On the way from France to Serbia, I had a tune in my head. I’d whistle it while we were driving across countries and hummed it while we wandered in the mountains and the towns on our breaks. Once settled in Šid with my piano at the ready, I felt the need for something creative and separated from work here. And here we have it. Let me know what you think.
We had a lovely dinner at Otvorena Kuhinja Ck13 yesterday evening. We collected donations of clothes and toiletries and raised some money too! It was great to chat to sympathetic people about our work in Šid and the situation for migrants in Serbia.
If you could make it and want to donate, you can do so here.
This tiny town, surrounded by fields of corn, wheat and sunflowers, feels like a different age. A trip to Serbian capital Belgrade was quite overwhelming after a week in the country. The shopping centre where I parked my little British car was a dissonance with the vegetable market and bakeries we frequent here. Upon my arrival in Šid, our branch of No Name Kitchen had to be restarted almost from nothing as operations had ceased during the coronavirus lockdown. We had to establish connections with people on the move and figure out how best to help them. Now we have a vague schedule which allows us to plan our time and resources, which looks something like this.
Each day we go to the market to buy vegetables to cook with. We try and see what is cheapest in order to stretch our minimal budget as far as possible. We also buy bread from one of the many bakeries in town. 20-30 loaves of bread fit in this massive bag we have, a bit of a challenge to carry home!
Our big kitchen is in the garden. We have a big table for chopping vegetables and some big gas burners for huge cooking pots. We’ll put some water on to heat for lentils, beans, rice or pasta, then peel tonnes of onions and chop thousands of potatoes. We’ve got pretty creative with the spices and flavours. Balsamic cabbage was a hit, and hummus was awesome. It’s a challenge to estimate how much food to make for 60-100 people each day on a tight budget.
Each of us has a specific role within the organisation which requires time. Logistics involves obtaining clothes and supplies for us to use, as well as the management of volunteers arriving and plenty of other details. Finance is a complicated task of maintaining our financial records, applying for an appropriate budget and monitoring our spending. Violence reporting requires conducting interviews with people who have been victims of illegal pushback from another country to Serbia. The often violent crime that is committed by Croatian, Romanian or Hungarian border guards are reported by the Border Violence Monitoring Network. Communication involves creating content for social media as well as a weekly podcast that goes out in Spanish. Health involves first aid as well as directing people towards services that they can access, or facilitating payment for things they can’t afford. This is my role, and so far I have got someone a new frame for his glasses, and facilitated medications for people where the camp doctor doesn’t cover it. All these tasks have to fit into the day. This means meeting with people, writing reports, filling in forms and liaising with other organisations.
In the afternoon we pack up the food, as well as powerbanks that we have charged overnight, and laundry that we have collected and washed the previous day. We also include hygiene items like toothbrushes, tissues and any medical supplies that have been requested. We load it all into our adventure van or my little British car and drive to the meeting point. We have to find meeting places away from where the police might see us, as the guys could get taken back to the camps if they are discovered. Being taken to the camp means they can’t try to cross the border and the camp conditions range from ‘not too bad’ to ‘utterly awful’. One place that we meet is teeming with mosquitoes, so we’re trying to provide bug spray and bite treatment to as many people as we can.
By the end of the day there are usually some left-over tasks. Washing up, meetings or discussions can take up some time, we have to plan regular trips to Belgrade in order to restock on cheap food and meet with other organisations. Otherwise we can go for a walk in the sunflower fields with Una the Bosnian street dog and then wander to the centre of town. There’s a place for vegan ice cream as well as some friendly bars to relax in. Every day is busy and full and there are tough times. The stories of the violent pushbacks are the hardest to hear, and managing a tiny budget when trying to help so many people is difficult. It’s hard having to say no to so many requests for essential items, but we know we’re helping even if the lists seem endless at times.
To help us with our work here you can donate to No Name Kitchen here.
I'm always happy to answer questions about the work here and the migrant crisis in general. Let me know in the comments or contact form if you want to know more about it here.
