One of our main interests in Vietnam was visiting the mountain village of Sa Pa. Sa Pa is situated in northwest Vietnam near China border. It’s approx 6 hours ride away from the capital Ha Noi. There is many ethnic minorities living in the small villages around Sa Pa. Weather in december is very cold and we noticed soon that after warm and humid Southern-India, we needed to upgrade our clothes to warmer ones to better deal with 0 degrees temperature! Too bad that we already had sent our winter clothes to Finland after Nepal…Many hostels don’t have any warming systems, you’ll get an electric mattress to keep you warm during the night and hot shower isn’t guaranteed either…so prepare with proper clothes if you wish to visit there in winter We were happy to arrive to Sa Pa though, as we noticed it had exactly the kind of a ‘christmas’-spirit we were looking for (and what is very difficult for a Finn to find under the palm trees). That was the main reason we decided to stay in Sa Pa for one week, so that we could spend Christmas there as well.
We wanted to do trekking in Sa Pa in order to have a closer look to it’s beautiful nature. As well, we wanted to see how local minority people live so we chose a trek which included 2 nights in local people’s homestays. We chose Sa Pa-based organisation Sapa O’Chau to organise our 3-days trek to Muong Hoa Valley. There is many tour operators in Ha Noi who do all-inclusive-trekking-trips to Sa Pa but Sapa O’Chau has great mission of employing local minority people as tour guides and homestay keepers. In that way money gained from trekkers goes directly to improving these peoples’ living conditions. Our trek price including all meals was approx 80 euros per person.
Trek to Muong Hoa Valley was more demanding that we had thought. Our first and second day’s walk were both around 20 kilometers. Route went through terraced rice fields which unfortunately had harvested in august. They were beautiful without rice anyway just filled with water. Sometimes the trail went through thick bamboo forests and across rivers via suspension bridges. Mostly it was going up or down and sometimes in a thick and slippery mud. Almost every tourist who did trekking and to whom we talked to, said they had been falling at least once while trekking. Our shoes were always so muddy after the days walk was over. And how can it be that our guide Mô always had such a clean shoes!?
Seeing how local people live was the best part of our trek. Our guide Mô represented Hmong Tribe and said it is five different ethnic tribes living in the Muong Hoa Valley close to each other. Mô is 29-years old and has two children, oldest being 12 years old. Mô had been widowed earlier this year, her husband being only 33 years old when he died due to somekind of a heart-illness. Mô is guiding treks to Muong Hoa Valley and in this way is able to support her small family. We got to see Mô’s house in Lao Chai-village where we also stayed our first night in the homestay of Ms. May. It was pretty shocking to see Mô’s house. It reminded me of a barn houses in Finland having basically only one big room, concrete floors and walls made of bamboo leaves. No windows and as you can imagine wind can get easily in through those thin walls. There obviously wasn’t any heating systems and just a dim halogen lit the common room. All the family was sleeping in one big bed. There wasn’t any great storage spaces for clothes, toys, food or tableware. We didn’t find any bathroom either. Toilet was a separate bamboo house with a hole.
Our first homestay keeper, Ms. May, had similar life story to Mô. Widowed at an early age and with three small children, she is now able to support herself and her family through the income she earns from her homestay. May’s house was bigger than Mô’s and had very clean western style toilet and bathroom with even hot water! Many children gathered to her living room to watch tv after the dark. There was me, Auli and and Australian couple staying over night. Mô and Mô’s sister Txuv made a delicious dinner to us and after May came back from her guiding work, we all ate together. We slept upstairs below two thick blankets and after first day’s tough trail, slept 12 hours in a row! Second night we spent in a Ban Ho village and shared a huge sleeping space with two girls from Germany.
In January there can be even snow in Sa Pa and temperature goes easily below 0 degrees. Imagine sleeping in those kind of conditions in a finnish barn house. There is some perspective to the western countries. Do we really need all the conveniences we have (i.e floor-heating or air-conditioning that can be adjusted room by room!) What do we really need for surviving? Seeing life of these people really made me think about the unfairness between our country and these people. We have it all and still it seems nothing is enough for us…these people have almost nothing but they still seem to be happy and enjoying life without even knowing what could they need more.
