Koh Yao Noi

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‘The cats are very friendly here…’ we remarked as a snowy ginger cat padded its way through The Waterhouse. We were staying in Koh Yao Noi, a remote, undeveloped island in the south of Thailand, sitting in between Krabi and Phuket in Phang Nga Bay. Cats are everywhere on the island and we were joined by three or four friendly felines as we made our orientation around our accommodation and the surrounding beach. The setting was beautiful, overlooking a working fishing beach dotted with longtail boats and hundreds of crabs. The lighting was best in the early evening, I would sit on our balcony and watch the silhouettes of fisherman docking their boats in the sand after a day’s work.

Koh Yao Noi is one of the most undeveloped islands in Thailand affording a really authentic insight into the lifestyle. In addition to this, we travelled in shoulder season and during Ramadan, so other travellers were few and far between. The island is 95% Muslim and the sense of community is very apparent. We soon learnt that the land surrounding The Waterhouse was owned by the family of our host Karem; to the right his sister and to the left his cousin.

The island is compact with small roads and hardly any (if any), cars. The locals get around on mopeds and motorbikes, so we did the same. To get one, we just had to take a short walk to a moped hire place on our road and exchange 150 Baht (£3.50) and it’s all yours for 24 hours. ‘Koh Yao Noi is the only place in Thailand you can leave your key in your moped and know it will be safe’ Karem told us, and we believed him; If Thailand is the ‘land of smiles’ then Koh Yao Noi is the land of friends. Literally everywhere you go, you are welcomed with warm smiles from local people, even as you briefly pass them by on a motorbike. It doesn’t take long to feel part of the island and start to imagine yourself living here. ‘We are seeing an increasing number of foreigners set up home here’ we were told, ‘the local people have no problem with this, as long as they respect the way we live’. For a Muslim island, the way of life was refreshingly laid back, although it is advised that travellers dress modestly, there is no requirement to, and you are accepted everywhere you go.

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Sadly I did actually come off my motorbike, it seems I have a travelling curse; something always happens to make it a struggle – On my last trip to India I lost my voice entirely for the first four days. I think Karem could sense I was feeling a bit down because of my fall, and he invited us for what he called ‘fishing and a BBQ at sunset’. Intrigued me and my partner Laura agreed and met him at the pier that evening. We set off on a longtail and were sailing for about 15 minutes before they put the anchor down, we sat confused wondering why we were stopping as we appeared to be in the middle of the sea, but we followed our hosts off the boat and as we stepped into the clear, warm water we realised it was really shallow. The low tide had revealed a white sandy pathway to a secluded beach, we walked along it admiring the view and then Karem laid out a picnic blanket and candles and told us more about the unique island. We learnt that the group of bright green lights we could see in the distance, were not coming from a nearby island as we expected, but they were, in fact, enormous fishing boats catching squid. The squid come out at night as they are attracted to the moon so the large lights imitate the moon to enable them to catch them.

As it was Ramadan we sat and talked while the sun set around us until the faint sounds of prayer in the distance filled the air and we knew was time to eat. We sat there until the last of the light vanished and bolts of lightning flashed around us, revealing the silent longtail floating a few metres away.

We all climbed back into the longtail and made our way back to the pier and Karem invited us late night fishing. We were both really excited to see more of the island lifestyle and sea life, but sadly the lightening brought with it a storm so we were unable to go back out.

A few days later we had left Koh Yao Noi and moved onto Phi Phi Islands; a cluster of islands of otherworldly beauty (but unfortunately a lot more touristy). As we sat having a drink one night on the beach we saw nine or ten bright green lights in the distance; a lot brighter from Phi Phi than from Koh Yao Noi, and remembered the tranquillity and simplicity of that beautiful island and way of life.

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Rediscovering Ethiopia

Whenever I travel I realise how little I know about the world and that is exactly what inspires me to travel as much and as often as I can.

One of my first adventures on my own was a trip to Ethiopia. This was a three-month voluntary programme where I lived with a host family who didn’t speak much English and I earnt an Ethiopian wage. I was 19 at the time, and went with a group of English volunteers all under 25.