Two weeks ago I drove with my adventure buddy Stef from Calais to Serbia on a three day expedition, through 7 countries (France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia) to arrive in the small border town of Šid (pronounced Shid) in Serbia. I started learning about the situation in the Balkans from fellow volunteers in Calais, as well as from refugees that had come that route. Stef and I were put in touch with No Name Kitchen, an organisation with several operations in the Balkans and Greece, and who were very short on volunteers in Serbia. It has been a steep learning curve, both about Serbia as a country to live in, and about how the migrant crisis is being handled here. Here’s something of what I’ve learnt so far.
Two sorts of camps
The Serbian government runs two sorts of camps for refugees and migrants, reception centres and residential camps for those wishing to make an asylum claim. There are also separate camps for families and for unaccompanied minors. In the town of Sid there’s a family camp reception centre which I have visited.
Outside of the camps
Right now the camps are locked down. The excuse being used is coronavirus, but there was an election at the weekend and it’s likely the camps were used as a political move too. There are some people outside of the camps who don’t want to be in them, or chose to leave in order to try and cross the border into Croatia or Romania. These are the people we have trying to help the most.
One of the tasks of No Name Kitchen is to collect violence and push back reports. A push back is when someone is forced back from Croatia or Romania into Serbia. It’s illegal. Once someone has got to the new country, they have the right to make an asylum application. Many of the push backs are violent, with border guards and police beating and robbing people before sending them back to Serbia.
The political situation and the coronavirus situation have both become more intense since being here. Democracy is not in evidence and the borders have just been closed again as the number of covid cases rise. For us, that means we can’t access the donations of clothes and equipment from abroad. However, from a day to day life point of view, Šid is a pretty nice place to live. The small town has lots of bakeries and green spaces, and is surrounded by fields, with lots of walking and running routes. People are friendly, if a bit confused by us foreigners. We cook massive pots of food every day to take to various groups, the coordination of that is quite delicate, and we all have administrative work to do for the organisation and for our ‘real’ jobs. Our days are long and busy, it’s extremely difficult to plan for the changing situation, but it’s a privilege to be able to help people in need.
The more I learn about politics and conflict, the more I realise how much Western Europe has to answer for. Not only are many people fleeing war and oppressive regimes caused or supported by the west, but people on the move (asylum seekers, refugees, migrants) are used as a political bargaining chip for Serbia to gain membership of the EU. Croatia, Hungary and Romania receive millions of Euros to keep people out using whatever methods are necessary. And this all happens with the knowledge and support of the west.
I will be staying in Šid until the end of July and will happily answer any questions anyone has. Comment below or send me a message, and stand by for more content. Follow Hannah the Traveller on facebook for more updates.
Coronavirus has managed to make all our worlds smaller. For a long time we were only aware of the situation in our own countries and localities and it remains quite difficult to find information about the situation in other countries. I was living in France for a couple of months, and watched as the restrictions were gradually lifted. Cafes reopened for takeaway, bars and restaurants started taking customers again - and there was a glimpse of normal life returning. Each country has had a different experience. I’m in Serbia now and visited Belgrade as part of my work with an aid organisation. Belgrade seems 100% back to normal. It’s such an interesting city to visit and I felt very fortunate to have the city experience without tourists! And even more so when I happened to call up Belgrade Adventures when I realised that myself and fellow volunteer Stef were going to have some free time…!
Belgrade sits on the confluence of two rivers - the Sava and Danube. Rivers mean water so naturally I looked up the water sport opportunities in the city. Belgrade Adventures could accommodate us right away, with a bespoke tour to fit into our schedule. Vlada the guide met us and asked a few questions about what we wanted to see and if we had any experience before we were set afloat in our double kayak. I’ve paddled quite a few different crafts in my time but this was my first time with a rudder operated by foot pedals. So my feet were doing the steering. As an organist, you’d think I’d be competent at multitasking with different body parts, but it certainly took some getting used to (sorry for Stef)!
