5 ways to build your own writer’s retreat – Zafigo.com, November 5 2017

They say that everyone has a book in them. Unfortunately for most of us, it’s not always easy to find a conducive environment to put pen to paper and begin telling our story. While writers’ retreats have been established worldwide to give budding wordsmiths the time and space they require, most of them come with a high price tag. Why not create your own retreat, at your budget? Here are five tips to get you started.

Escape to nature

If you’re like me, spending time amidst nature is enough to cure even the most severe writer’s block, leading to a welcome surge of writing inspiration. There’s just something about the fruity chortling of birds and gentle rush of the wind that encourages me to pick up the pen again. Thankfully, nature is everywhere and comes at no cost.

In Asia, we’re lucky to have dozens of stunning national parks at our doorstep. Find yourself basic accommodation in or beside one of these natural treasures and check in for a few days or weeks at a time. You’re sure to have little distraction from your creative endeavours. I stayed in a quiet hut at the edge of Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park and found it to be the perfect location for reading, writing and developing ideas. As a bonus, all of my meals were provided for. I highly recommend finding a place that offers similar packages as it means you can devote less time to chopping vegetables and more time to writing.

Where you can go: National parks in Asia that serve as potential writing havens are Taman Negara in Malaysia, Kirirom National Park in Cambodia and Nakai-Nam Theun National Biodiversity Conservation Area in Laos.

During my upcoming travels through Vietnam, I personally hope to get some writing done in the mountainous region of Da Lat as well as stunning Ninh Binh in the north. For those who are easily distracted, or just prefer the sounds of the sea, perhaps it’s best to flee to an island. Koh Kood in Thailand is a winner for me, while Koh Rong Sanloem in Cambodia, the islands in Komodo National Park in Indonesia and Japan’s Yakushima island should be on any writer’s (and traveller’s!) bucket list.

Squad goals

Some people require a bit of a push and titbits of advice to get their creative juices flowing, and that’s why writing retreats have become so popular. If you find yourself in that bracket but can’t afford to fork out for an organised retreat, don’t despair! There are plenty of ways to get the support you need at little to no extra cost.

Most larger towns and cities have writing clubs that see novice and seasoned writers come together regularly to share their work and gain feedback. Why not book a cheap stay in a city you’re keen to see and hook up with one of these groups while there? A few days or weeks on your self-moulded writers retreat is sure to leave you feeling equally refreshed and inspired.

Check out: Hanoi Writer’s Collective and Hoi An Writers Group, Vietnam; MYWriters Penang, Malaysia; Chiang Mai Writers, Thailand and The Singapore Writer’s Group are among such active groups.

The word on festivals

Literary festivals usually offer both free and affordable events and workshops, and are also great opportunities to rub shoulders with established writers. Asia hosts approximately 60 literary festivals annually so you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to picking a destination and activities.

Make your way to: Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (25-29 October 2017), Singapore Writers Festival (3-12 November 2017), Hong Kong International Literary Festival (3-12 November 2017), George Town Literary Festival (24-26 November 2017), and Jaipur International Literature Festival (January 2018).

Walk in the footsteps of the greats

Asian cities have served as both the birthplace and the inspiration for some extremely successful authors. If you’re a budding writer, there are many Asian cities worth a visit. Who knows what inspiration you might glean!

Where to go: Tokyo has a rich literary heritage, with dozens of bookstores and libraries, along with museums dedicated to the writers that have roamed its streets. It was once home to Matsuo Basho, the founder of the haiku, and a museum in his memory sits there today. Though hailing from Kyoto, author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Haruki Murakami lived and based many of his books on Tokyo. There’s even a walking tour in his honour. Controversial author Yukio Mishima (Confessions of a Mask) was born here, as was crime novelist Hideo Yokoyama, whose novel Six Four famously sold a million copies in just six days.

The colourful and bustling city of Mumbai has served as the backdrop for many famous books, including Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo’s multi award-winning book Beyond the Beautiful Forevers. Salmon Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning Midnight’s Children, which focuses on India’s transition from colonialism to independence, also used his native city of Mumbai as its stage. The critically-acclaimed Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts was also based in Mumbai and is said to be inspired by real events.

Dozens of authors, including Jungle Book creator Rudyard Kipling and prolific Marathi writer PL Deshpande (Vyakti Ani Valli), were born in the city. If you fancy reading any of these for inspiration, head to Mumbai’s Book Street where you are sure to find something among the heaving stalls.