This trip was incredible and I would recommend something like this to everyone, of any age. However I do feel that due to the nature of the trip and my lack of a comparative, I drew a skewed vision of the country. As a volunteer, I spent my days working in an orphanage teaching art, drama and English to young girls. I also helped to coordinate events on things like street children, female genital mutilation, disability and HIV. Although these are all incredibly worthwhile initiatives and I truly enjoyed my time on the project, at the time it created a negative perspective of the country.

We were a group of young people, many of which had never had a full-time job or travelled abroad, and the project gave us a sense of righteousness, as though we knew better and were going to help those in need. Although we doubtlessly did help with the projects we worked on, I wish there had been more of a chance to learn of the great things of Ethiopia, the beauty, strength and spirituality of the people and the history, landscapes and wildlife, rather than such a focus on what needed to be improved.

Since I went on this trip I have travelled to Europe, America, the Caribbean and India and revisited East Africa on a trip to Kenya. I also started working in the travel industry which has taught me so much and every day I feel like I discover something fascinating about a place. It has given me such a thirst to revisit Ethiopia and see it from the perspective of a traveller rather than a volunteer. I want to talk to the people just to learn, rather than challenge their values. I feel like the country continues to teach me so much, years after I returned.

Ethiopia is a place with problems, severe poverty is very evident and there are many cultural beliefs and traditions which can be hard to digest as an outsider, but that is true of many places and it doesn’t take away the great things just because there are bad.

One of the most valuable life lessons I learned while volunteering is that every single person you meet can teach you something. This lesson came to me from a child called Lantu.

Lantu was born with a variety of physical challenges, and was taken into the orphanage age five visually impaired, severely malnourished, very small for her age and unable to walk. During the short time I spent with her I realised the incredible strength and ability she possessed. I taught her (basic) braille lessons each morning and would take her for a walk around the block with my counterpart, Sena. Lantu spoke three languages; her mother regional language, Amharic (the professional language in Ethiopia) and English, and I was teaching her to read braille in Amharic and English. She was only eight or nine years old and was able to speak fluently in three languages and learn braille in one which wasn’t her mother tongue. Everyone who came into contact with Lantu felt lifted, she brought with her a sense of hope and is one of the most inspirational people I have ever met.

Sadly a year or so after I volunteered I found out that Lantu had passed away which broke my heart. But during her short life with so many obstacles she inspired and touched so many people. She reminds me every day that when I feel there is so much in my way, that I can overcome it, and not to underestimate the abilities of anyone.

Unfortunately there is currently FCO advice against all-but-essential travel to Ethiopia, but as soon as I am able to, I hope to go back and learn more about this unique place.

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Girl on a plane

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“Is this your first time in India?”

“Yes.” I replied, “Do you live here?”
“I am actually American, but my family are from Kerala, I am here to visit some of them”.
“Sorry I have lost my voice” I breathed huskily, but there was something about her openness to talk to me that drew me to persevere with the conversation. We were travelling by plane from Delhi to Udaipur which takes just over an hour, from here I was to continue my journey into the foothills of Rajasthan to learn about the local communities.

“This is my younger sister, my other sister is sitting towards the front with her husband” her name escapes me, but the conversation which followed will stay with me for a long time. She seemed very eager to talk to me, so remembering she was American I led the conversation towards the recent election, this was also my way of determining her political stance. “I didn’t vote” she said, “but I am glad Donald Trump won”. Surprised, I took a sip of my bottled water, a gesture for her to continue. “He is anti-corruption and anti-establishment, he is a great underdog for America, an honest man who will do great things”.
“To me a white male billionaire who makes damaging remarks about women, ethnic minorities, immigrants and LGBT people, is not an underdog, in fact he is the epitome of an establishment and a system I am against”. I countered.
Now we had established our different political views, but the discussion continued, both interested in each other.

She was around 26, Indian but spoke with a soft American accent. Her approach seemed quite frantic, as though she really wanted to tell me things. She began telling me about her childhood, she had grown up in Kuwait, raised a Christian by her grandparents, she told me about how they secretly prayed in a Muslim country, something that was punishable by jail time. She told me how she grew up angry with her mother for not being there for her. Her mother was a nurse in India for the first 14 years of her life. Why she decided to tell me about herself in such detail I don’t know. Lots of people confide in me in random situations, on the train, in restaurants on the bus and I often get the remark “people always talk to you, you’re like a magnet”. But this time it felt different, it was like she was drawn to me, and like she knew she had limited time to tell me so much about herself, even when I barely said much back because of my sore throat, and even with such contrasting views on the world, she wanted to speak to me.

