Following a Sandinista… literally, not politically.

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There are few things more surreal than a tour of a revolutionary spot. A visual representation of change and the culmination of the struggle to implement it always seems to evoke a lot of emotion. Add to this a tour guide who had taken part in the revolution itself and you’ve got one fascinating experience.

This wasn’t the first time I’d found myself in this situation. When in Vietnam, a former member of the Vietcong had shown myself and some friends around his restaurant- an establishment used to plan the Tet Offensive. With a lot of knowledge and the first hand experience to match, our guide provided one of the most insightful tours I’ve ever been on.

It’s safe to say then that I find tours of this nature hugely engrossing, and so when the opportunity arose again during my time in Nicaragua, I jumped at the chance.

Outside of the revolutionary museum, Leon.

I was in León, Eastern Nicaragua, when I came face to face with a former Sandinista.

Admittedly I knew very little about the Sandinistas. ‘The Clash’ album ‘Sandinista!’ from 1980, whose title paid homage to the party, had taught me the name. The rest of my knowledge came largely from watching an Anthony Bourdain episode on Netflix. I was keen to find out more about this small Central American nation.

In a day packed with sightseeing, I decided to finish it off by visiting the revolutionary museum. I initially thought it would be a wind down to a hectic day, but as soon as I arrived, I could tell this would be the highlight.

A group of five of us sluggishly walked up the steps to the museum to be greeted by a Nicaraguan chap who spoke absolutely no English. With the five us speaking Spanish very sparingly, this looked like a major issue. Luckily, down to a a set of amazing hand gestures, sound effects and the wonder app that is Duolingo, we were able to get through the whole tour and understand the majority of what was going on.

Our guide himself!

Our guide himself

With a phobia of heights, the tour got off to a very shaky start for me. Our guide explained that the building was actually the town hall before the revolution and has now been converted into a museum. We at first bypassed the exhibits to go straight to the roof where a series of rickety panels awaited us. Without hesitation, he stepped out and urged us to follow. With a wince and a grimace I reluctantly followed onto a roof that felt as if it was going to crumble at my feet. Enough was enough and I thought it was best to get myself firmly back on the ground.

Staircase of the old town hall/museum

The tour proper now began. We were led routinely through the building, stopping off at spots of importance to both the struggle in the city and to our guide himself. One of particular note was a side room where the walls were covered in bullet holes and blood stains remained visible. Here, our former revolutionary turned cicerone revealed to us that he had been shooting into this room from a spot across the square. His words, and his gestures towards the location he had been firing from, dramatically added to the realism and emphasised just how much this peaceful little tourist spot has changed from it’s turbulent past.

Bloodstains still on the walls

Following this was the exhibition stage, where photographs of the events and poignant reminders of them painted a picture of a Nicaragua that I was not met by. This was the Leon of the past, a city in the midst of a struggle, and one vastly different to the place just beyond the doors of the museum.

Our guide once again relived past events by picking up a couple of grenade launchers and demonstrating how and where they were used. At first I thought the hands on approach was down in part to his lack of English, but in retro spect I think he was just genuinely passionate about what he was explaining. He wanted us to understand the realities of the struggle: the weapons, the noises, the sights. His enthusiasm was second to none.

Mimicking the firing of an old grenade launcher

We’d now come to the final part of the tour in the courtyard. Here we were greeted by a mural with all the faces of the major revolutionaries within the city and a list of the names of the people killed in the struggle. Our guide told us there were ten of his friends upon that list. Equally as potent was the mural opposite, that contained 12 hand prints with initials attached to them. These were tourists in the country at the time of the revolution, who went back home and told the world about what was happening in Nicaragua. This got me thinking a lot about how I would react in such circumstances being a tourist abroad myself. Nothing but admiration for these people.

Our guide next to the handprints of tourists

A firm shake of the hand and my Sandinista-led tour was done. A combination of authenticity and the sheer unexpectedness of meeting an actual revolutionary had resulted in another museum experience unlike any other. A must do for anyone visiting Leon!

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‘Chicken Bus’ Stop, Antigua, Guatemala

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I’d heard a lot about the famous chicken buses of Guatemala but to see them up close and personal was too good an opportunity not to capture. They are beastly. Hopefully in my remaining days in this fine country I can take a ride on one for myself, but for now, I’ll just marvel at their size and artwork!

The Source of the River Nile, Jinja, Uganda.

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Inspired by Clarkson, May and Hammond’s quest to find the source of the River Nile in the Top Gear Africa Special, I arrived in Jinja, Uganda with a similar motive behind me. Though my route wasn’t quite as off the beaten track as this famous trio’s was, the boat ride allowed me to capture this image, showing the point in which the various sources of the Nile meet at one singular spot – a great opportunity for a photo and, of course, a beer!