I really appreciate how people live in these villages. They grow almost everything by themselves from rice and corn to different vegetables, fruits, herbs and animals. All village help when it’s time to harvest huge rice and corn fields in late summer. They prepare all the food by themselves, use every single part of an animal and buy less ready-made-stuff from the markets. Women make their own, traditional clothes: they start by dying the fabrics, drying them, then sewing all the different decorations to them and finally they sew all the pieces together. Cows, buffalos, chickens, geese, pigs, cats and dogs live happily wherever they want, there is no fencing for animals. There is schools for different levels in each village and children play together outside after school. It didn’t seem to matter whose children it was spending evening in May’s house, everyone got to eat there who happen to be there in dinner-time. There was life in these villages! And I doubt it is actually pretty good life. When asking Mô if she was happy with her life, she truly seemed to answer ‘yes’ from the bottom of her heart.
Mô was the best!
The city is wintry
Followed by silly and clumsy early chills
Flattering corner trees
And slowly the dark fills
The sweeper loses his will
Knowing that the autumn is lost.
Away the gold leaves, away the autumn
The city is wintry
Earthen roofs in dry silence
Streets struggle in the empty vastness
Of the stirring afternoon.
The dawn fades away
And away goes the white branch
The city is wintry
The winter, the city, and burdens of life
Dragging rural feet to survive
Shivering under the worn-out rag
The gold light is just lying long
Wander and wander round a cup of coffee
Grizzly hair entangled with losses
The chill is not here, but within
Bewildered to find
Find who, find what…?
Life is long and large
Time refuses to drift
Echoes will just leave
For winter to stay.
Poet ‘Urban winter’ by Tran Tuan Anh
Have a beautiful and peaceful Christmas guys! We are celebrating it in the mountain village of Sapa in northern Vietnam.
To me one of the best feelings when travelling is the feeling you have when you are actually moving to a new place. At these times you can have the great perception of really ‘living in the moment’. During our 5 weeks in India, we have been travelling from north to south through following cities; Delhi-Agra-Jaipur-Jaisalmer-Jodhpur-Udaipur-Mumbai-Goa-Alleppey-Amritapuri-Kollam-Varkala-Thiruvananthapuram (Trivendrum). Even there has been overwhelmingly lot to see in India, worth mentioning are also different ways of transportation here. Our transportation methods have included many of them – from having our own driver to local trains, sleeper trains (in different classes), sleeper buses, local buses and auto-rickshaws.
Our route in India can be seen here.
What we were told in Delhi, was that booking train or bus tickets might be difficult so we made our transportation bookings via a tourist office from Delhi until Goa. Long distance train tickets from Goa to Ernakulam in Kerala we fixed ourselves on the road. Booking trains in India might seem difficult at first (and stressful especially if you arrive to Delhi…) If you want to reserve tickets in Internet you have to go through difficult log in-systems. What requires more effort but is a bulletproof way – is booking tickets directly from train stations. Sleeper classes fill up well easily in advance so booking as far in advance as possible is recommended. In India there are many different classes to travel: just to mention some of them 1AC, 2AC, 3AC, sleeper and 2nd class seater, AC=Air conditioning. We’ve been travelling in classes 2AC, 3AC and basic sleeper class. For longer journeys sleeper classes are highly recommended and very convenient! Difference between 2AC and 3AC is basically in the amount of conveniences; in 2AC there are beds in 2 storeys, curtains, blankets, bed sheets and own reading lamps. In 3AC there are beds in 3 levels and no curtains nor reading lamps but blankets are available. 3AC was fair enough for us really, 2AC felt luxus, basic sleeper class was ok for one night. Railways in India are in good condition so travelling by train here is actually very reasonable way to travel. There is also great enquiry offices in the stations, where we’ve been asking questios like ‘Are we at the right station?’, ‘Is our train on time?’, ‘From which platform it departs?’ or ‘Can you show our places in the train?’ Asking about the right station is wise – we noticed only 45 minutes before our train was departing from Mumbai that we were in the wrong train station (our ticket said Mumbai CST which apparently could be translated either Mumbai Central Station or Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus). We had chosen the wrong translation but luckily made it to the train due to a fast cab driver!