She said the anger she felt towards her mother had led her towards Jesus, she told me about her first ‘vision’ something she said she only told a couple of people. The ‘vision’ happened when she was 7 years old, her mother was visiting and she wanted to use the bathroom -located outside the home – in the middle of the night. The light was broken and she was scared to go alone so she asked her mother to go with her. Her mother said ‘no, stop being weak’. In the darkness she cried until a man with thornes on his head appeared with a stool, she described in great detail how he got onto the stool and fixed the light and then led her to the bathroom. The next morning her sisters and mother awoke and marvelled at the fixed light, while only she knew what had happened.

I think of myself as a spiritual person, and do not follow a religion, I take the parts of religion I feel resonate with me such as Karma, but I don’t believe in things like sin, and a set of rules. I didn’t want my opinion to influence her, probably because I felt like she needed to believe in this ‘vision’. So I feigned a neutral expression and didn’t respond to her story. I don’t believe her story, but I felt sorry for her child-like conclusion and felt it would be cruel to disagree with something she found comfort in. I saw the 7 year old child in her eyes, just wanting someone to come and look after her, and finding relief in what she told herself had happened.

She moved the conversation onto sin, and I prompted her about homosexuality, she immediately replied that this was a sin, and wrong. “Did you know that there has been a study conducted onto the minds of gay people’? She went on, “they have physiological problems, and part of their brains are damaged”. Usually I would try and educate people like this, or laugh off their ridiculousness and promptly end the conversation. But I felt a duty to listen because she had confided in me, so I let her carry on.

“You can’t be gay and be a Christian, Jesus knows the truth, there is only one truth, and this is wrong.” She went on getting wide-eyed and excited about the topic. I talked about how it has only recently been acceptable in the UK, and there are many people who have been married and had kids who have now come out as gay because they feel empowered, and how this happens around the world. I talked about how it is estimated that 1 in 4 people are gay or bisexual, and how I presumed it to be higher, because no one has been brought up to be gay, most people have been raised being told being gay is weird or wrong, whereas everyone has been brought up and told they must be straight, so the amount of people ‘coming out’ cannot be considered conditioned.

I talked about my stance, which is ‘live and let live’. She said she hoped I would find Jesus, because the people who engaged in such things or enabled it would not go to heaven, to which I responded that I didn’t believe in heaven and hell. This conversation went on for a while, where she tried to educate me into becoming homophobic, she talked about the inability to reproduce, and I explained that there was a lot more to sex than reproducing, and that there was a lot more to being a parent than just being a mother or father, something I thought she could understand based on our previous conversation. She told me that although she wouldn’t actively tell gay people how to live their lives, she wouldn’t want to befriend them or talk to them.

We talked about our travels, she had travelled a lot which surprised me for someone so closed minded. It reaffirmed her child-like ways, to just believe what she was told, an obedience very different to my own British culture, where (most of us) question what we are told at school or on the news, and we rebel against things which control or oppress. I told her about volunteering work I had done in Ethiopia working on gender equality and some other places I had been.

She opened up more about her life and showed me a picture of her priest, someone she saw as a father figure, and told me about her school life and how she struggled to make friends with people.

As we neared the end of the flight, she said that she had really enjoyed getting to know me and would love to see me again. “I really hope you find Jesus” she reiterated. I scrolled through my phone and found a photograph of a beautiful blonde woman, smiling on the escalator in London underground. “I have something to tell you about myself”. I said.
She looked intrigued.

“I am in a relationship with this woman, and have been for almost two years”. I said plainly.

“Oh my god” she shrieked and put her hands over her mouth. “I am so embarrassed”.
“Don’t be” I said. “I just want you to learn from this, I am someone who spreads love and equality in the world, I open my mind to learn about other people, I travel, I have a great job, and I am in love with a woman.”

She paused, then put her hand on my knee, the first physical contact we had the entire journey. “I feel like it is a going to be a rough landing, we may all need to hold hands”. I felt like this was her way of apologising and symbolising her acceptance of my life choice.

I thought this journey was so interesting, because she started the conversation trying to enlighten me, but by hardly saying anything, it was me educating her.

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