white and orange ‘Om mantra’ tee that I suspect will never again see the light of day.

Despite these deprivations, however (or perhaps because of them), the Sivananda Ashram is a peaceful and inspiring space largely full of well meaning and friendly people that are dedicated to serving the weary travellers that roll through its doors. While everything on the schedule (see below) is in theory compulsory, only the morning and evening satsang’s (meditation and chanting) are enforced, with wardens sweeping the dorms and booking truants. However, lateness is not punished and occasionally you can get away with skipping one or two.

The lake’s iridescent, ghostly-still surface is a divine presence

The setting is also stunning. About an hour’s drive from Kerala’s capital city Trivandrum (or its new, unpronounceable and largely ignored name Thiruvananthapuram), the Ashram is directly by the lake that is the result or source of Neyyar Dam, and which is unfathomably clean. Though its surrounds are lined with the customary piles of plastic rubbish that blight every inch of India, the lake’s iridescent, ghostly-still surface is a divine presence. One morning we took a silent walk there, where the sun rising over the adjacent mountains illuminated the slow moving mist on the water, providing perhaps the only spiritual vision any woman needs.

The sense of bonhomie that grows among the Ashram community is also deeply nourishing. Many of us westerners had some tragedy we were seeking healing for – grief, addiction and depression chief among them – and our shared adversity bred genuine warmth. For some, though, the daily doctrine was too much. One English visitor fresh from a suicide attempt and still struggling with alcohol and drugs, found one lecture on faith so offensive he caused quite the scene at reception, demanding a refund before storming out. For the many Indian and (interestingly) Japanese trainees at the Ashram, its daily austerity, devotion, dogma and discipline is no great shakes, but for Westerners bred on total personal liberty and atheism, I think only those processing pain or harbouring deep doubts make the journey.

Interestingly, however, the one Indian I did meet that was not on the teacher training course was also skeptical. Ipri*, an inquisitive maths teacher from Uttar Pradesh on a grand tour of his home country, was most disturbed by the mainly white western directors of the Ashram. He also found some of the chants ridiculous – particularly the one praising Krishna, Buddha, Jesus and Allah in one happy maelstrom. Of India’s lower caste, he said he and his family had traditionally not practiced yoga or yogic philosophy (this was for the ‘royals’/ Rajputs) but he was fairly sure this wasn’t it.

For some the daily doctrine was too much

Ultimately, what you take from the Ashram may depend on how much you need from it, and almost certainly how open and willing you are to accept its terms. I spent six days here and I bounced from initial charm to rejection back to charm and indeed found myself even enjoying the Hari Krishna chants by the last day. I also made it halfway to a headstand – a personal triumph after years of yoga practice – and met some unforgettable people. Had I not been concurrently battling a health issue that required frequent visits to the city hospital (details coming up), I may have stayed for the full two-week yoga program. This, I think, really would have been a personal victory.

Sivananda Ashram Neyyar Dam Daily Schedule:

  • 05.30, First Bell
  • 06.00 – 7.30, Satsang: mediation and chanting (compulsory)
  • 08.00 – 10.00, Yoga asana class (compulsory)
  • 10.10, Brunch
  • 10.30 – 13.30 Free time (for many this involves a visit to the local tea stall for contraband items like coffee and cigarettes and/or a visit to the lake)

OR you can come back early at midday for meditation or yoga asana coaching

  • 14.00, Spiritual Lecture (compulsory)
  • 15.30 – 17.30, Yoga asana class (compulsory)
  • 18.00, Dinner
  • 20.00 – 21.30, Satsang: meditation and chanting (compulsory)
  • 10.30, Lights Out

Plus one hour of ‘karma yoga’ in which you clean, serve food, man the shop etc. Usually during your free time (unless serving food).

Friday is a day off – you can skip everything in between morning and evening Satsangs 

Attukul Pongala, Trivandrum, Kerala

It is uniquely thrilling to be among two million women cooking rice pudding on a hot, dusty street. Such was my luck to find myself in Trivandrum for Attukal Pongola – the world’s biggest gathering of women who on the 2 March came together each to offer a pot of sweet, sticky Pongal to the Goddess Bhadrakali.