Local trains are a little bit funnier. While in Mumbai we took a local train a couple of times to travel from our guest house to the city centre. Local trains are way much cheaper way to travel than having a taxi or an auto-rickshaw. Booking ticket from station was easy and people were willing to help with platforms and directions. Only thing that caused some problems to me, was getting into the train. When the train stops at the platform, people just rushes in pushing each other. I was too polite and was left a little behind. Others from our group were already in the train when I noticed that train started to move (fast!) and I had only my hand inside the train handle. Only way was to jump and others helped to pull me in…crazy really but I made it! There are special ‘women only’ cars in trains which aren’t so crowded and are more safe to female travellers. In mens’ cars people were really hanging out from the door holes…there is no doors in trains (natural air-conditioning is working well though).
Sleeper buses that we have took a couple of times have been both good and bad. Roads in India are in equally good condition but the problem is that buses aren’t. Best buses to travel here are Volvos. You can book either sleeper or seater bus. In sleeper buses you can have your small little ‘cabin’ for one or two person. Or like indians do it – the whole family travel in one two-person-cabin. Cabins are okay, the problem is that if you don’t have your cabin or seat from the middle of the bus, the ride will probably be b.u.m.p.y. We had one really horrible ride from Jodhpur to Udaipur when during our 6-hour-ride we had a two-person-cabin from upper level and I hit my head so many times to the ceiling. I couldn’t sleep at all, my head just bumping all the time…But could have been even worse though, some people were sleeping in narrow corridor without any mattresses just some newspaper below them. In sleeper class buses, cabins have soft, leather-upholstered fixed mattresses but no blankets. Air conditioning is normally very hard, so we preferred a non-AC which is obviosly cheaper as well. The only ‘real’ problem with long-distance buses are toilet breaks. I mean it’s not like there isn’t any of them it’s just when bus staff speaks hindi when it’s time for a break so sometimes it’s hard for us to understand if it’s toilet break, food break or if they are just getting in or dropping out some people or if someone just wanted to buy coconuts! (Once we really stopped just because someone wanted to buy coconuts from a fruit stand…) What we noticed lately though…you could have your personal toilet breaks also if you ask bus staff nicely
Local short distance buses are the best if you want to move between two cities with cheap price and you don’t need to sleep in the vehicle. It is very funny how they act here and in India (and actually in Nepal as well). There is driver and one ‘assistant’ guy on the bus. Assistant guy is normally hanging out the door and shouting the name of the place where the bus is heading. People rushes in and sometimes buses don’t even stop properly…you need to jump in or out when it’s the right place. Normally assistant guy is shouting ‘fast, fast, fast!’ at this time so you can imagine me with my 20kg backpack jumping out of the moving vehicle…
Good option to move inside a city is an auto-rickshaw…if they work! What happened to us once, was that we were driving with a friend’s rickshaw when the accelerator stopped to work. We were somewhere in the outskirts of Udaipur and suddenly the whole day was spent either pushing or fixing the rickshaw. That made out a good adventure though!
As a closure I can say that our time in India was full of different experiences. Every day gave us something we didn’t expect to experience in the morning. Travelling in India isn’t always the easiest and you need to develope your nerves to be as good as holy cows walking in the streets have. But we made it with zero food poisoning, robberies, rapings or missed trains… So please put away your negative images and expectations about India. Dont’ believe everything you hear or read in the media. It’s mostly the bad news what catches peoples’ ears and make them fear things. Come and experience yourself. India is truly interesting mix of religion, culture, history and nature. To us India was incredible and there is no doubt that we will be back! India definately left me longing for more.