We zig-zagged our way upstream to begin with, and saw an army base where the warship formerly called SMS Bodrog is tethered. This ship was instrumental to the beginning of WWI. Vlada gave us plenty of local history and an amazing amount of information about the nature that inhabits the river islands. He’s seen a white-tailed eagle on more than one occasion. No eagles for us today but plenty of ducks and herons, all within moments of the bustling city. Belgrade’s two million inhabitants have nature on their doorstep. We continued towards the confluence of the two rivers and floated on the mighty Danube. It is a vast river! I’ve paddled on the Thames in London and felt like a small dot but the Danube dwarfs Old Father Thames. The views of the city on the hill above were spectacular. Just as the sun came out we headed for a secluded channel where we left any noise of human habitation behind, and meandered through the reeds watching out for catfish and turtles that call this place home.
On our way back, Vlada talked about the other adventures that are on offer. Caving and mountain biking in Serbia sounds cool. I am very tempted by their Novi Sad to Belgrade kayaking journey. Two days, 70 km and a night camping on a river island - that’s my kind of adventure.
Coronavirus is going to have a huge impact on tourism for a very long time. Here in the Balkans, movement between nearby countries is going to be acceptable before long so hopefully tourism will start to grow in the coming months. I feel incredibly privileged to have experienced Belgrade as very few people do, and I am really grateful to Vlada and Ivan at Belgrade Adventures for showing us the unique, watery perspective of their beautiful city. See you soon guys!
I wrote the following article for the Guardian who are doing a series entitled Blood, Sweat and Tears - about experiences of healthcare during pandemic times. They didn't want it, so here it is! Comments and questions welcomed as always.
Kneeling in the dust with my patient’s foot propped on my lap was my first experience of First Aiding in Calais. I was cleaning and dressing the wound of a refugee who had been injured falling off a truck.
I got my first aid qualification during my professional scuba diving training which I recently completed in Mexico. I was living the diver’s dream in the Caribbean before COVID-19 sent me home. With no work as a diver or my other job as a church organist in London, I returned to France where I’ve volunteered several times before.
The simple medical kit that comes with us when we visit the temporary camp areas in Calais and Dunkirk contains a basic selection of plasters, bandages, antiseptic and sanitizing creams. I’m volunteering with Care4Calais - an aid charity that operates in northern France. It was the only charity operating here for a while, as other organisations stopped work when Covid19 hit France. Mainly we distribute food, clothing, tents and sleeping bags, and in normal times we’re usually joined by another organisation - First Aid Support Team. However, these qualified medics are not here at present: my fellow first-aider, who is a furloughed land mine-clearer, and I are the best we’ve got for the moment.
As we were setting up the portable handwash station and a generator for phone charging, a man approached me with his hood up and his hand on his face. He’d just seen me giving a plaster to a little boy who had a cut on his foot. “Doctor?” he asked. I showed him the sign we have in Kurdish which says: I’m not a doctor, just a first aider. He took the hand away from his face and I could see how swollen his cheek was: he had an awful tooth infection. “Ouch! That’s very bad.” All I could do was give him printed directions to the hospital clinic which wouldn’t be open until the next day, and a mask to wear while he was there. I can’t imagine how long that night felt as he tried to sleep through the pain.
Later the same week, my friend talked to a guy with sore feet. He took his shoes off and showed her quite a bad case of athlete’s foot. It’s not surprising that he had this fungal infection, as it’s difficult to keep clean when you’re living in a tent which is subject to clearance by the police at a moment’s notice. He was wearing his shoes without socks. My friend spent a long time with him, cleaning his feet and chatting. The Google translate app meant that they could communicate, and she could wish him a happy Eid. The personal level of care she could provide to him was a special moment of service - she could give him her full attention and tend to him in what is by necessity a tactile way, which is so rare at the moment. This was important for her too, as she is unable to perform her usual job but this way could still feel a commitment to a humanitarian cause during this time.
It was a difficult decision for both of us to travel to France. The risk to ourselves of contracting the virus whilst away from home, as well as being away from family that may need help, and the personal financial cost to volunteer, preyed on our minds beforehand.