I had happened to be in town for a hospital visit the previous day (more on that coming up) and had seen the preparations: women marking out their territory with small piles of bricks and bags full of ingredients along every street in the town, regardless of the tropical Keralan heat.

The level of dedication required for this act of spiritual devotion became all the more impressive when, not long after our small ashram cohort arrived in town the following day, the ceremony to light the pudding calabashes began. This is done from fires located at small shrines dotted around town where the women queue to light long, dry leaves for their terracotta and metal pots. The smoke from these leaves and their fires soon transformed from atmospheric to entirely overpowering – our eyes streamed as the women cooked, the heat coming from above and below I thought unbearable, though I don’t recall seeing a single beaded brow among the chefs.

The day culminates in a procession to the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple which, like true Englishmen and women, our little group made slow progress toward in the midday sun. In a charming role reversal, along the route men seemed to be charged with handing out watermelon and lunch to the ladies free of charge, and even to us. Indeed, rather than shunned – as tourists generally should be – we were wholeheartedly welcomed, with one man openly thanking us for visiting Trivandrum while trying to warmly thrust food into our hands. That was a first for me in any country.

The support for the event is vast, with armies of policemen and women (indeed, many policewomen, which was pleasing), ambulances and helpful men on hand to serve the weary pilgrims while mega PA systems were blasting devotional chants and impressive light displays were waiting for darkness to project the goddess and her pantheon into the sky. Even the women’s prison opened its gates and allowed the inmates to participate in the day.

Upon finally reaching the temple we took one look at the queue, another at the line of ambulances outside and a final at the impenetrable pile of shoes below us at least 20 metres before the temple entrances and thought better of it. None of us soft westerners, it seemed, had even half the mettle of these women. Devotion, it appears, breeds endurance.

Time Inside Fort Kochi, Kerala

There is a rebellious spirit in Fort Kochi. Despite existing almost entirely for tourists for the past forty or so years, this old Portuguese/Dutch port seems to be a vibrant hotbed of politics and art. The former is evident in the many hammer and sickle flags and murals that grow in prominence as you enter the town from the airport and through Ernakulum. This culminated- it seemed – in the communist office next to my hostel (Maritime) emblazoned with the image of Che Guevara flanked to the far left by a pensive Karl Marx, the quote underneath extolling the virtues of death on ones feet rather than knees. Kerala, it turns out, is one of the few places the Communist Party of India has a strong following. While I was there they were protesting against the privatisation of the former government owned ferry service, which had reduced its service significantly.

CREDIT: Penny Steele

(Photo credit: Penny Steele)

The town’s art is equally visible. As is the Indian way, few spare patches of house, wall or fence go unadorned with murals or flashes of eye popping colour. From a full jungle / city montage facing the local school – I assume a comment on growing urbanisation – to banksy-esque silhouettes to simply beautiful jade coloured doors speaking of the crumbling facade’s former splendour. Perhaps the most impressive works are found on the trucks, though. With one motorised celebration of Jesus too spectacular for words.

This was, infact, parked outside of a small Christian Shrine that I stopped to look at. Mixing Hindu traditions with Christian iconography, worshippers purchased a small bottle of scented oil from the industrious temple vendor then queued to pour this on the crucifix before walking around the statue of the virgin twice. It made me smile to imagine this same ritual in an English church where I’m sure pouring oil on a cross would be seen as some sort of demon worship.

Later during my wander around town I also met a local artist, Victoria, who proudly displays her feature article in The Hindu (South India’s best selling daily, so it claims) at the entrance to her terracotta house and studio ‘Namasthe’. A tiny woman of around 50, Victoria told me she had recently lost her mother and so her recent work is concerned with her childhood. Her paintings are mystical and deeply feminine – the largest work showing two girls sitting underneath a banyan tree, one drenched in daylight, the other moonlight.