After Goa we headed to the state of Kerala for two weeks. We took a train from Goa to Kochin and continued travelling by local buses to Alleppey, Amritapuri, Kollam and Varkala. Kerala is lush and serene state in the west coast of very southern India. It is pretty wealthy state, people are educated and literature rate is high. In Kerala, you can enjoy beautiful Indian nature as it is home for famous water canals called ‘The Backwaters’. The only problem here is the weather which is super humid and hot according to the finnish standards and you can expect to sweat a lot and your clothes never get dry! It is winter in India now so I don’t want to know how summer will be
When travelling in Kerala, first we went to Alleppey for a couple of days. Alleppey is the main place for hiring houseboats or canooes to the Backwaters. We didn’t want to book houseboat yet in Alleppey because we thought that renting one in Kollam wouldn’t be so touristic experience. In Alleppey we didn’t do much. Just got some idea about the backwaters…otherwise it didn’t seem very interesting city. We relaxed after Goa by taking yoga classes from the excellent homestay-restaurant-place called The Lemon Dew and enjoyed their delicious banana pancakes, fish dinners and cozy atmosphere.
Next we transferred ourselves to Amritapuri which is located between Alleppey and Kollam, about 1,5 hours south from Alleppey. Amritapuri is pretty easy to reach by local buses from Alleppey and Karunagapally. Amritapuri is the headquarters for Mother Amma’s worldwide mission with many visitors and devotees of Amma. Amma just arrived from her visit to Vatican as we stayed in the ashram and we were lucky to receive her famous hugs! You can read more about our visit in the ashram from here.
Of course we wanted to experience the famous Backwaters too, so next we went to Kollam in order to do so. Kollam is much more untouristy than Alleppey and there isn’t so many houseboats there. We didn’t have any reservations made in advance, we just basically went to the boat jetty to check out couple of tourist offices to compare prices and boats. It’s wise to check houseboat in advance, there is differences in the conditions of the boats…We rent a houseboat for one night. The price around 8000rs (100€) from 2 persons, included captain, own chef who cooked amazing keralan style meals and an assistant guy. There is houseboats of different sizes, you can rent one with one or more bedrooms. Houseboats (or kettuvallams) have normally nice balcony and terrace where you can enjoy the beautiful views of the Backwaters. We did a trip to Munroe Island, which is located about 30 kilometres from Kollam. We stopped in the island for having a village tour in smaller canals with canooe. We saw fish farms and houseboat building, a lot of eagles and beautiful houses that were built so close to the narrow waterways. Sometimes we needed to kneel down, there were low bridges and even tunnels from which we were going through with actually a quite long canooe. Whole setting in Munroe Island was magical. No other sounds than religious singing from one of the island’s temples. We stopped overnight in Munroe Island and continued our trip back to Kollam when sun rose in the next morning. You can imagine enjoying breakfast there at the boat’s terrace, surrounded by the backwaters, with sunrise in the horizon and no other sounds than the motor of our boat…pure pleasure.
Closure for our trip in Kerala was one week relaxation holiday in serene and peaceful Varkala beach. Our time in India has included a lot of travelling and we have been changing places often. We haven’t stayed in many places for over two nights so settling down for a week in Varkala felt a very welcome breath-taking. Beaches in Varkala are tiny compared to Goa but positive side is that they are not so touristy. Varkala has main beach and smaller beaches, which all are surrounded by majestic cliffs so the whole setting is very beautiful. Waves are very strong and sun burns easily so there’s some points to consider. There is mainly western tourists in Varkala and the whole place is so small that you will soon start to regognize faces. People are nice and you will hear ‘hi’ or ‘how are you’ from every direction all the time. Varkala is perfect place to spend quiet beach holiday, but it’s also the place to attend yoga courses or classes. Many guesthouses offer ‘pop-in’ yoga classes for 200-300 rupees. Another great thing here is ayurvedic treatments which are also offered in many places near the cliffs. Ayurveda is ancient Indian science of wellbeing by natural methods and herbal medicines. There is a lot of small and reasonable priced guesthouses in Varkala and restaurants have traveller-wise prices as well. If you are looking for a place to spend a peaceful beach holiday with yoga and relaxed atmosphere, Varkala is a perfect option! To me, this place is a paradise.