Working here in France has many challenges. So far, Covid19 has not been obvious in the informal camps, but if it arrives, the inability to keep social distancing rules or wash frequently could lead to a rapid spread.Communicating whilst wearing extensive PPE is difficult enough with fellow volunteers, and even more challenging when there’s a language barrier too. But the small amount of comfort we are able to provide by sitting with someone, giving them our full attention, listening to their problem and trying to find a solution, provides a connection that many people during this time are unable to have.
Being able to share this work with other volunteers of different ages and backgrounds is a reward too. I am so grateful to all the health professionals who are working hard in such extreme situations in hospitals and elsewhere, and I’m humbled to be able to use my training in this small way.
When I reached out to Deakin and Blue I thought it would be a long shot. I knew of the sustainable swimwear company from social media and had been eyeing up their diverse range of full suits and bikinis for my next trip. I’m training to be a dive professional and told them about my plans to volunteer for good causes using my newly acquired dive skills once I've got my qualification. The ocean needs all the help it can get right now and I can't wait to get involved with marine conservation projects and humanitarian causes. They liked the sound of my plans and very generously let me pick a swimsuit from their extensive range. Read on for a full product review, with some snippets about my Mexican travels thrown in for good measure. And scroll on for my swimsuit modelling debut.
I primarily wanted a new swimsuit to wear under a wet suit while scuba diving. I have tried different combinations of undergarments over the years and I found two halves easier than a full swimsuit, so due to not wanting to buy more plastic, had settled on wearing an old sports bra and swim shorts I found in a charity shop. Not the most glamorous! So it was a treat to pick something designed more appropriately for the job. The model I chose was the Hepburn. It's designed with activity in mind and is more substantial than almost all bikinis I’ve ever seen. The tops are sized like bras so you can get a really good fit and decent boob support, with the arms of the top being cut low enough that there's no chaffing when swimming lengths in a pool. I chose high-waisted bottoms for comfort under neoprene, and you can pick the size of the bottoms independently from the top which makes a lot of sense. The range also includes full suits and more skimpy numbers in a huge range of size options so they have something for everyone.
All Deakin and Blue have high sustainability credentials. Their website explains that the material used is "ECONYL® - a 100% regenerated nylon fibre made from post-consumer waste such as old fishing nets and industrial plastic." They are also built to last and are made tougher than most other products. The material feels nice against my skin, dries well and holds up to saltwater, swimming pools and waterfalls. A solid month of 3 dives a day in sea water and being dried in direct sunlight and I've seen no change in colour or stretchiness. The first time I wore it was at the stunning Roberto Barrios waterfalls near Palenque in Mexico, where it dried quickly enough that I didn’t need to perform an awkward towel dance to change my underwear in public! However, awkward towel dances are made easier with the front zip on the top. As demonstrated after swimming at the mossy green cavern that is the cenote in the heart of the city of Valladolid.
My life as a divemaster trainee involves being wet for large part of the day. I love that I can take half my wet suit off and go to the loo (not an easy feat wearing a full swimming costume). And I don’t feel too naked, so I’m happy to wander around during our surface intervals without anything more on.
I’m so pleased to have found a product that suits my needs so well. I’m not at all comfortable wearing triangles held on with stringy bits and I need something that can offer support when lifting tanks and equipment on and off dive boats. The fact that Deakin and Blue have these design features covered is only made more brilliant by their eco friendly credentials - all happily delivered in beautiful, non-plastic packaging. I’m sure my new swimsuit will last ages but I know where I’m getting my next one.
So now for the swimwear model moment. Here is a picture of a real person, on a windy day, about to do her 800m snorkelling swimming test in the choppy ocean. Thank you so much Deakin and Blue for the swimsuit and for the confidence you’ve shown in me in providing me with a product.
You know those photos on Instagram that don’t look real? The white sands and turquoise ocean, or the perfect sunset from a mountain top. They must be photoshopped to look like that. And that’s what I thought of the cenotes. The famous caverns and caves in the Yucatán peninsula were once dry, allowing stalactites and stalagmites to form and providing homes for humans and animals some thousands of years ago. Now that the water level has risen, the thousands of cenotes provide a playground for scuba divers. And those photos of light streaming in beams through the water? Well it looks even better than Instagram. Read on for my experience with Dive Tulum.
