Travel – The Beginning of my Year Abroad

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The Beginning of my Year Abroad

Living in a new country and having to speak a foreign language for the first time will obviously cause some problems. It is especially hard if you have none of your usual support system of friends and family around you (a situation in which I have found myself). The thing that shocked me the most when I first arrived in this fine country ― the same one that gave the world the calculator and Simone de Beauvoir ― was that France has all the vapid reality tv shows that we do. Now don’t get me wrong, I admit I enjoy a bit of reality tv escapism myself, it’s just that I had always thought that it was a particularly British and American phenomenon. But no, Big Brother exists here too, under the cunning alias Secret Story, and it is not a lone example. There is ‘Les Ch’tis à Hollywood’ which is essentially Jersey/Geordie Shore. It was very disconcerting to learn that there are French versions of Mike ‘the Situation’ Sorrentino in the world.


Once I got over my initial speechlessness from the shock that not everyone in France is Serge Gainsbourg, I had to deal with the embarrassment of trying to properly express myself in French. Here’s a tip when living abroad: don’t get into an awkward situation that you are unable to properly explain your way out of. I learnt this on my first day as an English teaching assistant in a high school. I was in a meeting with one of my new teacher colleagues and had taken out my phone to note the number of the school secretary, forgetting that I had thought it was hilarious to put an old picture of my boyfriend looking all fresh-faced and pre-pubescent as my phone wallpaper. There was an awkward moment of silence while I tried to think of how to explain the young boy staring up at us from my phone without getting myself fired and put on some kind of police register before the end of my first day.


I’ve now realised that awkward silences are just something you have to get used to when living abroad, because there are going to be lots of them. For instance, I can hold a conversation in French under the correct conditions, that is: when there is only one other person present, they are asking me direct questions, they are speaking more slowly than usual and I’ve had a couple of drinks, but I’m not hammered. Unsurprisingly, these specific conditions aren’t the norm in social interactions, making it much more difficult for me to speak to people. Therefore, surrounded by a group of drunk French people speaking to each other so fast it’s like words are going out of fashion, it’s impossible to join in the conversation. All my energy is focused on merely understanding everything that is said. It makes me feel awkward and a bit creepy sitting there in silence, moving my head back and forth to follow whoever is speaking, like some deranged nodding Churchill dog. It feels especially awkward to me since, in Britain more so than in France, it is excruciating to have a moment’s silence in the conversation. When I first encountered an awkward silence here and was unable to fill it with the usual superfluous chitchat about weather that we Brits have stored up in our heads for a rainy day (pun intended), I felt like I was letting myself, the queen and everyone else in the conversation down.

Recently though I’ve been thinking that these awkward moments have been good for me; I’m beginning to accept silences and not feel like it is my duty to fill them. At the end of my first month here I may not have learnt how to speak French properly yet, but I’ve learnt that sometimes I don’t need to say anything at all and it’s really not that bad.
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Words and photographs by Anna Reid

Continue Reading Competition – Win a Backpacking Holiday

Gap Year Image GUM, a site which describes itself as ‘created by backpackers, for backpackers,’ is launching a competition with a pretty impressive travel prize. You have until 13th December to take a great backpacker picture for the first round of the creative competition:



Wanted: 3 Courageous, Crazy and Creative Backpackers to Explore the Gold Coast, the world’s authority on gap years, and Gold Coast Tourism, have launched the I’m a Backpacker… Get Me in There! competitionfor a second year. Three finalists will be chosen to fly out to Australia in February 2014 to take part in the Walkabout Trials. The winner will be crowned King/Queen of the Gold Coast 2014.


The Walkabout Trials will involve competitive Instagramming, tweeting, writing and filming around over 15 key sites around the Gold Coast, including the Hinterland, Burleigh Heads, Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, Dreamworld and the world-famous Gold Coast beaches. The chosen backpackers will be required to learn how to paddleboard, surf, snorkel with turtles and go skyclimbing in order to win the daily prizes. These include a ride in a stunt plane, a Jet Ski trip and a sky dive.