Some examples of prices in Varkala:
…with ‘I love you’-staircase…
After Goa it was time for us to search our spiritual sides. I’d heard and read about Amritapuri Ashram, a headquarters for Mother Amma’s worldwide mission, which is located in Kerala between Alleppey and Kollam. So that’s where we headed for two nights and hoped to receive Amma’s famous hug. As an experience, it was totally something different what we had experienced so far in India…in a positive way!
Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, better known as Mother Amma, is one of the most well known femal spiritual gurus in the world. Amma has raised a worldwide organisation which has both spirituos and charitious missions. With donations Amma has built her Ashram to Kerala and with her Missions’ donations many schools and houses have been built in India. When tsunami hit India 10 years ago, Amma’s Mission helped tsunami victims. She has supported catastrophe victims also in other parts of the world. Amma’s main goals is to promote love, peace and wellbeing in the world. It is estimated that Amma’s mission gaines donations for over 20 million US dollars per year!
Amritapuri is built up on the property where Amma was born. The location is serene with Arabic Sea on the other side and backwaters canal on the other. Amritapuri is not only the headquarters for Amma’s worldwide mission but also the spiritual home for Amma’s devotees. Around 3000 people are living in the Ashram permanently. If you are interested in giving up your ‘normal’ life and devoting it to serve Amma and her mission, it costs around 15 000 euros and you can spend the rest of your life in the Ashram. But signing into the ashram means you have to start to follow ashram’s pretty stricts rules. There is strict code of behaviour and rules what kind of clothes are allowed in the ashram premises. Obviously tight, revealing clothes are prohibited, so are any drugs or showing public affection towards another sex. Also photographing was prohibited.
Everyday, around 100 Amma’s followers from across India and abroad come here to have Amma’s darshan (hug). Everyone is welcome to visit and spend some time in Amritapuri. How long you want to spend there, is up to you. International visitors need to fill a form in advance in Amritapuri website but nothing more is required. It costs 250 indian rupees (about 3,5 euros) per night to stay in the ashram and price includes simple indian style vegetable curry and rice three times a day. Participating in yoga or meditation courses are free. There is also other indian and western style food, juices, organic products and fresh coconuts that you can buy for a cheap price. We had our own, very simple room which was a surprise as we had waited for a dormitory. Very simple means that there was two beds and attached bathroom but no electricity was working during our stay.
Amritapuri is huge complex including many dormitory buildings, houses, temples and schools. All work is done by volunteers (= by those who live or visit in the Ashram). Important part of Ashram’s daily life are Sevas. Seva means selflessness work. All the people who visit Ashram more than one night are advised to participate in seva. During our 2 night stay, we worked 3-4 hours doing common dishes in the main canteen. There is plenty of other things to do in Amritapuri as well. Those who spend more time there, are adviced to participate in religious services for example archanas which is singing session about 1000 names of Holy Mother or bhajans which are religious hindu song-singing sessions. It is also possible to do courses in yoga, ayurveda or meditation for example. We took a yoga class and participated to meditation session.
Amma goes regularly abroad and has been in Finland many times as well. Actually there was more finnish people in the ashram that we had seen in total in the whole India during our trip. When we came to Amritapuri, Amma was meeting Pope and other world’s religious leaders in Vatican. Our plan was to spend only one night in the Ashram but when we heard that Amma would arrive on our second day, we decided to extend our staying into two nights to see if it would be possible to have darshan (hug) from her. Amma’s hug is famous and it is said that Amma has hugged 24 million people in her lifetime! Many people have said Amma’s hug given them something they can’t describe. It is said that Amma’s hug can heal both emotionally and physically. I’m glad we stayed because we got to see how Amma arrived to the Ashram with all the people waiting for her. Amma gives darshans normally four days a week but after she is back from her abroad trips no-one really knows when she comes out of her house. It was our leaving day and we had put our luggage to cloakroom and were waiting for the lunch when we heard bells ringing in the main temple. Suddenly all the people run to the temple and there Amma was, sitting in the middle of the altar. It was pretty magical moment. She held half an hour meditation session followed by question-answer-session. After, she gave darshans to people who were leaving during that same day. And did we have the darshans? Yes, we did It was propably the most energetic hug I’ve ever had. When it was my turn to have a hug, surprisingly I didn’t feel nervous after all that excitement and waiting. Actually I felt very calm. But afterwards, her hug left my legs shaking and a smile on my face.