Check your backyard

After months of seeking out a destination where I can peacefully write and form new ideas, I found the park beside my current home in Da Nang to be the perfect spot. Though it had been right under my nose for months, I never considered it a place to find writing inspiration. Don’t underestimate the destinations on your doorstep.

Try these spots: Take a walk around your neighbourhood, try writing at various places and see how you feel. It could be that park around the corner, the nondescript coffee shop you always walk past without a second glance, the public library, the 24-hour coin operated laundry… any of these might be where your story begins. I urge you to grab pen and paper when you pay a visit!

(First published on Zafigo.com on November 5 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/build-your-own-writers-retreat/)

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5 ways to make friends in a new city – Zafigo.com, September 12 2017

The initial stages of moving to a new city can be incredibly exciting as you get to explore a new place and all that it has to offer. Then, reality kicks in and you may find yourself feeling lonely and missing things back home. The first few weeks of living in a new city can be particularly lonely, especially when flying solo. While it’s easy enough to pack up your clothes, books and even furniture during a move, there are some things you just can’t load into a suitcase, namely friends and family.

A new group of friends won’t be handed to you on a silver platter, and forming new friendships at an adult stage in life is certainly not as easy as during your playground days. But it doesn’t have to be difficult – so long as you’re willing to make an effort and lean outside your comfort zone.

#1 Join a social group

No matter how lonely you feel, you are certainly never alone. Regardless of where you go, there are plenty of like-minded women seeking a friend to share a coffee and a chat with. It’s just a case of finding them! Thankfully, there are several platforms that have been established to help you do just that.

On moving to a new town in Ireland, I joined the local GirlCrew branch and it was one of the best decisions I made. This women-only social network, which now has 46 branches worldwide and over 90,000 members, allows women in the same area to link up online and organise meet-ups and events.

While the first meeting was a bit daunting (and felt a bit like online dating!), once I got to chatting with people, I realised that there are so many other women out there in the same boat as me. Bowling nights, lunch dates and nights out ensued, and I can definitely say that I formed a few lasting friendships as a result.

Girl Gone International is a similar organisation for women worldwide. I am a member of the local group in Da Nang, Vietnam and love meeting both local women and expatriates alike at the fun monthly meet-ups. Not only has GGI brought me brilliant new friends; it has also given me some memorable experiences (such as a movie night on the beach and a Vietnamese cooking class).

#2 Find a new hobby

Have you always wanted to try yoga? Or perhaps you fancy yourself as a guitarist? Whatever your interest, moving to a new place is the perfect opportunity to start something different and in the process, meet new people. Striking up conversations with strangers doesn’t come easy to everybody, but joining a class that interests you ensures that you will always have a conversation starter.

Personally, I find signing up for a full-term course to be the best option. Once your money is handed over, you are more likely to stick with your new hobby and hopefully, continue to develop new friendships along the way. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t the most talented person in the class; I recently joined a Zumba group in Da Nang and am certain that my moves are more akin to Bigfoot’s than Beyoncé’s! As long as you’re having fun and socialising with other people, that’s what matters.

#3 Work from a co-working space or cafe

Working on my laptop at home can feel pretty isolating. But I’ve found that it doesn’t have to be this way. If you’re lucky enough to work for yourself or as a freelancer, you can turn your work days into social opportunities by working in a public space. Many large cities and small towns have established co-working spaces where you can rent a spot to work and rub shoulders with others throughout the work day. Some of these spaces also organise social activities and events to allow people to get to know their ‘co-workers’ and share ideas.

A cheaper and easier alternative is to work from a local cafe. Find out where the most popular spots are (in my case, anywhere with strong WiFi, strong coffee and good air-conditioning) and prop yourself up with your laptop and a cafe latte. Stir up a conversation with the person at the table next to you if the opportunity arises. Chatting with the café staff could also turn into a chance to make a new friend. At the very least, working from a cafe will allow you to enjoy a change of scenery and some delicious coffee. Who can argue with that?

#4 Be a volunteer

There’s no point in wasting your free and alone time feeling sorry for yourself or pining for home. No matter where you are in the world, there is always an organisation or cause that is crying out for helping hands. Why not offer to do some work at a local animal shelter or get involved in a weekly soup run?

If you find yourself unable to commit to a weekly volunteer position, seek out one-off events such as beach clean-ups or charity fundraisers. Such admirable causes attract people from all walks of life, so you are guaranteed to meet a diverse range of people.

If you find someone that you click with, don’t be afraid to ask them out for a coffee afterwards. What’s the worst that could happen? Chances are they will only be delighted to wind down and chat after a busy day.