To enter competitors must upload their best #imabackpacker photo to the Facebook app by 10am Friday 29th November. The top 12, judged by and Gold Coast Tourism on ‘creativity, courage, and/or a touch of craziness’ will then be invited to create a video explaining why they love backpacking to apply for one of the three spaces in the Walkabout Trials. The video must be uploaded to YouTube by 4pm Friday 13th December.


There will be three winners; one for the most popular video, one for the most creative and a final one for the toughest backpacker, as proven by the one-minute video. The three finalists will be announced after Friday 20th December and all will go to the Gold Coast to compete.


Flights, accommodation and meals in the Gold Coast are included, as well as all the activities. Backpackers must be willing to report back through their awesome photography, writing and video skills. The most resourceful and communicative backpacker will win the coveted King/Queen of the Gold Coast Award.


Victoria Philpott,’s Social Media Manager, said: “This is a really exciting opportunity for any backpackers with an interest in social media and multimedia. It’s going to be a full-on week of exploration and reportage – we really want to show off what else there is to do on the Gold Coast apart from the world-famous Surfer’s Paradise. The three finalists will be in for a memorable and incredible week.”


Michael Thurston, Gold Coast Tourism’s International Marketing Manager, said: “With more attractions than any other destination in the southern hemisphere, endless natural beauty and a reputation for being famous for fun we believe that the Gold Coast is the ultimate gap year destination. The Gold Coast offers 50 miles of unspoilt coastline and beaches, a spectacular hinterland and over 300 days of sunshine to enjoy it all. When combined with the city’s famed surf culture, laid back vibe and nightlife what else could a backpacker want? This competition showcases all of these qualities and offers the winner the trip of a lifetime.”

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The Playground

Aida is a refugee camp in Palestine, a mere ten minutes from Bethlehem. What it is also close to is Al’ Quds, which in Arabic means ‘Jerusalem’. This is where twenty-three international volunteers and I had been selected to work in a summer volunteer programme, run by the Lajee centre. Its inhabitants live within the walking distance of their Holy City and yet they have been forbidden to travel there by the Israeli forces. There are refugees from thirty-four villages, which are now occupied land. The road to Aida has a wall painted with images from each of these places. The first time we walked by the memorial, I found the paintings beautiful but once it sunk in that they represent the homes of Aida’s residents, homes, which don’t exist anymore, I found them harder to look at with each passing day.


During our stay we worked and lived with Palestinian volunteers from Aida who helped us learn and have fun at the same time. They taught us how to dance Dabke, which terrified us after watching the amazing way the experienced Dabkers do it! It was okay though; they let us learn the easy moves. They also taught us Arabic, or at least they tried. I certainly was not very good at it, no matter how hard I practiced, but at least I mastered ‘Marhaba!’ which means ‘Hello.’ We were treated to home cooked meals every day, usually by one of the mothers of the volunteers, sometimes we even got chips or spaghetti to make us feel at home. It was as though we were one big family; we danced together, ate together and even napped together. Our evenings were like huge parties. The days, on the other hand, were hard and long. We went to lectures from various organisations who shared their experiences of the conflict and how they now work within it to help the affected people. We heard from medical personnel, people who knew about education and even from the government in regards to the treatment of prisoners.


One thing which I have not been able to forget since I arrived back, though, was the playground at the Lajee Centre. It’s a place where children from the refugee camp can come to play, read, or take classes in dance and art. It is a safe place where children get to be children. Our role was to clear up the ground, take away the rocks so that eventually they could form part of the wall around the playground. Generally helping out with the upkeep of the Centre proved difficult at times; even menial tasks like watering the plants had a new dimension to it since it was common knowledge the water flow was controlled from Israel. We weren’t only responsible for looking after the actual playground though; we also got to help out with the kids. Of course the language barrier was a little difficult to overcome, but with the help of our Palestinian friends we managed to get to know some of them pretty well. Overall, this playground was a place for us to give something to these children, teach them our games but mostly just play with them and have fun.