A Weekend at Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda

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When you think of Africa, what springs to mind? Just give it a quick google image search and see what comes up. Safaris? Wildlife? Picturesque landscapes by any chance? The odd tyrannical regime aside, Africa is perhaps best known for all these things and over the past weekend I was fortunate enough to see why.

I was in the largest of Uganda’s ten national parks, Murchison Falls National Park, in the North-West of the country. Though I usually tend to avoid tourist traps and resent being gawked at like I’m a walking payslip for some disinterested guide, there are times when i’ll make exceptions. This was one such time.

Hard to see why I was making an exception?

I was coming from Kampala with the rest of my ICS Challenges Worldwide placement group; a grand total of forty-six of us piled in two buses and strapped in for what would be a seven-hour coach journey. A few stops along the way broke this drive up nicely and enabled me to wolf down a Rolex for lunch (no, not the watch, a popular street food out here). Eventually, we arrived at our hotel in Pakwach, pretty groggy and in dire need of a Nile Gold, Uganda’s answer to Fosters. After several of these, we called it a night and prepared for the ridiculously early 5:00AM start; given that I’m not a morning person, I don’t think there are enough characters left for me to express how I truly felt about this.

Despite all my protests, morning did come, and it brought with the safari trip we’d come all this way for. Such an early start meant swift entrance into the park and hopefully a chance to see an assortment of animals because of the milder weather. This was slightly scuppered by the fact that one of the buses went off-piste and got stuck; queue the rescue team. Despite seeing an abundance of giraffes, buffalo and antelope, an early start wasn’t as successful as we had hoped and we were forced to head towards the Nile crossing in search of pastures new.

Early morning game driving

Once the short ferry ride was over, we headed for a typical Ugandan lunch of rice, a bean sauce and a chapati. Despite having already had a month’s worth of these types of lunches, it still hit the spot. A pretty bleak morning quickly transformed into a blistering hot afternoon; as we were just about to begin hiking up to a viewing point, the timing couldn’t have been better. In actuality, ‘hiking’ may be a very grandiose term for walking up a footpath (yes, that was Peep Show-influenced).

As we rose up the peak, more and more of the waterfall revealed itself to us until we were greeted with a full panoramic view. Customary selfies and group shots taken, we descended down from our perch to the top of the waterfall itself, a place called the ‘Devils Cauldron’.  Here, the water from the Nile is condensed into a narrow gorge before bursting through at great speeds, creating a rainbow in the process. This was certainly the climax of the day; pictures don’t quite do this justice.

The view of the falls from the top… not bad

Though it was now time to begin making our way back, our day was far from winding down. We took this opportunity to go on another game drive to try and spot some more of the famous ‘Big Five’ that had so far alluded us. This was a resounding success. We spotted no less than eight lions, some on the hunt, others just taking the opportunity to lie around in the evening sun. We too used the setting sun to our advantage, taking the ubiquitous photos of the horizon and the animals upon it that’s expected from a safari.

Giraffes in their plenty

To say we have now reached the turning point is a bit of an understatement and in the infamous words of the Eurythmics: ‘Here comes the rain again.’ My word did it pour. Thunder and lightning complimented the rain and cracked the sky, lighting it up in its entirety. We were still deeply rooted in the national park and the dirt track roads that had already proven to be hazardous had now become flowing rivers of mud. There was genuine concern that we may not make it back to the entrance, especially when we couldn’t get a clear answer from the driver about distance or time. With an attitude taken directly from ‘We’re Going On a Bear Hunt’, we slowly and steadily made our way through the mud until eventually we reached the entrance, and salvation.

Such a topsy-turvy couple of days, though infuriating, epitomised Africa as a whole. All the highs and lows matched the general experience of being in this chaotic continent, but hey that’s just the way it is. You can go with the flow or get washed away by it, either way, Africa just sort of happens all around you, so embrace every minute.

Facilitation Day Number 1: my first experience of Smart Toto and their partner NGO’s

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I’d found that I’d been lost ever since starting at my enterprise in Kampala, but it was always more metaphorical than anything else. The ins and outs and who’s who of a small publishing company, Smart Toto, took some getting used to. First, day one rolled by and then just as quickly day two disappeared as well. Enter day three and that familiar lost feeling, only this time, there was nothing metaphorical about it. I was literally lost, in central Kampala, a part of town I was yet to explore.

I say lost, but that may be a strong term. I did have my counterpart, Patrick, and three of the Smart Toto team with me. All Ugandan. All calm as you like. A bit melodramatic? Possibly.