#5 Keep an open mind

Sometimes new friends can be found in the most unlikely places. For this reason, it is so important to keep an open mind and remain patient when you move abroad. That girl you’re chatting with on a long bus journey home could become a firm friend. During a stint living in Paris, I met one of my best friends there completely by chance when she approached me to ask for directions.

While asking me how to get anywhere is a grave mistake (navigation isn’t my strong suit), her decision to approach me certainly was not. It turned out that we have a lot in common. Not only were we both going to the same place and equally as lost as the other, we were also living away from home and enjoyed many of the same activities.

When we finally reached our destination, we swapped phone numbers and arranged to meet up for a drink the following week. Soon, a strong friendship blossomed, and over the next few months we explored the beautiful streets and sights of Paris together. Fast forward four years later and we live elsewhere, but we still remain in touch. And that’s how I know that each time I move some place new, I’ll always be able to find new friends.

(First published on Zafigo.com on September 12 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/tips/make-friends-when-move-new-city/)

Irish nurse finds her calling helping terminally ill children find a peaceful ending – Irish Examiner, August 3 2017

A 23-year-old UCC medical graduate, Sinéad Keane is part of a foundation helping terminally ill children in Vietnam, writes Amy Lewis

When medical intervention is not a viable option for a gravely ill child, palliative care is key to making their final days more comfortable. Thanks to a small team of dedicated volunteers in Vietnam, hundreds of terminally ill children are living out their final days in a loving and peaceful environment.

Kerry-born nurse Sinéad Keane is one part of this group of volunteers that form the NGO Little Feather Foundation. Established in 2013 by Ella James and Kate Loring from Australia, it has grown into a team of seven who are keen to make a difference. Despite their various backgrounds and nationalities, they all have one aim in mind: To provide and advocate for palliative and hospice care for terminally ill children in Vietnam.

Sinéad, who has been involved in the group since 2016, found herself working with Little Feather Foundation by chance. Having left her demanding nursing job in Cork to travel and teach English, the Tralee native stumbled across a Facebook post seeking a volunteer nurse in Ho Chi Minh City. She landed the role and now volunteers in the foundation’s government-run centre five mornings a week.

“Most of the children I work with have a condition called hydrocephalus which is caused by the build-up of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. Unfortunately, for a lot of them, their condition has gone too far for treatment so we just provide basic comfort measures and whatever other care they need,” explains the 23-year-old UCC nursing graduate.

A typical day for Sinéad sees her providing care and company to approximately 20 severely ill and disabled children alongside another nurse from the organisation.

“We arrive in the morning after the children have been bathed by their nannies. There are bouncers for all of the kids which allow them to sit up while we massage and comfort them. We use baby oil and moisturiser to prevent their skin from becoming dry and Vaseline to keep their eyes clean. A few of them have really bad pressure sores so we also provide healing measures for them. But, for example, one child has two very bad sores and for the past eight months we have been trying to heal them. Because he is towards the end of his life and is really malnourished, they aren’t going to heal so we just have to try to prevent them from spreading,” she says.

“In cases like this, you want to think you are helping but sometimes it can be stressful.”

Advocating for the children is another important role carried out by the nurses, who must communicate with the full-time staff in the centre to ensure children’s needs are met around the clock. “If a child is in pain, has a temperature, or has digestive issues, we communicate with the nannies and nurses in the centre regarding the provision of adequate relief from the symptoms. Because children with hydrocephalus are more prone to these problems, providing relief from these symptoms is extremely important in our role as palliative care nurses,” explains Sinéad.

In November 2016, Little Feather Foundation introduced a ‘hospice from the home’ service, which sees their nurses pay regular care visits to terminally ill children in their homes. These children, who are usually living in extremely rural and poverty-stricken communities, would otherwise struggle to receive the medical care that they require.

“Our first visit came about when our head nurse was doing a trek in rural Vietnam. She told somebody in passing that she works with a charity for children with hydrocephalus and a woman in her group mentioned a child with the condition in her community,” says Sinéad.

“Since then, we have been helping to take care of her. After we initially assessed her, we brought general things like a bouncer and pain relief. We also brought a high-calorie formula to prevent her from becoming malnourished as a result of her digestive problems.

“Once a month, a nurse goes to visit to check how she is doing and also, to see if there is anything that the family needs. From the family’s point of view, it’s great that they have some support. They know that they are not forgotten about and that they have someone to talk to.”