There is something I feel is very important to share about this playground. I did not notice it immediately, but as soon as I did, I could not un-notice it no matter how hard I tried. Aida lies next to the wall, which separates Palestine from Israeli-occupied territory. Periodically along this wall, you can see army watchtowers. The wall is huge, around eight feet high, and the towers just add to its terrifying presence. Three of those watch towers could see straight into the playground. One day I was taking photographs of the football games, when I noticed one of them over the top of the field. After that I realised there was another one behind the swing set. Soon I found myself focussing on these towers when we were supposed to be playing with the kids. I never once saw a child glance at them but they are used to it by now, for me though this was something sinister and wrong. The very idea that Israel’s army looms over the children like that in their place of peace and fun really angered me.



(left-click for an enlarged version of photos)


The whole of Aida camp is under surveillance and not far from the main entrance into Aida is the gate which the Israeli army come through whenever they go into the camp. The Lajee centre and the playground sit right between these two spots. The children, as well as the adults and the elderly of Aida live never really knowing if the army is going to come through today, or not. The camp as well as Lajee has seen plenty of interventions and the local photographer, who was shot in the face with a rubber bullet not long before our arrival in Palestine, caught footage of these attacks.




Within half an hour of being home, I heard news that an eleven-year-old boy from Aida had been shot in the head with non-lethal ammunition. After a few stitches he was fine, but other children have not been so lucky. Lajee’s security cameras captured footage of a child being shot dead in front of the centre. Children aged twelve can be arrested by the Israeli Armed Forces and held in solitary confinement. Many of those who we played with were much younger than that, but this was a glimpse of their future if no change takes place. I look at the pictures of myself pushing little girls on swings, or of my friend helping kids to draw cats and all I can see now are the Watchtowers; with their eyes on the playground, and the children who will grow up to be their next targets.





The gate to Aida bears the Lock and Key of Return. This symbolises the return of Palestine as a country and Palestinians to their homes. It is a powerful symbol and one, which shows that Palestine has not given up. Its countrymen are very much determined to gain back their land, even if their homes are no longer a part of it. I am proud to have worked with such wonderful and inspirational people, and I look forward to the day when I can return to Palestine and help them tear that wall down, away from the playground. I doubt even then, though, that the image of the Watchtower and the playground will ever leave my mind. A part of me hopes it never does.


words by Robyn Lee

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Hold Your Holidays!


It’s that time of year again when the only thing to get us through the next few months of dire weather and exams is the promise of adventures to sunny horizons. But for those who dare to venture beyond Europe to less developed countries, there are things to consider that often we’d rather not think about. When tourists opt to visit countries experiencing political unrest, tyranny and extreme poverty, do they bear any responsibility for contributing to and legitimising questionable regimes?

Lupine Travel is one of many tour operators offering trips to North Korea, with a four-day visit costing £499. Their website makes no attempt to gloss over the reputation of the isolated state. Instead, it uses it as a selling point, “the Secret State. The Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea. Whatever you wish to call it, it is a place like no other, completely shut off from the outside world since 1953.” Considering the extreme poverty that North Koreans face and the government’s recent nuclear testing, referencing a country’s political status to sell holidays seems rather unsavoury. While it may not be our duty to tackle irresponsible governments, tourists who visit North Korea can be seen to be condoning Kim Jong-Un’s rule. It seems impossible to visit a country without benefitting its government financially. What’s to stop money spent by tourists being used to finance missile experiments and other questionable projects? The revenue that tourists generate in North Korea could surely be better spent by charities seeking to help North Korean refugees. The same can be said of any country that faces tyranny or poverty.

On the other hand, it’s possible that the money brought in by tourists could help to mitigate the effects of economic sanctions on North Korean citizens. In a country that does not rely on tourism economically, perhaps it is only the people who suffer, rather than the ruling elites who live luxuriously despite being responsible for North Korea’s political isolation. Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has encouraged foreigners to travel to Burma for this reason, saying that they can choose to go about their trip in the right way, supporting ordinary citizens and not the government that oppresses them.

This poses the question of how to travel ethically – a relatively recent trend in tourism. Go Differently, an ethical travel company, cites small things such as not buying objects made from endangered plants or animal shell, and making the effort to support locally produced goods, as vital to ethical tourism. Other issues of importance include declining to ride poorly treated elephants or pet drugged tigers in Thailand. Choosing tours led by locals when you’re out there, as well as using homestays or smaller hotels are further steps in the right direction.