‘Jewtown’ – further colonial echoes – housed the most bizarre little museum I have ever seen. Like the galleries and museums of Morocco, you have to walk through a shop to access the ‘antiques’ housed inside, where the displays include purported 3,000 year old water urns, an ‘ancient’ Christian printing press (made in Finsbury, London) and a pile of used cameras, all presented with equal historical status.

Kochi, like India, makes its own time.

Plastic pollution: cropped out of sight, but not out of mind

Tourists and travellers don’t talk about – and certainly never take pictures of – the heartbreaking pollution that exists in the developing world. But we need to.

The one thing that absolutely no tourist or traveller talks about – and certainly never takes pictures of – is the heartbreaking level of pollution that exists in the developing world. So keen are we to boast to our friends and family of the exponential, life changing experiences we are having that we crop out – both consciously and unconsciously – the tragic filth we see around us every day.

For six months in 2017 I lived on Bui Huu Nghia in an area called Binh Thanh in Ho Chi Minh city, a riverside area largely populated by older local people and young, white expats like me looking for the ‘authentic’ Vietnamese life. In this area authenticity looks like this: great food that costs nothing but that is guaranteed to give you gastroenteritis roughly every three weeks; many, many rats, cockroaches and – if you’re lucky – huntsman spiders the size of your father’s outstretched hand that will keep you safe from both, at least inside of your house. And the arse-end of the Saigon River.

“Plastic bags inside plastic bags, bubble tea straws the size of copper pipes, it all finds it way into Saigon River”

Those that have only ever stayed in district 1 – the central business and tourist district of HCMC – will know the Saigon River as a fairly benign feature of the city – generally lazy and abundantly populated by water chestnuts floating up from the Mekong. Anyone in Binh Thanh, however, will know it as a stinking, belching, tar pit of refuse that gives off the most appalling stench that even a two minute crossing is a life changing experience. And why the difference? The authorities – in their wisdom – put nets up at either end of the part that flows through district 1 to keep the pollution in the poorer districts.

The Saigon River, as seen from Chinatown
The Saigon River, as seen from Chinatown

In Binh Thanh, the whole waterway is now almost entirely artificial. So obsessive are the Vietnamese about plastic bags, cups and straws that new river banks are created by the hour. Plastic bags inside plastic bags, bubble tea straws the size of copper pipes that funnel 20g of sugar a pop that is fast making children obese and diabetic – it all finds it way into Saigon River. It is heartbreaking to see an old woman rowing through carrier bags, straws, sewage and used nappies to reach her riverside house – now less than a rubbish tip.

On a visit to Cat Ba island in the north of the country I visited a number of beaches – every single one was awash with plastic rubbish. It comes from both holidaymakers and the distant floating villages, where fisherman thoughtlessly toss plastic wrappers into the ocean – ultimately poisoning the fish that are their livelihood, as well as those that eat them. On one beach I met a group of young local boys and a Sicilian backpacker that were swimming out to fill bags with rubbish. The latter told me he had been collecting for just an hour and had filled four large white straw sacks around a metre high and half a metre wide.

“In Delhi and Mumbai you truly cannot see the sky for the greasy smog”

Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh and the south especially – is blessed by a geographical position that means the air pollution that comes from the astonishing number of motorbikes on the road (in both HCMC and Hanoi there are two motorbikes for every citizen) doesn’t linger. This is not so in Delhi and Mumbai where you – quite literally – cannot see the sky for the heavy, grey smog that makes an already oppressive heat quite unbearable – particularly in the latter city. This inescapable evidence of environmental degradation makes it all the more frustrating to see the arsenal of plastic rubbish that carpets India’s most ancient monuments, such as Elephanta Island – a UNESCO world heritage site covered in empty water bottles.

Elephanta Island, Mumbai
Elephanta Island, Mumbai. A UNESCO world heritage site.

As a privileged white European, my experience in the developing world was the first time I have been faced by pollution of any meaningful quantity. Over the last 40 years Europe and the West has outsourced its manufacturing and by extension, our pollution and industrial waste to these regions. Many also labour under corrupt governments that do not build the infrastructure that can solve waste challenges as long as they are being incentivised by Western companies like Nestle and Coca-Cola not to do so. If Vietnamese and Indians could drink their tap water, their plastic waste problem would be halved overnight.