While Little Feather Foundation is equipped to deal with a wide array of illnesses, it is predominantly working with children with hydrocephalus. The prevalence of this condition in Vietnam, which causes the head to swell and leads to a host of physical and neurological problems, is believed to be a lasting effect of the dispersion of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Between 1961 and 1972, the US military sprayed some 12m gallons of this dioxin-containing chemical across Vietnam to remove dense foliage that provided enemy troops with cover and food. It was later linked to health issues such as tumours, rashes, psychological symptoms, cancer, and birth defects, spanning generations. Vietnam Red Cross estimates that, since the war ended in 1975, around 150,000 Vietnamese children have been born with birth defects due to dioxin found in Agent Orange.

While hydrocephalus cannot be cured, its symptoms can be greatly reduced with medical intervention.

“With proper treatment, their heads do not have to grow that much. Unfortunately, the healthcare system is so behind here that the children don’t always get the necessary treatment on time,” says Sinéad.

Working with the Little Feather Foundation is a far cry from Sinéad’s previous role as a nurse in Ireland, where she felt constantly exhausted due to long hours and lack of staff.

“Since being here, I have learned that I love providing nursing care. At home, you don’t provide care, you are just running around trying to get all of the jobs done. You don’t have time to be with patients. Now I’m spending all of my time with kids, one on one, reading, and talking to them, comforting and taking care of them.”

Her role is not without its challenges. “We want to make more of a difference here but it can be very difficult when there are no palliative care guidelines or auditing in the country. There’s nothing to keep the standards high,” says Sinéad.

“The nurses here also have different views on how problems occur. Some of it is down to superstition. For example, some nurses think if a child has a pressure sore, it’s from milk falling on their head. They don’t think it is from not turning the head enough. It can be difficult to try and communicate these things with the nurses, especially with the language barrier, but thankfully we have a translator.”

In order to provide children with medicine, pain relief, and comfort devices, Little Feather Foundation relies on donations. While this can sometimes add to the pressure of the team’s daily work, overall, they have been astounded by the generosity of people around the globe.

“For the most part, our work is extremely positive and you feel like you are truly helping. There are challenges and it is an uphill battle when it comes to trying to change big things. But if you keep it simple and keep in mind that you are helping the kids, that is the main thing,” says Sinéad. “We know that we are helping when we can see them smiling. Or when they start crying and and you lift them into your arms and they go to sleep, you feel like you are helping in that moment.”

(First published in the Irish Examiner on August 3, 2017. Available online at: http://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/features/irish-nurse-finds-her-calling-helping-terminally-ill-children-find-a-peaceful-ending-456235.html)

 

Four travellers who aren’t letting their disabilities stop them from seeing the world – Zafigo.com, July 26 2017

Even the best laid plans can go awry, and if regular travellers inevitably face that while trotting the globe, imagine how much more difficult it is for those with disabilities. But, as these four bloggers/YouTubers and intrepid travellers share with us, it’s no reason to not explore the world.

Dilara Earle and Justine Eltakchi @ The Pickle Sandwich

Dilaraand Justine of THe Pickle Sandwich in Madrid (Photo Credit: Instagram @ ThePickleSandwich)

Dilara and Justine of The Pickle Sandwich in Madrid (Photo Credit: Instagram @ ThePickleSandwich)

Jet-setting duo Dilara Earle and Justine Eltakchi are shining a light on accessible travel through their hilarious and thought-provoking YouTube channel, The Pickle Sandwich. The duo joined forces after meeting through AirBnB. Justine, an Australian, is legally blind while Dilara, a Scottish, is profoundly deaf. Since then, they have travelled across Australia, New Zealand, Spain, and Scotland together, documenting their adventures as they go.

“We want to raise awareness through sharing our experiences and through comedy. If one person out there realises not to walk away when talking, or not to downplay our disability when we’ve explicitly told them that it’s real and it’s serious, then I’ll be happy!” says Justine when asked about their goal.

Dilara and Justine in Spain

Dilara and Justine in Spain (Photo Credit: The Pickle Sandwich)

Biggest challenges “I have to prepare my equipment really well,” Dilara shares. “I need a million chargers and adapters to make sure I can recharge all my batteries on the road. I also have to try and remember to tell reception to come and get me if there is a fire.”

Recommended destinations Though unable to pinpoint a place that ‘has it all’, Justine and Dilara find that anywhere with big signs, warnings on the walls, step railings and good lighting are easier to get around. Streets that have lots of street art and musicians playing are always going to be easy on the eyes and ears! The secret to it is the locals though. If the people are willing to help you out and reach out to make your day easier, we never forget it,” says Dilara.

Top tip “Your disability can be a healthy part of your identity! The deaf culture and community is amazing, for example. But don’t let it define you. Let your curiosity and love for the world define your experiences of life instead,” says Dilara.