On a larger scale however, this might not be enough. There have been recent claims by The Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice that some attractions around the country are linked financially or politically to those allegedly involved in violations of human rights. This means that a visit to a National Park may not be as innocent as expected. Local people are often displaced so that their land can be used for tourism. This has been the case most recently in Tanzania, where last month the Minister of Tourism announced the opening of a “wildlife corridor” – a 1500 square metre land grab that will displace thousands of Maasai people and deprive them of essential grazing land and water for their cattle. Problems like these are highlighted by the charity Tourism Concern, which campaigns for “a world free from exploitation in which all parties involved in tourism benefit equally.” Not only do they raise money and awareness of their cause, they specifically target ministers in less-developed countries where unregulated tourism leads to problems for local people, such as the loss of access to clean water.

It seems somewhat unfair to say that just by visiting a place one supports the actions of hostile regimes. It’s fair to say that our own government does not do enough to discourage foreign powers from oppressing citizens. Returning to the example of North Korea, there is also the possibility that for those living in states that rely on censorship to maintain control, tourism provides a rare opportunity to make contact (however minor) with the outside world. Perhaps the biggest change we can make is to just pause and think, and make the effort to change the small things that we support while abroad. In particular, we can plan trips personally rather than travelling in organised groups. A good step is also to pay for things in the foreign country instead of through a travel agent at home.

The real problem for those who want to avoid unethical travel could even be before you leave home – air travel. The effects of the decision to take long-haul flights are far easier to gauge than attempts to make small changes in foreign countries. What can help is increased information about potentially unethical aspects of travelling. By all means go but do your homework and consider the consequences of your actions whilst there.

Henrietta Eagle-Wilsher

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Here In my Car

There’s been an unfamiliar new addition to my university life throughout this All-American year; the car. The open road has long characterised the values and soul of the states. The freedom to “take off”, to get in a self contained machine and drive, to roll the windows down, in complete control of the interior, and to reach out into the warm breeze, almost touching the tumble weeds following the hot tires down the desert highway.


The journey is not quite so romantic and picturesque when taken around a Greek style, doll-house like campus, but the car – a machine almost entirely cut out of my student life in Glasgow – has suddenly merged lanes with my life. This was never more evident than last week with the coming of the ultimate road-trip holiday; spring break. Running, open-eyed in my new blue florescent ‘sneakers’ – as I often do to spy on the social wildlife and have a nosy at the tree-lined frat houses – the streets were lined with boys in khaki shorts, holding crates of Bud lights and Daddy’s credit card, girls in short summer dresses around their arms. They were all packing up their oversized pick-up trucks and four wheel drives. Cars so big they towered over my ever slowing pace as I gazed in awe and slight terror at these gas-guzzling machines all heading to the beach.

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Gone Wild

862012_10151582617548949_482655311_nSitting in a library which is becoming both worryingly and quite pleasantly more and more like a home to me than anywhere else, I am alerted to the terrible irony of what I’m doing. Here I am, all the way across the pond, in a place that only ever brings to mind the words “Republican” and “fried” – both of which I never cease to be brought to both unashamed laughter and tears by – reading Kingsly Amis’ 1954 novel “Lucky Jim”. I have come all this way to take a class in modern English literature. Not just modern English literature, but to read a novel that directly critiques the British academic and intellectual structuring of UK universities. A structure that I have just left in search of bigger fish to fry –no pun intended.  Of course, I’m exercising a little sarcasm here. Finding an outlet for it here has proved rather difficult. It usually lands on some pale faced sorority girl with perfectly pruned blonde locks in symmetrical layers, who turns away from me looking unamused and usually slightly offended by the comments I have just made.

It’s not all that bad, that I actually have to read books written by English authors, authors who make up the canon of some of our more praise-worthy exports to the rest of the world. And it’s not all that bad, because alongside my disgruntlement of no longer being enclosed by my own case study of Amis’ novel, I have been taking a class entitled simply “Into the Wild”.