Since returning home it seems that we in Europe are waking up – excellent campaigns by Sky News and latterly Blue Planet are highlighting the irreversible damage we are doing to our oceans through our addiction to plastic. I have seen how disturbingly easy it is for us to sit back in our – truly – green and pleasant European lands and simply not see. And tourists that choose to crop out pollution from their holiday snaps do not help. During my whole year travelling and living in the developing world I took less than five photos of the terrible pollution I saw. I have published them here. And I call on all travellers to do the same.

“It’s time to acknowledge the rubbish – and to do something about it”

Meanwhile, I have made a firm pledge to change my own behaviour: I will not buy a single disposable water bottle or coffee cup again. I carry both a water bottle and travel mug with me at all times. I am also reducing waste – and saving money – by taking my own lunches to work and I will not use a plastic bag unless there is absolutely no choice. It’s time to open our eyes – to see and to acknowledge the rubbish – and to do something about it.

Mumbai weather forecast
Mumbai weather forecast

London’s Hidden Gems: The Museum of the Order of St John

A surprise hides at the end of every winding London road, even for locals.

As a born and bred Londoner it is such a joy to be stopped in my tracks by something entirely unexpected. Such was my pleasure yesterday, however, when I stumbled across the Museum of the Order of St John in Farringdon.

Basking in a bright, crisp Friday afternoon in November – the type that makes wandering through London a magical journey – I took advantage of a spare 20 minutes to wander through the narrow cobbled streets around Farringdon station.

Having found my lunch venue on Turnmill Street, I took a sharp right up Benjamin Street – an old city passage way flanked on the left by a small, neat public garden surrounded by wrought iron gates (St John’s Gardens, as it turns out) – toward St John Street, which I know for its eponymous – and delicious – meat lovers restaurant.

As I wandered, my feelings of incredulousness at the impossibly picturesque, centuries old buildings around me growing (a year in the developing world proving tricky to readjust from), I was stopped dead in my tracks toward the end of St John’s lane by what looked like the entrance to a castle.


As I approached the sand coloured brick archway framed by two medieval towers – Victorian London lamplights carving a processional path forward – I was fairly stunned. Three ornate stained glass windows sat atop coats of arms across the entrance way, while etchings of London’s cultural fathers – Shakespeare, Hogarth, Johnson, Dickens – watched from the windows of the ancient building on my right.

I soon saw a small wooden sandwich board sign underneath the arch – “The Museum of the Order of St John – come inside. Free.” I wracked my brain for some memory of what this might be, some dull recollection of one of my grandfather’s many city history tours – but nothing.

Ducking, I stepped through the small, almond shaped mahogany door into what felt very much like a vestry. I was met by a beaming 18 year old girl behind a desk on the left – a complete anachronism inside this shadowy castle – who advised me how I could walk around the building to view the exhibit.

“Dark shadows frame devotional paintings and murals of saints and apostles”

At this point I made the connection between St John and St John’s Ambulance – a well known volunteer-led medical charity in the UK that is promoted and encouraged in schools. (They will forever be linked with the movie The Exorcist for me thanks to my father’s story about St John’s volunteers scooping up feinting teenage girls at the first showing of the film in Newcastle).


Inside, the building was just, if not more, impressive – dark shadows framing devotional paintings and murals of saints and apostles. I walked to the right – as directed by the sprite at the desk – and began to follow the story of the Order of St John, the knights behind St John’s ambulance.

Founded in 1080 by humble monk Brother Gerard, the order began as a single hospital in Jerusalem that cared for weary pilgrims to the Holy Land. Half a century later, as the Christian crusades swung into action, the order militarised, and the knights of St John were born.

Over the subsequent 800 years the order was ousted from Jerusalem by the Ottomans, setting up shop in Cyprus, Rhodes, and finally Malta. The small and engaging display of artefacts in the room to the right of the entrance tells this story.


Some of the highlights include an intricate model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, inlaid with mother of pearl and built entirely to scale with every room and passageway recreated in miniature. These were, apparently, the souvenir de rigger of the day for fashionable pilgrims of the sixteenth century.