Jeanne Allen @ Incredible Accessible

Jeanne at the Alpine Meadows. (Photo Credit: Facebook @ Incredible Accessible)

Jeanne at the Alpine Meadows. (Photo Credit: Facebook @ Incredible Accessible)

With limited information about accessible travel online, planning a trip can be a feat in itself for someone with a disability. Jeanne, who has lived with Multiple Sclerosis for 30 years, learned this prior to visiting Chicago several years ago, when it took hours of online research and phone calls to concoct the perfect itinerary. “When it was over, I was about to throw away the itinerary that I spent hours putting together and thought, this is crazy, I could share this with others. So, I decided to start a blog,” explains Jeanne.

Biggest challenges On day one of her ongoing 66-day European trip, Jeanne was presented with one of her greatest challenges yet. “Upon landing in Oslo, the plane crew couldn’t find my chair. It was eventually found but the right arm with the controls was dangling off the side and it was broken,” recalls the US native. “Fortunately, it was still drivable but I had to bend forward so it wasn’t very safe.” Jeanne quickly took action by filing a claim and making contact with the wheelchair manufacturer. “They tracked down a manufacturer in Scandanavia and miracle of miracles, things were set into motion. A day later, the repair man drove to Oslo and fixed my wheelchair on the spot.”

Jeanne’s experience didn’t dampen her spirits but rather, gave her a renewed appreciation in the kindness of strangers worldwide. “While waiting to get my chair fixed, our hotel was tremendous. They found zip ties and duct tape and used them to bring the armrest to the right level. They then propped an umbrella under the armrests to keep them upright so I was going around Oslo with an umbrella across my knees. I felt like MacGyver!”

Kayaking lesson with Allie Ibsen at Achieve Tahoe (Photo Credit: incredibleaccessible.com

Kayaking lesson with Allie Ibsen at Achieve Tahoe (Photo Credit: incredibleaccessible.com)

Recommended destinations Having toured the United States (US), Canada and now Europe too, the city of Victoria, Canada currently tops her list of accessible destinations. “Our hotel there had something I had never seen before. My husband went to the room before me. By the time I got there, he was grinning at me like a Cheshire cat. He handed me the key card and said to open it. I did…the door automatically swung open, and stayed open long enough for me to roll in with my scooter.”

Top tip Plan in advance and be specific with your hotels about individual needs. Using all available tools is also a message that Jeanne tries to spread. “We all hate the idea of disability and giving in to it. But once I did, I found life so much easier. For example, I recently got a van ramp which allows me to travel completely independently,” she explains. “If the tools exist, don’t resist them. They really will change your life.”

Cory Lee @ Curb Free With Cory Lee

Cory and his mother on a hot air balloon ride over Israel (Photo Credit: )

Cory and his mother on a hot air balloon ride over Israel (Photo Credit: curbfreewithcorylee)

Despite being diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy at age two and getting his first wheelchair at four, Cory has never allowed his disability to restrain his wanderlust. “I started travelling at a young age in the US and that sparked my love of travel. I never saw any limits, even though I use a wheelchair on a daily basis,” he says. “When I was 15, I took my first international trip to the Bahamas. It was the first time that I saw a different culture and way of life and I decided that I wanted to go much further. I have since been to six continents, with just Antarctica to go.”

In 2013, Cory set up his blog Curb Free with Cory Lee to share his adventures with friends and family. He documents his experiences in faraway and unusual places, from hiking through the Amazon rainforest to soaring over Israel in a hot air balloon. Before long, he was being featured on the likes of Travel Channel and Lonely Planet. “People have contacted me to say that my blog has inspired them to travel to Africa or Israel. Some are travelling for the first time. For many people with a disability, it can be hard to get out of your comfort zone and go abroad. When I go out to different places and write about them, I’m testing the waters for these people,” explains Cory.

Cory in the Blue Lagoon (Photo Credit: curbfreebycorylee.com)

Cory in the Blue Lagoon (Photo Credit: curbfreewithcorylee.com)

Biggest challenges While Cory’s posts are brimming with positivity and snaps of enviable locations, he remains honest about the challenges that he faces. Air travel can prove particularly problematic and on several occasions, he has arrived at his destination only to discover that his wheelchair was damaged. “I’m always worried about it being damaged but I try to have a backup plan. It is important to know of wheelchair repair shops in any place you go to,” he advises.

Recommended destinations “Australia was great; Sydney in particular was spectacular. I could ride every ferry, see every attraction and all of the restaurants were accessible. Iceland also really surprised me. The Blue Lagoon even had a special chair to get into the water,” he says. “Also, the people in Iceland were really friendly and willing to help.”