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Traveling the Trans-Siberian Railway

The Trans Siberian Railway spans the largest land mass on Earth, officially starting in Moscow and finishing in either Vladivostok, Russia’s most eastern city, or in Beijing by passing south through Mongolia via the Trans Mongolian line. Intrigued by the possibility of travelling from central Europe to North-Eastern China solely by land, we chose the latter.

After a few days in Berlin it was time to board our train to St. Petersburg. As we had bought our tickets through DB Bahn we made the mistake of presuming that our train would be German and thus, to some extent, English speaking. However the “Vash Passport!” demand that greeted us as we boarded the train told a different story.We quickly identified the speaker as our provodnitsa, the term for the infamously strict female train attendants, and waited for the journey to start. But the consequences of our linguistic presumptions soon posed a large problem. As it was a 36-hour journey we had naively presumed there would be some way to buy food on board the train. And that may have been the case, but despite our Russian phrase book and best attempts at body language (something not really understood in Russia) the fact that it was an exclusively Russian speaking train meant we never found out. Thankfully we had brought some basic supplies with us but we still arrived in St. Petersburg a day and a half later very tired and somewhat malnourished.

A Remote Grassland Buddist Monastry in Mongolia
A Remote Grassland Buddist Monastry in Mongolia

The first time you arrive in Russia it is a strange experience. As a westerner, the familiar faces of the Russian people are juxtaposed with the completely unfamiliar language, alphabet and culture – it is like you have stumbled upon a lost world or a parallel universe. Equally, the first night in Russia is also one to remember. Or not, as the case will most likely be. After getting ushered out of our hostel by an eager and extremely friendly staff member, the power of the Russian shot measurement was unleashed, and once the initial hit of the famous soviet juice was eased by a tactical slice of lemon, one shot soon became somewhere well above ten. Normally spontaneous night outs are relatively harmless, but spending my first night in St. Petersburg blind drunk was not the safest choice and it was only by some form of divine intervention that we woke up safely in our hostel the next morning. As you can imagine the next day’s plans were not quite as punctual as we had hoped but the glory of St. Petersburg, often referred to as the “Venice of the North”, is not one to be missed and we wandered the lengthy Nevsky Prospect and enjoyed the fantastic architecture for the next couple of days.

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Christo Geoghegan: Behind the Lens

Why is traveling so alluring? Perhaps it’s the excitement of departing from the routine of our daily lives,  or of experiencing things previously unimagined; it’s something we all dream about at one point or another. With globalisation propelled to the extent that a journey to the ends of the Earth is not only affordable, but mostly achievable in under a day by plane, the idea of the truly remote seems to be a myth of the past. London based photographer and filmmaker Christo Geoghegan spoke to GUM about what travel means to him, and how he goes about capturing the lives of those who live in some of the last isolated places on Earth.


  • What prompted you to become a travel photographer, any specific instance where you felt you knew this was the thing for you?

I wouldn’t necessarily class myself as a travel photographer. Whilst almost all the work I do is indeed abroad, the basis of the work isn’t about the notion of travel. I’m not trying to capture the essence of a country, but document a particular group of people living within it. I spend around 10 months to a year researching and organising a story I’m working on, so it’s very much less about travelling around and photographing the country as a whole. At the moment, I’m very much dedicating my work on communities that are marginalised in some way, or those whose way of life is under threat.
The reason why I choose to work further away from home is not because I am in search of the exotic other, but because I feel that an outsiders perspective, without internal bias, allows me to document and photograph in a more well rounded manner.

  • You’re on your way to Mongolia on Thursday to continue your project on the Kazakh nomads, what made you decide to return?

Last time I went to visit the Kazakhs in Western Mongolia, I was only there for a month. It gave me a decent amount of time to give an outsiders account of their way of life, but still was only enough time to scratch the surface. I’m hoping my second visit will be able to start doing just that. I want to be able to tell more personal stories from the nomadic way of life, rather than the brief overview I managed to photograph last time. I’m also hoping to start work on a short film out there. So this is the second of many visits to come!