Suits of armour and grand, baroque paintings of holy men and women are perhaps more eye-catching, as is a one meter model of one of the cargo ships used to transport goods from Europe to Malta bound for the Middle East and Africa – one of the reasons this was such an important settlement for the British – which has pride of place in the large central glass-housed display.

This part of the order’s history is perhaps more glorified than it’s British history, ending as it did when the impetuous Henry VIII dissolved the Catholic church and swiped the knights’ land and buildings for himself in 1534. Before this, the knights home was here inside these thick medieval walls and within an elaborate building complex opposite known as the Priory.

“Dynasties rise, nations fall, some trinkets survive”

After the monks were sent on their way the building and its grounds became a cultural hub. The Priory was where Shakespeare brought his plays to be licensed, while Hogarth grew up in one of the grand buildings that grew up around St Johns Gate – as the area became known. The Jerusalem Tavern – just a stone’s throw from where I was standing – is where Dickens and Johnson enjoyed a tipple.


This building is, however, very much dedicated to the history of the Order of St John and its modern incarnation – St John’s Ambulance, with the final part of the display dedicated to St John’s service during the past two world wars.

Exiting the museum into the now darkening light of a winters evening I felt bereft – the small display had been entirely immersive and nourishing, an escape from the present. Reading the near 2,000 year history of the Order was, for me, a reminder that everything is transient and history is cyclical. While one nation may hold another for a hundred or even two hundred years, another will take over and the world will keep spinning – people will live, things will survive. Dynasties rise, nations fall, some trinkets survive.


Maboneng: hipper than Hoxton

Culture and crack collide in a new, reimagined Johannesburg

In the UK we are generally told one thing about Johannesburg: you don’t stop at red lights. The stories I had heard about the city were dominated by violent crime, car jackings and home invasions and so, as an inexperienced solo female traveller, I was fairly terrified at the prospect of South Africa’s capital when I visited it in October 2016.

Using Hostelworld.com, I had done a little research before leaving the UK and I had booked to stay at Curiocity Backpackers. I was attracted to the artsy look of both the hostel and the district, while the 9 out of 10 on reviews sealed the deal (see here for my top hostel booking tips).

“The staff and residents of Curiocity were drenched in a general zeitgeist you could smell at the door”

Walking through the door of Curiocity after a long and sleepless flight, sporting my newly purchased Karrimor utility pants and multi purpose fleece (see ‘what you REALLY need to backpack around the world’) I was met by some of JoBerg’s youngest and brightest things.

Unlike my symphony in grey ensemble, the hostel staff and local residents were resplendent in shredded jeans, metallic Dr Martens boots, wide brimmed felt fedoras over rainbow coloured hair and drenched in a general zeitgeist you could smell at the door.

The hostel was equally aesthetically pleasing. Dominated by dark woods, bright wall murals and matt metals, the ground floor boasted a bar plentifully stocked with local beers, a pool table and a lounging area scattered with flumpy cushions from which to peruse the obligatory backpacker book exchange.

Upstairs was a fully equipped, modern kitchen with space to store your own food and a large communal balcony perfect for smoking, drinking and chatting, This was flanked by the dorm rooms and a communal bathroom – all modern, clean and comfortable. I couldn’t have picked a better place to start.

Filled with newfound confidence and freedom, soon after arriving I set out on a walk of Maboneng and what I found was a revelation: rather than the signs of a city under siege, I found a flourishing district bursting with energy and creativity. Echoing the trendiest corners of East London – Hoxton, Hackney, Dalston – Maboneng is overflowing with hip coffee houses and artisan eateries, achingly cool bars, restaurants and live music venues, art galleries, comedy clubs, pop up boutiques and street art.

Hot spots 

Fox Street, which Curiocity is on, boasts the lion’s share of Maboneng’s coolest spots. Arts on Main is the central hub; a large multi-purpose arts space, it houses small galleries and boutiques, a street food market on the weekends and a lively music bar in the leafy courtyard. Just outside is one of the best Mexican’s in town: Mama Mexicana where I enjoyed one of the best tacos I have ever had and where you better get in early if you don’t have a booking.