Top tip Cory is constantly thinking about his next destination and when it comes to accessible travel, he believes planning is key. “Start planning as far in advance as possible. Reach out to other wheelchair users that have gone to the destination. Look for blog posts and get that first-hand perspective.”

(First published on Zafigo.com on July 26, 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/travellers-who-arent-letting-disabilities-stop-them-seeing-the-world/)

I survived a bus crash in Vietnam – Zafigo.com, July 11 2017

Vaccinations? Check. Passport? Check. Visa? Check.

After months of route-planning and preparations, the countdown is over. My boyfriend and I are ready for our long-awaited backpacking trip around Vietnam and Thailand, and everything is finally sorted. But I soon learn that no matter how organised you are, or how many travel guides you skim through, there are some things that you just cannot prepare for.

It’s day four. We have just checked out of our room on Cat Ba island, and laden down with backpacks, make the sweaty trek to the bus stop. Our next stop is Hoi An, where we will finally experience the vibrant lantern festival that I had been gazing at online for months.

Before my trip, people had warned me off mopeds, drinking tap water or swimming at certain beaches. But buses? Nobody mentioned them. As far as I am concerned, the bus is safe territory.

I throw my heavy pack underneath the now-packed coach and settle into my seat, sandwiched between two couples at the back. “This is going to be a cosy ride,” I think to myself, as I wave at my boyfriend who is perched beside the driver. Except it was anything but.

Within several minutes of rolling off the car ferry, the deafening honk of a horn suddenly drowns out my music. I had been in Vietnam for four days and know that car horns are basically background music here. So I choose to ignore it…until it grows louder, more urgent, more frequent. I try to steal a glimpse out the window but the dated curtains conceal my view.

And then I feel it.

The powerful force that hit the left side of our bus and sends it crashing over. Beeping is replaced by screaming and the screech of steel against concrete as we toss and turn, like a blender full of bodies and luggage.

Some say that when you’re in an accident, life flashes before your eyes. But the only thing I have running through my mind at that moment is, “This is where I die…”

When we screech to a halt, I look around to find absolute carnage. Broken glass. Crying children. Blood. I still don’t know what had happened when, leg throbbing, I clamber out through the emergency exit. The heat is the first thing to hit me. Then reality. A huge articulated truck is responsible for knocking us off track and sending us sliding for about 40 metres. Looking back, it’s a wonder that we all survived.

Other passengers find their way off the bus on their own or in the arms of another. Some are much worse off than others. A distraught man screams for help as he crouches over his unconscious, blood-soaked wife who he soon lifts into a hospital-bound taxi.

I find my boyfriend and hug him close, speechless but relieved that we are alright. Soon, we too are rushed off to hospital, where we are surrounded by doctors and nurses, speaking to us in an unfamiliar tongue while examining every inch of our weary and shaken bodies.

Several hours of prodding and broken conversations later, we are discharged with two souvenirs: A swollen purple leg for me, eight stitches for my boyfriend. In our torn and blood-stained clothes, we make our way to the nearest hotel and await word about our luggage.

We spoke long into the following nights, questioning whether we should continue our trip. In the end, we decide to keep going. The following six weeks are a struggle as we lug bruised legs and egos around Asia. Yet, choosing to get back on the road is the best decision we ever made.

Before our accident, I felt invincible and to be honest, took many things for granted. The accident, albeit terrifying, brought me quite literally crashing back down to earth. For a while, I became cautious, too afraid to try anything that felt even remotely dangerous. Those feelings soon cleared, making way for a sense of understanding, an understanding that some things in life are outside of our control. But we shouldn’t let this stop us from living. If we can’t always be in the driving seat, we might as well sit back and enjoy the view.

(First published on Zafigo.com on July 11 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/survived-bus-crash-in-vietnam/)

Eight reasons to visit Da Nang, Vietnam – Zafigo.com, July 5 2017

Da Nang, Vietnam’s third largest city, is often skimmed over by travellers who pass through this port city only to visit the nearby tourist hubs of Hoi An and Hue. But if you choose to explore beyond the airport terminal, you will discover a true gem.

1. Be welcomed by friendly faces

Expect a warm welcome when you arrive in Da Nang as this city has yet to experience the tourist weariness that is obvious in some of the more well-known South East Asian destinations. Visitors are greeted with open arms and most of the locals are willing to lend a hand to new arrivals, whether they need directions, a motorbike or food recommendations. Da Nang is a relatively safe place, and the crime rate is pretty low, but of course it is always important to take safety precautions. Petty theft is the most common offense here so be sure to keep a close eye on your belongings.