I’ve been reading a book I bought in Nepal. ‘Where the mountain casts its shadow’ by Maria Coffey is about the personal costs of climbing. Book is not another great mountaineering summit or survival story. No – it examines the bond between a mountaineer and his or her closest people. It tells what it’s like to leave the people you care about all over again for an expedition and it points out how mountaineers sometimes think more highly about their climbing partners than their families. The perspective is interesting and I’ve found many ideas of the book being equivalent in travelling world as well. It would be great to share only inspiring and amazing stories of our trip here in my blog but the truth is there is not-so-nice sides in travelling as well. I would like to say some words about the personal costs that travelling has from my perspective.
When you have made the decision to leave to explore the world it feels amazing…to you! It’s your big dream coming true and you start to dream about your travel time with pink-coloured-sunglasses on. You feel nothing bad can happen to you. Almost like you’ve had some almighty powers. Those who start worrying even when you are still ‘safely’ in your homecountry, is your closest people. Many people might see you as a risk-taker who doesn’t mind about anyone but yourself. That’s partly true, travelling is truly selfish business. It is to please no-one else but you. You abandon your bonds and relationships in your homecountry just to build new ones somewhere else…once again – just to leave them behind after couple of days or weeks.
I want to explain a little bit…Every day is unique when you are travelling. You meet new people everyday and you change locations often. Friendships you build here can’t be compared to those you have built many years back home. What you try to build here when you don’t have any long-time attachments to the places where you travel, is something permanent, something familiar, something you can found safe and secure with. People who become close to you here might be a man selling breakfast to you from his food-trolley every morning, it can be your trekking guide or your hostel owner. You long for familiar experiences and people when you are travelling. Trying new things every day is emotionally a hard work.
Building friendships here is another interesting subject. I wouldn’t measure the successfullness of our trip in the means of how many things we have seen or how many countries we have been going through. More likely, I would measure it with how many real friends we have made. I don’t know really how long it takes to build trust and respect between two persons. I know you don’t build it in one day and you propably don’t build it in two days. Maybe the amount of the days spent in one place can’t be measured in the amount of different experiences. To me, time spent in one place can be felt to be enough when you’ve had the time to build a friendship.
I call them silent days; these days when you head up to a new place just after you feel that you have made friends in the place where you have stayed propably a little bit longer. In those days we don’t talk much to each other with Auli. I feel that both of us need our personal space to handle the feeling of leaving once again. Best times to me haven’t been reaching the Annapurna Base Camp or seeing the Taj Mahal. Some of the best moments I don’t share here in my blog (those moments I don’t have photographed either). In times like those you just have a strong perception of this really unique moment you are sharing with people you have met just a couple of days earlier. That’s when you notice that these experiences you wouldn’t have back home…These moments of perfection are worth the pain of leaving.
Leaving from some place feels always much worse when you are travelling. When I left Finland, I was already inside my pink-travelling-bubble. My mind was already somewhere else. I love my family and friends in Finland but have to say that saying goodbye to the people here has given me stronger emotions. I don’t know if it’s because there is the possibility that you won’t see these people again and times you share with them have been unique because of that.
I really do hate leaving and saying goodbye to people. I’m sorry having those ‘missing you’-messages and feeling really sorry too when people feel that we have abandoned them to continue our trip (and when we can’t give any guarantees if or when we are going to be back). It’s the only shitty part in this business really. We heard a great wisdom from our friend Sunny in Goa. There is no sorrys, thanks nor goodbyes in friendship. When the horrible moment of goodbye comes, there is nothing else you can do but say ‘see you’ (and hope for the best of seeing your friends once again in the future) and continue your trip.
Without leaving, there is no returning.