  • What has been your favourite experience whilst traveling with the nomads, and anything particular that you’ve learnt?

Without a doubt the sheer kindness I’m greeted with every day. I found from travelling a lot and from working all over the world, that those with the least, are willing to share the most. I would travel to the far corners of the Kazakh state of Mongolia and would always be ushered into houses, thrust a large meal in front of my face, and poured an endless flow of tea. That sense of community and willingness to help strangers is just something that’s been lost in the West; everyone is so guarded.

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USA Election Day

Reflecting on election time it’s evident that, unlike the reserved and polite nature of British politics, people are shamelessly bias and extreme here. The campus pavements were scrawled with chalk. No longer did I walk on grey concrete to class, but had to tip toe over the red and blue screaming declarations of pro life and Christian values. The sheer volume of testimonies and lack of rain made the streets look like a carnival. You could turn on the radio and listen to a man tell you everything that was ever wrong with having a ‘Muslim’ and ‘immigrant’ run the country and how Romney is the next best thing since sliced bread. Like the metaphor itself, there’s little evidence to prove any of this true. But in an overwhelmingly Republican state, no one asked any questions.

There’s a shocking state of passivity brought on by a system which makes their own Presidential candidates into the stars of a reality TV show. They go on to join the celebrity culture and become participants in a sort of game show where the prize is America itself, along with all the people who refused to vote because neither candidate directly appealed to them. Despite the giant crater of ideological difference between the candidates, some people here seemed to be waiting for a President who would come and knock on their door with a pen and paper and tailor make a bullet point plan of exactly how they want their country run.

The scale of this election seemed sometimes to surpass the Republican South until on Wednesday morning the quad was filled with sore faces. The quickening understanding of the impact of this choice for America’s direction had sunk in.
It’s possibly because America has the tendency to make everything into entertainment and this election appeared so tight when, in reality, the outcome was much less of a close call.

It’s this that makes some voters stay in their armchairs with a root beer, watching a Presidential debate which is televised alongside a distracting twitter feed commenting on the comic choice of the candidates ties. Despite the ‘hard talk’ and ‘swing states’, the election is as much about television and media spinners as it is about Iran and energy independence. Nevertheless, four more years have now been decided and America is on the mend.

Words: Lucy Cheseldine

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Eco-Flying: Is flying worth the cost?

Today, ideas about environmentalism are nothing ground-breaking or unheard of. They’ve been adopted into our mind-set of political and social consciousness to the point that every other advert appeals to our sensibility of ‘green living’.  While many of us will prescribe to a vague environmental principle, we still aren’t questioning the most environmentally harmful decision we make: flying.

Aviation is a growing industry and according to governmental advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, the fastest growing source of CO2 emissions in the country. Both current projects and plans for airport expansion across the UK are a very real threat to aims to meet reduced carbon targets by 2050. Pitched as an economic solution, BAA’s recent advertising campaign claimed that ‘The road to economic recovery isn’t a road, it’s a flightpath’. Thus, airport expansion appears to be favoured and financially backed by policy makers: Boris Johnson’s proposal to develop an airport on the Thames Estuary is estimated to cost £50 billion and plans to accommodate 150 million passengers per year. While this may be one of the most far-fetched proposals on the table, the list of UK airports undergoing and potentially embarking on expansion is lengthy.

Short-haul flying (anything under three hours) bears the weight of responsibility for much of the increase in demand. Virgin have announced their new domestic flights from London to Manchester to be the first of many routes, keeping up competition with BA. The majority of fuel is burnt during take-offs and landings, meaning that short haul flights are even more disproportionate in terms of fuel to distance and more ridiculous compared to emission levels of travel alternatives.  Domestic flying is ten times as carbon intensive as train use before we even consider the difference in altitude.

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A night In New Orleans

And it was just like the movies…

New Orleans, Nola, the big easy. You can call it what you will. In the end, this city is anything you want it to be. After a few gin fizzes I was ready to believe I had waltzed straight into the thirties. The rest is a spinning whirlpool of flashing lights, a French man, and hotel lobbies.