2. Gateway to central Vietnam

While Da Nang is a vibrant city full of things to explore, it also serves as the perfect base for exploring the rest of central Vietnam. The ornate and colourful ancient town of Hoi An is only a 30-minute drive away, while other top spots such as the historic imperial capital of Hue, the picturesque Marble Mountains and the ancient Hindu temples at My Sơn are all within easy reach. One place you don’t want to miss is Hai Van Pass, a 21 kilometre scenic roadway through the mountains that became famous following an appearance on Top Gear, and is best explored on motorbike. Those not brave enough to hit the road themselves can take a back seat and enjoy the scenery as part of an organised motorbike tour.

3. Dig into delectable dishes

Vietnam isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of tasty cuisine, and newbies may be turned off by stories about pork hocks, duck embryo and snake wine. Yet, on learning some local lingo and embracing an adventurous appetite, you will soon fall in love with the delicate and fresh flavours.

Da Nang is no exception to this rule; in fact, the city showcases some of the best food that the country has to offer, like a medley of local, southern and northern dishes. For an authentic meal, chow down on mì quảng (thick turmeric rice noodles in a tasty broth), usually topped with a choice of meat, fresh herbs and salty peanuts. Other central Vietnamese specialties include bún chả cá (fish ball noodle soup) and bún mắm (fermented vermicelli soup).

If fish is your dish, then Da Nang should be your first port of call as the seafront is brimming with affordable seafood restaurants. Non-meat eaters need not feel hard done by either, as the city is simply packed with quan chay (vegetarian) restaurants – you just have to find them first!

4. One step away from nature

Not many large cities in South East Asia boast a national park on their doorstep but this is where Da Nang stands out from the crowd. Just a short drive from the city sits Son Tra Mountain, a lush green forested nature reserve towering 693 metres above sea level. While hiking to the top isn’t impossible, most choose to wind their way up by motorbike – though it must be noted that a powerful vehicle is required.

You will be spoiled with stunning coastline views along the way, as well as some interesting stop-off points including Man Thai Fishing Village, the 67m-tall Lady Buddha, the 1,000-year-old Banyan tree and Ban Co Peak. If you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of some of Son Tra’s natural residents, such as the rhesus macaque, red-bellied squirrel or the extremely rare red-shanked douc langur. As the tourism industry continues to rapidly expand here, the future of Son Tra Peninsula is under threat so visit while you can.

5. Run powdery sands through bare toes

If you’re a beach bunny, it’s good to know that Da Nang is home to arguably one of the cleanest and most beautiful coastlines in Vietnam. Stretching for 30 kilometres along the edge of the South China Sea, it hosts several top-class beaches, from secluded bays to tourist hotspots. Perhaps the most famous is My Khe beach, also known as China Beach, which was named by Forbes Magazine as one of the best beaches in the world. Located on the edge of the city, this stunning white sandy stretch sees large crowds in the early mornings and evenings but is relatively deserted throughout the day. However, owing to its immense size, you are always sure to find a spot to yourself, no matter when you go.

After experiencing the madness of the city, this beach is the perfect place to relax and rejuvenate under the shade of an umbrella while gazing out onto crystal clear waters. If you aren’t ready to chill out, test your hand at some surfing, jet-skiing or paragliding. For those who want something more secluded, check out some of the beaches along the Son Tra Peninsula.

6. Non-stop entertainment

If lazing on the beach isn’t for you, it’s easy to keep entertained while in Da Nang. The city is home to plenty of young locals and expats who are always looking for a good time and organised events such as beach yoga, language exchanges, lunch meet-ups and board game nights are all weekly occurrences.

Da Nang also boasts a wide variety of fun and interesting attractions including a small ice-rink, several museums, a concert venue and Asia Park – one of the largest theme parks in South East Asia. Thrill-seekers can get a kick out of the roller-coasters and other fast-paced rides here before taking it down a notch on the 115 metre-high Sunwheel. Meanwhile, party animals eager for a night on the town should look no further than Bach Dang Street, that is lined with dozens of lively bars, restaurants and late-night venues.

7. Bright, blinking city lights

New York, Sydney and London are all famous for their skylines, and while Da Nang is a world away from all that glitz, it does present quite a sight with towering buildings and sparkling bridges. Want to see the city at its best? Aim high and head to the glamourous Skybar at D and G Hotel, where you can watch the city twinkle while wining and dining the night away.