Numerous coffee houses also line the street; ‘Eat Your Heart Out’ was a stand out for its mud-like americanos and Israeli shakshuka breakfasts enjoyed while slowly smoking a cigarette on its scrubbed pine street tables.

Not far from Fox Street, on the corner of Albrecht and Commissioner Street is one of the many relics of old Johannesburg – The Cosmopolitan Hotel. Built in 1899 as a white gentleman’s club, The Cosmopolitan has been reclaimed and repurposed as an arts venue and events space complete with sculpture garden and bold street art.

“Eat Your Heart Out was a stand out for its mud-like americanos and Israeli shakshuka breakfasts”

During my visit the Cosmopolitan was showcasing the new work of South African super model and photographer Josie Borain. Josie also happened to be staying at Curiocity with her family and kindly offered to give me a guided tour of her show – a collection of collages of her photographs taken over the past two decades, including intimate snaps of the icons like Linda Evangelista and Cindy Crawford.

Just opposite the Cosmopolitan is the Museum of African Design, an airy, echoing warehouse space that showcases some of South Africa’s up and coming architects, photographers and graphic designers and which is a nice spot to get a little lost in.

For a hopeless book worm like me, however, the highlight of Maboneng is The Collectors Treasury – an infinite, sprawling cave of endless dusty shelves of books, photographs, magazines, vinyls and ridiculous nic-nacks that please the soul. From the entire collection of David Lloyd George war memoirs’ to a 1960’s map of the London Underground to a well thumbed copy of Hollywood Kids – I can fairly bet there is nothing you will not find here.


Maboneng also boasts a few choice night spots. On Fox Street independent cinema The Bioscope is a top choice, with its regular art house themed evenings, while the Pop Up Gallery next door also hosted regular comedy nights. I was lucky enough to attend to attend one with two very blonde Californians that provided the comedy fodder for most of the evening – although all in good fun.

If you’re prepared to splash a little cash Che Argentine Grill opposite Curiocity is a very special spot for a steak and a glass of red, while if you’re lucky you’ll catch the red hot Tango floor show. A little further afield is Lenin’s Vodka Bar, which while I didn’t visit – I am reliably informed stocks a good selection of Eastern European spirits and some killer cocktails.

On my last night at Curiosity, one of the staff – Tsepo – also rounded a few of us up and took us to a serious brai (BBQ) and music venue called Presinct where we saw a popular local band called The Muffinz. Serving up a reggae/bass/rock infusion they had the crowd roaring with glee – a crowd that also didn’t seem to mind a bunch of backpackers crashing their party.

Top travel tip

Maboneng is the beginning of something really inspiring in Johannesburg, if not South Africa: vibrant, creative, inclusive and led by a new generation less encumbered by the ghosts of the past.

However, the district is made and kept safe by a small army of local security guards employed by a private developer – Jonathan Lipman – who in 2009 began buying up the district with the view of revitalising it – to great effect.

While this means Maboneng is safer than others, just outside of the few blocks that make up the area is Main Street, where few foreigners should venture, while at the end of Commissioner Street sits one of the country’s most notorious drug dens.

“Don’t be afraid, but don’t carry valuables and be vigilant”

As such, it is advisable to be cautious when wandering around – don’t be afraid, but don’t carry valuables and be vigilant. If you go out on a walk alone (as I did just fine) carry nothing more than a few rand in your back pocket and wear your most inconspicuous clothing – and definitely do not do so after dark. If going anywhere beyond Fox Street at night use a licensed mini cab, preferably with a local or a large group.

On that note I would highly recommend you download the taxi-booking app Taxify, which is much like Uber but for South Africa, which you can book and track on your phone using the local SIM card loaded with data you bought when you arrived in South Africa (see ‘Backpacking 101: For the love of GOD buy a local SIM card’).

Most of all, though, have fun. Maboneng has a lot to offer and as long as you employ a little common sense and some street smarts, you’ll be just fine.

Find out more at http://www.mabonengprecinct.com/