The city is built on stories. Unfortunately, the jazz is a myth. If you’re looking for music New Orleans has little to offer. But that was pushed to the back of my mind as soon as I found the casino. I wandered around for hours watching the dark, serious faces shoving bills into neon machines, the fat polo shirted men who could barely move their arm to pick up their winnings. It was all fun and games until I stopped to listen to the repetitive background music and began to notice the constant surveillance. So I moved on.

We caught an arts festival, this city is a constant source of entertainment. The gallery was full of waistcoats and expensive shoes. As I stood looking at a painting of the devil running down a street holding a bottle of liquor and a bag of money, a drunk fifty-looking woman stumbled toward me. ‘You can find him here honey’, she said, ‘he’s everywhere in this city’. She was right of course, but as long as you don’t outstay your welcome, it’s easy enough to avoid a serious encounter.

Later we joined the tail end of a marching band which had stopped the traffic, put on our blue shiny beads and headed off to a few bars… At the hostel the next morning, it was story time again. The Australians had ridden around town with the locals, taking pictures with a gun. The Belgians had snuck into a penthouse to watch the sunrise, performing for the security guard. The French had woken up in a parking lot at 9am trying to piece the night back together. And I sat wondering who had driven me home. I’m pretty sure he was Mexican.

The truth is, no one here could care less.

Words: Lucy Cheseldine

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Alabama Here I Am

After a month of American infestation, stars and stripes surrounding me like proud hornets, I looked down at my feet and, thankfully, wasn’t wearing cowboy boots yet. But this is Alabama, and anything could happen. Literally anything. Just yesterday did I see a woman carrying a red cup chalice in the street, a super-red cup if you like. She herself had taken time out of her day in order to stick the stand of a candle-holder onto the bottom of her red cup to make it bigger and better than everyone elses. They’re all about the extremes here. Extreme hygiene for example, in the local supermarket I couldn’t get through the door without first being prompted to wipe down my trolley with specially designed ‘trolley-wipes’. I went to the pharmacy and they had plastic bags designed purposefully to hold your wet brolly. This is a nation paying attention to the most absurd of details. As my Grandma warned me before I set off, ‘They’re a nation of eternal washers, just remember that. I don’t want you coming back….’ She was right.

Perhaps this farcical attention to detail is part of the South’s way of ignoring the rather glaring vacuum of emptiness here, a hole that back in Glasgow was filled with the beautiful sentiment of acceptance. Alabama University houses one of the biggest Frat and Sorority communities in the whole of America.The campus is filled with khaki shorts and boat shoes. But I don’t see any fishing. Instead, you can smell the money and the Father’s who are have recently become honorary members of country clubs and the girls who put on fake British accents in order to be picked for social success. They weren’t as good as mine. Social elitism is unmissable. It’s like stepping back into a time I didn’t particularly want to remember existed. But it’s still going on. They call them the ‘greeks’, perhaps attempting to create some near classical culture to make up for the lack of their own.

You can find a rabbit hole to fall down though. The thrift stores and twenty-four hours diners draw out some of the more cinematic scenes of America. Cheap clothes and waffle houses are filled with people living on the outskirts of life, nights filled with game-show wacthing and days of manual labour.I witnessed the midnight Wal-Mart crowd with their stained t-shirts and burnt-out cars. This is a world away from the green college, tinted with the façade of legacy. It’s a university funded almost entirely by football. They have the best college team in the country and for home-games the town is over-run by football-fuelled celebrations and over-sized, processed hotdogs.

As I was floating lazily in the Black warrior river one night, surrounded by questionable pond-life I thought to myself, it’s no acid-washed Glasgow  but what more does the American dream promise  to offer. And after all, that’s what seduced me into romancing with the capital of the world.

Words: Lucy Cheseldine



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The Land of a Million Elephants


Laos, the land of a million elephants, is a must see when exploring  South East Asia. Lush jungle, misty mountains and a deep engrained Buddhist culture are few of the attractions to Laos which has become a hub for backpackers trying to escape the tourist ridden Thailand.