For the cash-strapped, stroll or bike it to one of Da Nang’s many bridges and simply take in the city lights from the Han River. The most famous is Dragon Bridge, one of the longest bridges in Vietnam and one that certainly lives up to its name. The long, majestic bridge takes the form of a gilded dragon, complete with large fangs and hypnotising eyes. On weekend nights, many flock to the bridge to see the illuminated dragon breathe fire and water.

8. Hunt for bargains at the markets

It’s time to brush up on those bargaining skills! The markets of Da Nang are treasure troves brimming with everything from fresh herbs and spices to casual clothing and just about anything else you can think of. Perhaps the most well-known is Con Market, located in the city centre. It may look small but delve a little deeper and you will find a sprawling bazaar with thousands of vendors showcasing a diverse selection of items. Homeware, clothing, shoes, fresh produce, souvenirs and jewellery can all be found at dirt cheap prices here, and if shopping leaves you peckish, there are food stalls and plenty of fruit vendors nearby.

Also worthy of a mention are Han Market and Bac My An Market, which are particularly great for their affordable fruits and vegetables. If you prefer a more conventional shopping experience, Vincom shopping mall and Indochina Towers are full of familiar brands, while boutiques dot the city.

(First published on Zafigo.com on July 5 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/8-reasons-visit-da-nang-vietnam/)

 

Angling boost for Wexford – Wexford People, September 3 2016

An estimated 240 competitors will hope to reel in some success this November when they flock to Wexford’s coastline for the 2016 World Shore Angling Championships.

Teams of anglers from countries across the globe will compete over a full week on beaches dotted along the Wexford coast. This year’s event, which is organised by the Irish Federation of Sea Anglers, will prove to be particularly significant as it is the first time that an Irish all-female team will take part.

Kilgorman, Ballinoulart, Morriscastle, Ballineskar, Curracloe, White Hole, Ballyhealy, Rostoontown, Rosslare Strand and Burrow have been earmarked as suitable beaches for the competition, along with Wicklow North beach and Woodstown in Waterford. Decisions on where competitors are to cast their lines will be determined according to tides on the day.

While competitors will arrive from faraway shores such as South Africa, Portugal and Spain, the Irish team will include some anglers from much closer to home. Killinick man Martin Howlin will serve as team captain while Courtown’s Joe Byrne is also one of the team members. On the women’s team, Jane Cantwell from Wexford town will fly the flag for her county.

Commenting on the upcoming championships, Martin Howlin said that Wexford were very lucky to get the opportunity to host it.

‘We had the bid against other parts of Ireland so it is great that we were awarded the opportunity to hold it in Wexford,’ said Martin, who will serve as team captain for the second time. ‘The beaches in Wexford are very suitable for hosting major championships as the beaches are very even so nobody has one real advantage against another.’

Martin and Joe also fished in the competition last year and helped the Irish team to take home a gold medal. Martin said that the Irish team should have a good chance of taking a medal this year.

Organised by the Irish Federation of Sea Anglers in association with Abbey Tours and hosted by the IFSA Leinster Branch, the championship will run for a full week from November 12 to 19, with many of the competitors and their families expected to arrive a week early to practice. This will be the second time that the Championships are to be held in Wexford, as the first one of its kind took place in the county.

Business Development Manager with Abbey Events Greg Carew said that their visit will provide a huge boost for the local economy.

‘We estimate that it will result in 3,000 bed nights for Wexford. Considering that it is midweek and mid-November, this will be fantastic for the town,’ he said. ‘We hope to make a good impression and hopefully, attract similar events here in the future.’

The event will kick off on Saturday November 12, with a parade of the nations through Wexford town and an opening ceremony at the National Opera House. This year, three new nations will take part: Poland, Cyprus and Turkey.

The parade will be followed by a dinner in Clayton White’s Hotel, where all of the participants will be based for the week. A training day will be held on Sunday before the lines are cast on Monday and the competition officially begins. Competitors will aim to land as many points as possible each evening during the hours of 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. as they fish for species such as dab, flounder, plaice, turbot, whiting, bass and cod, among others. They will be awarded points based on species, size and number of fish caught.

Along with assisting with the organisation of fishing event, Abbey Tours will also facilitate some local tours to sites of interest for visitors who wish to get a glimpse of the county.

In a written address to the competitors, President of the Irish Federation of Sea Anglers Pat Walsh said that the fishing in Wexford ‘is some of the best Europe can offer’.

(First published in the Wexford People newspaper: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.wexfordpeople.ie/news/angling-boost-for-wexford-35006837.html)