The town of Tulum isn’t really my usual kind of destination. The beach (which I never saw) is lined with resorts and the town is full of souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants. But it was certainly worth enduring the sunburnt drunk people to experience the diving. There are dive sites to both the north and south of the town, my guide Gisela and my dive buddies and I headed north to an area with several cenotes called Dos Ojos. We bounced down the dusty road in the kit-loaded truck to peer into the depths of our first dive - El Pit. Access to this deep dive is down a tall wooden staircase. Once in the water, the first amazing thing was the visibility. No tides, currents or sand to muddy the waters. Having said that, quite soon in our descent to 30 metres, there’s a patch of hydrogen sulfide, making the water all blurry, an interesting phenomenon to encounter. Continuing down and we had to make use of our torches. The formations from when the caves were dry are fascinating. I especially enjoyed being able to see the lights of other divers from a distance. It really gave a sense of perspective in this huge cavern. The Instagram moment happened on our gradual ascent. On turning back towards the surface, the sunlight was streaming through the opening. Bright blue beams intersecting the dark blue water with tiny little divers underneath to give perspective to this beautiful image. Wow.
The second and third dives were at Dos Ojos - Two Eyes, so called because the two cenotes are connected by a series of shallow tunnels and channels. There are two routes which involve manoeuvring through small spaces - a test of buoyancy skills. It felt really adventurous. Torches out to peak into the dark crevices, not knowing what would be around the next corner. The final dive including surfacing in the bat cave. Looking up at the dozing bats from the surface of the water was unreal. With just a small opening that the bats use - divers have unique access to this special place. Again the contrast of light and dark created a wonderful scene of dark rock formations backlit by the light blue of the water near the surface.
Gisela was an excellent guide. She knows the cenotes and their history like they’re her back garden. Thanks Gisela and Dive Tulum for a fantastic introduction to the cenotes and to cavern diving. I can’t wait to come back for more.
Have you dived any other cenotes? What did you think? Comment below.
Let’s be honest, if you’re travelling to Mexico specifically for diving, you’re not going to come to Puerto Escondido. The draw of the Yucatan Peninsula with its clear waters and abundant marine life - along with the famous cenotes - are paradise for divers. But if you find yourself in the area, is it worth diving in the Pacific Ocean? Read on for my experience.
The surfer town of Puerto Escondido is on the Pacific coast in the state of Oaxaca and a night bus away from Oaxaca City. The long beach of Zicotela has a strip of obnoxious, westernised cafes, bars and restaurants and some places to stay. The sea is so rough that only the brave and/or those with surf boards venture into the water. But the water contains many wonders if only you’ll look. I flip flopped my way to visit Aventura Submarina dive shop to find out more.
Instructor Diego and owner Jorge welcomed me warmly and talked me through the dive sites that they have here. There are a range of options within a 20 minute boat ride and the rocky bottom provides a great habitat for eels, angel, puffer, box, lobster and numerous other aquatic life forms. The all important question for me was visibility. The only things I’d managed to find out online had been complaints about the lack of clear water. It’s not the Caribbean but for our dives it was 10-15 metres.
We were going out as a group of four. I was efficiently kitted out with a nice new and colourful wetsuit before a briefing and the short truck ride to the boat. Our first site was just 5 minutes away. With a further briefing and a backward roll we were in. There was plenty to see and it was fun peering into the cracks between the rocks. Diego was great at spotting and even spied some nudibranches (I would never have noticed!).
Our relaxed surface interval was in a quiet patch of ocean where a turtle poked its head above water. The second dive was similar and included a massive lobster and loads of grumpy looking eels!
The whole trip was great. Diego said to me that it’s diving like friends. Aventura Submarina isn’t a super-swanky operation. Don’t expect free snacks, or glossy brochures. It is a friendly and welcoming shop with good equipment and knowledge, and an openness to explore the watery world. If you’re in town then I highly recommend diving with Aventura Submarina.
