The scenery is dominated by varying shades of green that extend for miles. The reassuring babble of the river is somewhere in the background. People here are soft-spoken and kind. The sounds of Khasi fill the air. Help is never far, and you are always warmly welcomed by everyone. This is Meghalaya, in the north-eastern corner of India.
From hitch-hiking in the back of jeeps of drug peddlers, to exploring one of the most bizarre and arid landscapes, to visiting the world’s largest salt reserve which is a whopping 155 metres below sea level, read about my adventures in Djibouti – a tiny country in a forgotten corner of the world.
My unexpected adventures in the ancient-walled city of Harar, in Eastern Ethiopia. From eating Fetira on the streets, to bumping into friendly locals in the maze of alleyways, and ending up staying in the store room / outhouse of a local family, Harar was definitely my most memorable part of Ethiopia.
Since it was established in the 19th century by Emperor Menelik, Addis has had the feel of a mystical portal to an ancient world. Addis Ababa, meaning ‘New Flower’ in Amharic, is sprawling, bustling, and blessed with an agreeable climate and cloudless blue skies for 75% of the year (it’s the 3rd highest capital in the world). Read more about my explorations through Addis and ancient Lalibela’s centuries-old rock-hewn churches, showcasing Orthodox Christianity at its most raw and powerful.
I opened my eyes as we were crawling up the hills. Winding through an intense fog blanket, I could start to see hints of sunrise. Almost two hours had passed since we set off from Kabale town at 5:30AM with Alex in the driver’s seat. We were almost at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – by Uganda’s southwestern border with the Congo. This was a moment I’d been waiting for with nervous anticipation since the time I arrived in East Africa.
I’d been warned by multiple people about Kampala’s dangers as a solo traveller, especially after dark. Before I left Rwanda, people had me believe that phone snatching, pick-pockets, thieves, bag-slashings and muggings were all too common in Kampala. So I was prepared to just stay in the guest house on my first day, since I arrived in the evening. But something told me to pluck up the courage and go see the sunset. So off I went in search of the Old Kampala National Mosque in Namirembe in an Uber (I was not yet ready to try out the city’s matatus – the equivalent of minibuses, supposedly a hotspot for theft, driven at breakneck speeds and usually stuffed like sardines).
As I continued to read, I learnt more about Rwanda’s beautiful lakes. I’ve also been magnetised by the enigma that is the Congo. So after a few days in Kigali, I headed west to Lake Kivu, which dominates the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo – the closest I could safely go (an Ebola breakout with WHO advisories meant crossing the border into Goma was risky). The mammoth Lake Kivu surrounded by tall mountains with several islands make it an explorer’s heaven. Particularly so if you’ve got access to a boat. From there I headed north to Lake Ruhondo, the less popular of Rwanda’s northern twin lakes to read, relax and stay in a Foyer de Charité – a Catholic mission focused on offering spiritual retreats, not quite sure of how they’d react to me. Both regions reinforced the quiet and level-headed image of Rwandans I already had, and what a calm oasis Rwanda is compared to its neighbours.
If I was to summarise Rwanda in three words, they would be: safe, tidy and forward-thinking. According to the World Economic Forum, Rwanda is the 9th safest country in the world – ahead of Austria and New Zealand. And I definitely felt it. Maybe it was the peaceful and level-headed nature of Rwandans. Or maybe it was the reassuring police presence on the streets. I walked about alone at night all around the city, and hailed random motorbike taxis, but there was not once a time when I felt threatened. For a country that was (wrongly) defined to me by the media coverage of the tragic genocide in 1994, the forward-thinking mindset of the nation blew me away. A nation that is ever determined to rebuild itself. A nation that strives to be a leading example to the world.
Not a lot of things came to mind when I thought of the Isle of Man. Shameful, I know. Having lived in the UK for 10 years, I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time exploring continental Europe but not necessarily what lay closer to home. In fact, all I knew was the Isle of Man was under some vague category of UK control. And that it was a tiny island in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland (thanks to the many times I pored over the route map in airline inflight magazines). So when an opportune long weekend came up, and my routine bedtime Skyscanner searches yielded a cheap EasyJet return flight to the island, I blinked twice and booked a two day visit.
Guilty confession: I would have never guessed that San Marino – a nation of 33,000 people – is the world’s oldest surviving republic. It’s said to have been founded in the fourth century by a saint, a Dalmation stone-mason called Marinus, who sought refuge here when fleeing religious persecution. The steep ridge of Monte Titano is certainly a good defensive stronghold. I went in expecting a tax haven similar to Monaco, with only expensive restaurants and unimpressive buildings on relatively flat terrain. I was wrong on all accounts. Instead I saw a glimpse into a world of fairytale castles, views that never get boring and more importantly, how the resolve and determination of a tiny nation helped navigate the complex political battleground to retain its independence.