Once in South East Asia, getting to Laos is relatively easy.  A popular route into Laos is to cross the Mekong River at Chaing Khong on the North-East Thai border and travel into the heart of Laos via the “slow boat”. This boat is, literally slow, taking two days with an overnight stop at a small village until eventually arriving at the beautiful city of Luang Prabang.

Bearing in mind this involves sitting on wooden benches for 8 hours a day, surrounded by backpackers and locals, in a tiny narrow boat, this journey can be painful yet, is not to be missed. The scenery when traveling down the Mekong River is stunning with jungle, mountains and the odd village made of palms and bamboo, framing the pathway to your destination.

The first overnight stop the boat takes is Pak Peng, a small, relaxed harbor village that is extremely unaffected by time. Watching the sunset with the locals whilst trying to swallow the local moonshine alcohol that is freely offered around is something of an experience, but well needed to rid those sea legs. Don’t however get too eager with the prospect of free alcohol – the locals may be able to glug away but one sip of the lighter fuel like liquid and your throat will burn for days…

After a drunken nights sleep and another 8-hour day back on the boat, you will arrive in Luang Prabang.  Once here, a crowd of excitable locals will greet you competing for your custom and the bargaining for a cheap room commences.

The efforts you will go to will be ridiculous, often bargaining over 20p as the backpacker purse strings grow ever tighter. A room for £1 to £2 is however common and means all the more to spend at Luang Prabang’s romantic night market.

The city of Luang Prabang itself is influenced by its French colonialist occupation, it’s traditional Buddhist culture, and Laos’ communist government. The upside to this is that Luang Prabang is a vibrant city that has managed to retain its traditional influences. Even better is the French cuisine, a happy necessity after living off noodle and rice for months on end. Once here, relax, wander around the numerous temples and treat yourself to a few bottles of the legendary beerlao. If you’re feeling really enthusiastic, you can also attempt to wake up at dawn to take part in the Morning Alms Giving procession. This involves kneeling in the street with the locals and offering food to the monks that pass by; a tiring but magical experience.

Moving on from Luang Prabang, you can travel onto more idyllic spots off the tourist trail or like every other backpacker, head to the grossly tourist spot that is Vang Vieng. The bus journey here is painfully slow and the roads will make your stomach turn but the scenery on the way is well worth seeing. Vang Vieng itself is nestled in a beautiful green landscape with the river on its doorstep, framed by vast limestone mountains. The town is however awfully affected by alcohol seeking travelers and a room in one of the quest houses on the river is a more recommended destination for a nights sleep.

The main attraction here, second to caving, is “tubing”; an alcohol fuelled bender where inflatable rubber rings are rented and you are dropped off at a string of bars by the river. Here, rope swings, slides, and trapezes throw you into the river and as you float down, the locals pull you in to experience their free shots and buckets of alcohol. If you’re after a mud fight, a few bevies and a very drunken, often dangerous, swim down the river, this is the place to be.

You can do this for a couple of days but soon enough your liver will yell for a rest and its time to travel to the capital Vientiane. Unlike Bangkok, Vientiane is a calming and relaxed capital that is a welcome change after one too many intoxicated nights in Vang Vieng. Here there is an opportunity to see the local temples, laze in one of the many cafes, and make some last minute buys at the morning market.

When traveling in Laos, it must be remembered that communism is prevalent and in some areas a curfew must be abided by. Do your reading before you go and be sure to avoid political events. You should be somewhat vigilant, as cases of civil unrest, armed attacks and bombings have occurred in the past. Especially in certain spots such at Route 13 from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, a highway that is known to be especially prone to bandits.

This aside, Laos is an extremely diverse country and whether you want to experience a different culture, trek, cave, venture into remote provinces or just get intoxicated with fellow backpackers, Laos is a perfect destination. The country is responding to tourism and as a result, becoming ever more visited and expensive but this is exactly why it is such a perfect place to visit now.

Just avoid the wet season, get some Laos kip and get traveling!


An overnight sleeper train is the easiest way to get to Bangkok but flights can be taken to other countries from here. How recommendable it is to fly with Laos airlines is debatable. The planes are said to be more like flying cars and not all too safe to fly with. Based on price and time however, they are often a popular choice.

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