(left to right) Patrick, Mago (the founder), Adia (operations manager) and myself (Mzungu) at the Smart Toto office

We were in Mbuubi, a region of Kampala, to conduct what Smart Toto refer to as a facilitation day. As a non-profit, they focus all their attention on social impact. Specifically, they aim at increasing the literacy rates in the youth population so that they are better prepared for the world that awaits them. These facilitation days are a huge part of that focus. Essentially, some of Smart Toto staff will go out to a partner community of theirs with copies of their books and help teach and promote reading and writing amongst the youth. In this case, the partner was called Children of Ssuubi, which translates to Children of Hope, derived from the fact that they provide a centre of learning for young boys from the street.

Reminiscent of a youth centre in the UK, the programme provides a space for the children to come to during the day where they can access basic necessities. Many of the street children are unfortunately accustomed to a life of abuse and exploitation, often having to beg to try and earn just a small amount to live from. Children of Ssuubi provides them with an alternative. A place where they can feel safe, cared for, and most importantly, begin to feel like children again. With an age range from about five to fifteen and with the boys coming from a number of areas across Kampala, the programme openly represented one of Smart Toto’s key messages in their book, ‘Sharon’s Song’, which was to be read today.

Side view of the Children of Ssuubi complex

After setting up three lots of benches outside and then dividing the boys into age groups, we began. Ssuubi led the sessions and Smart Toto facilitated them, ensuring that the learning plan set out beforehand was put in place. The aim was not just to get the boys reading the book, but also to get them thinking about the messages it contained.

One of the boys setting up the benches for the groups to sit on

In one excerpt, the importance of personal bonds is emphasised by Sharon’s relationship with her two cousins. The trio are represented as the alternative to a group of bullies who are giving Sharon a hard time. With the support of her cousins, the bullies are chased away, and Sharon is clearly displayed in the more favourable position. Not only was this used to show the boys the value in close friendships, but it was also an obvious separation between good and bad, something the majority had never been taught before. Such a lesson epitomised the Smart Toto ethos and underlined the connection between their product and their mission. The service they offer to their partner communities doesn’t simply stop at the handing over of a book; no, it endures and transforms into making sure the book meets its function and the key messages contained within it are taught and understood. Only in this way can Smart Toto help realise their goal of nurturing a literate younger generation to create confident, educated citizens so crucial in the future of Uganda.

‘Sharon’s Song’ being read aloud in one of the groups

It should come as little surprise then that Challenges Worldwide would pick such a driven social enterprise like Smart Toto to work closely with.  Even just a quick browsing of the Challenges website reveals their key criteria in assessing the businesses they want to work with. The tagline, ‘Prosperity isn’t just about counting wealth’, is perhaps no more applicable anywhere else than it is to the work of Smart Toto. In this phrase, Challenges are making clear reference to the worldwide SDG’s (Sustainable Development Goals), specifically no poverty, quality education and gender equality to name a few. In just the little information I have included already, it should be apparent how Smart Toto fit the bill, particularly in their commitment to education and reducing inequalities.

One of the boys speaking aloud to the group

But I divert too much- back to our day! With Luganda being the primary language in Uganda, the idea of these sessions was to promote the reading, writing and speaking of the English language. I was told beforehand that there were different levels of English and it might be hard for myself to understand; however, I was incredibly surprised! All of them were encouraged to read aloud and I didn’t have to strain to hear them nor fill in any gaps in my understanding.

The writing was of a basic level but enough to show progress and promise. The boys were given a small double-sided blackboard as words were first written and understood in Lugandan before being translated and written into English. The vocabulary taught was focused on emphasising values such as ‘love’ and ‘honesty’, which the boys may not have been taught before. I myself learnt that ‘Enyuba’ translates as ‘Home’, an interesting little fact but nothing to write enyuba about…

Practicing their writing with blackboards and chalk

All in all it was a pretty successful day for both organisations and an absolutely fascinating one for Patrick and I. We were aware what with being assigned to a publishing enterprise specialising in children’s books that inevitably, we were going to come in contact with their target audience, but to do so within their own community as part of an outreach day was even better. It was an interesting way to learn about what our business actually does and how they maintain their niche.

The sun sets over the Mekong river – Kratie, Cambodia.

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We’d arrived in Kratie, our last stop in Cambodia, hoping to see the famous Irrawaddi Dolphins located just down river. Though we did catch a glimpse of these amazing creatures, it was this photo that epitomised to me the beauty in this part of South East Asia. Captured just after kayaking and swimming in the Mekong itself, we were able to dry ourselves off and watch as the sun set on our day, and on our time in this beautiful little country.

Interrail pit stops- my European findings

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As I sit here, a mere day from my graduation, the impending reality of a worry-free summer and the possibility of filling it with more adventures from abroad hits me. Where shall I jet off to next? Shall I return to Asia? Interrail for a third time? Or do I take on a new challenge before my graduate mortarboard cap even has a chance to reach the floor?