Have you dived on this coast? Let me know what you thought. Especially if you managed to find a nicer part of town than I did!
My first activity when arriving to Mexico City was to take an historic walking tour of the centre of town. The bulk of this tour was focused on prehispanic history, before Cortez and is Spanish soldiers showed up. The indigenous cultures weren’t completely obliterated by the Europeans. They’ve had a difficult time until the very recent past but are now being supported a bit more. Pueblos Mancomunados is a cooperative of villages with interconnected resources focused on hiking but also supporting biking, horse riding and zip lining! I wanted to escape the city of Oaxaca for the mountains and visit the Zapotec people there. This is how I did it and what I learnt.
The office of Expodiciones Sierra Norte offer organised tours including transport and food. This was extremely expensive, especially for a solo traveller, but they were happy to give me information to visit on my own. Their office in central Oaxaca is marked on maps.me and they were very patient with my rudimentary Spanish language skills.
I went to the second class bus station the day before to book my ticket to Cuajimuloyas. The Faden Bus Company is to the left when you enter and has a notice of the destinations above the window. It was 60 pesos and I got to pick my seat. The bus leaves at 7am.
On the day of my visit we were all loaded into the minivan and the journey took less than two hours.
To return, buses leave from the place it drops you at around 6pm and at 7am and 8am if you stay over. (Don’t necessarily count on the buses being on time.)
I went to the tourist office (which isn’t where it’s marked on maps.me, ask for directions) and sorted a place to sleep for 200 pesos. This was in the hotel across the street. It’s possible to stay in a more traditional cabaña for more than 200. The hotel had everything I needed. Hot shower, plenty of blankets and a comfy bed.
This was a bit confusing. There are some routes that you don’t need a guide for but most of them you do. My bus friends and I weren’t sure how difficult the route finding would be, so started off to the next village of Benito Juarez on our own, but had to stick to the quiet but dusty road. From Benito Juarez we made it to the view tower and bridge with a little help from maps.me, and back to the village in a rather unorthodox manner... so in order to return to Cuajimuloyas via the scenic forest route, we hired a guide in the tourist office in Benito Juarez. We paid 300 pesos between us for the guide. I highly recommend spending a bit more time deciding on which trek you want to do and get a guide from the beginning. The trail would have been impossible without one, you’re supporting the local economy and you learn so much more!
Manuel the guide - 76 year old grandfather with a bad knee - arrived to lead us back. He had a great sense of humour, knew about the plants, and took great pains in teaching us to pronounce the name of the village we were heading for. (It’s a Zapotec word with several spellings!) The 8km trail through woods, up and down mountain sides, next to (sometimes through) fields and big rock formations was demanding. The altitude is around 3000m above sea level so every hill had me huffing and puffing. Plus the sun is very bright and my pale skin was easily burnt.
I wanted to see a slice of real life. Seeing donkeys in the fields and farmers cutting oats, meeting Manuel and eating in a comedor in Cuajimuloyas where the family were busy around me was lovely. Traditional farming and family life have been the life of the Zapotec people for hundreds and hundreds of years and it’s great that they can now turn their way of life into an ecotourism initiative. Everyone was friendly and helpful, with the pace of life allowing time to sit and watch and chat.
I stayed just one night and got the early bus back, but I wish I could’ve stayed longer. If I were going again I’d take the bus to Cuajimuloyas (now I can say the word) engage a guide to walk to another village to sleep. Then perhaps continue to another town the next day. There are shared taxis from all the villages and the tourist office was open beyond 8pm, so transport back to the city is guaranteed from wherever you end up and you’ll be able to find a place to sleep even if you arrive later in the day. I left most of my stuff at the lovely Hostal Pochon so could easily walk with my stuff between villages. Take warm layers though, as soon as the sun starts to set, the air gets chilly - temperatures reach 2 degrees C at night.
Let me know if you have any questions, if you go, how you do it and what you see. There are 9 villages to explore and the fresh mountain air will have you refreshed for your return to the city.
Hannah the traveller
is a travel and lifestyle blog with focus on running, vegan eating and of course global travel.