Such contemplations always lead me through the same thought process- where shall I go, how do I get there, and where do I stay whilst I’m away? The latter of these three has always been the one I struggle with most. I’ve always had to put serious thought into my accommodation as there are several factors of importance: location within the area; facilities; social activities; and of course the all-important question of price. All of these are crucial in my decision to stay somewhere. As I look back in retrospect on my European travels, some places stick out far more than others. Here’s but a sample of some of these gems and the reasons I hold them in such high regard.

1. The Odyssee Hostel, Berlin.
Located in Eastern Berlin, this hostel offered a lot. The facilities were modern and clean and though I stayed in a large dorm, security and space was certainly not an issue. With both an in-hostel kitchen and a Kaiser’s supermarket just down the road, cooking for yourself was made nice and easy- very convenient when travelling on a budget! In terms of experiencing Berlin, the former industrial complex turned alternative hub that houses restaurants, bar and clubs such as the ‘Raw Tempel’ nightclub was only a 10-minute walk. This is a great alternative to the similarly nearby Berghain, probably now just as famous for its ridiculous queues as it is for it’s techno. The Odyssee also offered a ‘Happy Hour’ session for it’s guests where big bottles of beer were a measly 1, making it incredibly easy to get nice and tipsy before hitting the Berlin nightlife.

The reception/bar area at the Odyssee with the visible ‘Happy Hour’ sign
Photo: Odyssee Website

Price: €15-20 per night in a dorm

2. Hotel Canyon Matka, Macedonia.

Looking down on the secluded Hotel Canyon Matka

A hotel that is a true favourite of mine. Already written about extensively in another one of my articles, this is a gem hidden amongst the Macedonia countryside. With a lakeside location and a view from the rooms that looks out upon said lake, the scenic beauty is an obvious attraction for this hotel. Complimenting this idyllic lake is the many different hikes and water sports available- I myself tried my hand at kayaking. With an in-hotel restaurant serving up great food at great prices, a lot of it freshly caught in the lake, you can find yourself with virtually everything you could need here. For a more in-depth review of the hotel, here’s my article reviewing my memorable stay at this fantastic hotel.

Price: Dependent on time of year, best to ring/email to enquire

3. Greg and Tom’s Beer House, Krakow.

One of the dorms at Greg and Tom’s
Photo: James Antrobus. Flickr.

In a city as beautiful and historical as Krakow, one might not expect to see a hostel whose sole purpose is to get its guests well and truly inebriated and to party Polish style. Whoever Greg and Tom are, their hostel certainly lived up to the name ‘Beer House.’ Though not completely kitted out, it offers everything you could need for a few days stay. The dorms are spacious and simplistic, consisting only of bunkbeds, and the showers, though shared, are kept nice and clean. All in all, the bulk of your time here will be spent either in the bar/restaurant area down stairs or in the kitchen/dining space available to guests upstairs. Here, guests can enjoy dinner included in the price of the room (perfect for travelling on a budget) as well as enjoy a drinking session thrown most nights by the hostel that inevitably leads into a bar crawl and eventually to a club- something definitely worth doing!
For some of the abundant non-boozy activities that Krakow has to offer, go no further than the reception at Greg and Tom’s. From here, you can book numerous tours and excursions including tickets and travel to the must-see Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum. Likewise, the hostel is situated within Krakow’s Oldtown and is the perfect base from which to explore the attractions of the city – it’s a matter of minutes from Krakow’s ‘Rynek Główny’, the beautiful main square of the city.

Price: 10-14 per night in a dorm

4. Hostel Mostel, Sofia.

The outside space of Hostel Mostel
Photo: Jwalsh. Flickr.

Prior to my stay, I’d heard a lot about this hostel from various website suggestions and from the works of the famous blogger, ‘Nomadic Matt’. It was not to disappoint. The location, for me anyways, was completely ideal. Close enough to the cities attractions and bustling main streets and yet far enough away as to not be caught up in the noise and aggravations of the same streets during the night. Despite being in the centre of the city, you couldn’t help but feel as if you were completely cut off from the outside world. On its doorstep is a local produce shop where you can buy food and drink, and next to this is a free of charge ATM. It was perfectly situated for guests both leaving and returning to the hostel. Once again, for those on a budget, this is another ideal hostel. Meals were available and although not totally free, they were incredibly cheap. Bar crawls with the option for drinking at the hostel beforehand were also available for a small fee and proved a great way of socialising with other travellers. Such big social and outdoor areas also meant that if you didn’t fancy a drink it was still easy to meet people. Private rooms are available in a range of numbers but I myself found that the dorms were great value compared to others I have stayed in across Europe. Not only were they big in size but they were comfortable, clean and security was far from an issue. Nomadic Matt hit the nail on the head when suggesting Hostel Mostel.

Price: €10-16 per night in a dorm