Thekkady and Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary

Leaving the tea-growing hills took us on a winding scenic journey through countryside, forest, spice plantations, and towns. We stopped at a beautiful Catholic church, incongruously huge and glossy amongst the little villages. Inside the grand and graceful building we were amused to find neon decorating the altar, Vegas style. India is full of surprises and they celebrate religion in a truly festive way, with colour and joy. Unfortunately, the loos were not grand and graceful but a welcome break nonetheless. Indian loos are probably the only bad thing we encountered and we were delighted we had thought of getting She Wees, handy on most of our indoor stops and all of the outdoor ones. An essential bit of kit to avoid a lot of unpleasantness!

Catholic Church by Wendy Smythe

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Tours and the Val de Loire – a Gardener’s Paradise

While the temperatures may be cooling and the touristic hotspots winding down, the end of the summer season certainly doesn’t mean that Tours is no longer worth a visit. In fact, if you are a horticultural fanatic, or simply an admirer of all things floral, then this could be the autumnal destination of your landscaping dreams. Tours, a city hugging either side of France’s Loire Valley, boasts proximity to an array of chateaux with stunning gardens, as well as some of its very own in the heart of the city. This month I have been exploring what Tours has to offer for the green-fingered among us!

Following the Loire Valley westwards from the city centre, you will eventually reach the Château Villandry. Well known in the region for its luscious gardens, the chateau is hosting two journées du potager (best translated as ‘days from the vegetable garden’) on the last weekend of September. The weekend will include about twenty exhibitors, displaying their wares from plants to garden accessories. And of course, as this is France, there will be opportunities to sample the many edible delights that have been cooked up using the vegetables grown on sight. This is a fantastic opportunity to consult the resident jardiniers and take inspiration from these fairytale-like gardens. The usual entry fees for access to both the chateau and gardens are 11€ for adults, or 7€ for those under 26 or students, and this weekend is no exception!

The next chateau on the list – and you can never have too many chateaus when discussing the French heartlands – is the Château Charmont-sur-Loire. Here, they host the annual Festival International des Jardins, comprising of themed gardens created by professionals from landscape architects to artists. The shortlisting is rigorous, with twenty to thirty successful designers being whittled down from roughly 120 applicants. This year will be its 27th and the exhibition is continuing until 4 November, allowing you to make the most of the last few hours of autumn warmth. This year’s theme, l’expression de la pensée, meaning ‘the expression of thought’, will no doubt deliver some abstract and existential designs. Below are some photographs of last year’s contenders, to get your landscaping juices flowing!

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For those visiting Tours briefly, there are still plenty of picturesque options within the city limits, namely the Jardin Botanique. While not matching the chateaus in terms of size or grandeur, this petite botanical garden placed in the charming centre of the city allows any tourist to make the most of these final days of sunshine. A stand-out feature of this garden is its feathery inhabitants: Tours began introducing exotic animals – mainly birds – into the park as long ago as 1856. These days you will be greeted by chirping parrots and flamingos, before visiting the wallabies who share their enclosure with the resident emus. Aside from the wildlife, there are vast species of vegetation to be seen, including the arboretum showcasing more than 150 types of tree; a small garden with flourishing medicinal plant life, and le jardin de l’évolution, a scientific garden that has been organised to exhibit chronologically the evolution of vegetation, from algae to conifers.

After all that excitement, you’ll probably be in need of gentle recuperation. Fortunately, the Jardin des Prébendes, a much-frequented spot by local students on sunny afternoons, is only a twenty-minute walk away from its botanical neighbour. It is ideal for a relaxing afternoon stroll, to share a picnic, or sit and read a book in the fresh air. Its large duck pond, spanning a huge chunk of the garden, adds to the relaxing feel; it’s easy to get caught up in the magic of this inner-city haven!

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In order to round off an energetic day of garden hopping, I would also highly recommend a stroll further into town towards Place Plumereau. Often considered la plus belle place de France, it will certainly cater to all of your food and drink needs, with a plethora of bars and a variety of cuisine – so that you can while away the evening after a long day of horticulture. So, with temperatures hovering around twenty degrees celsius through October, it would be a shame not to take advantage of these outdoor opportunities before the leaves start falling!


Tribal Thailand: Away from the Tuk-Tuks

Much is often made about finding oneself whilst travelling. Now, although I don’t believe I have experienced quite such a personal epiphany myself, I do maintain that there are moments that can alter one’s perspectives on life, events that can influence one’s perception of the world we live in. As circumstance has it, three days into my gap year travels, one such experience befell me.

My legs dangled freely over the rear-end of an overused truck speeding through the streets of Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. The time-worn chassis whistled past various stalls and gaggles of people. I couldn’t help but fear when a loud thud followed a collision with an unsuspecting pedestrian. In trading crowded streets for open highways, my anxieties left me. Point B for us was somewhere amongst the foothills of Northern Thailand’s mountains – where exactly, I did not know. Wherever it was, that is where our expedition would begin.

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No Hay Marcha Atrás

‘ABORTO LEGAL YA’: the slogan printed across the walls of Buenos Aires amongst hundreds of other political messages which, once seen, I could not ignore. These words set off a very privileged, western form of alarm as I suddenly realised that I was living in a country where women lacked a human right which I took for granted. So imagine my excitement when, fast forward two years later, an openly pro-life President ordered the debate of a bill to decriminalise abortion for up to 14 weeks and agreed not to veto it if it passed. The bill passed through the lower house in June, so that alongside the hearing held by the Brazil’s Supreme Court, where advocates and experts from both sides debated decriminalising abortion for up to 12 weeks, two-fifths of Latin American women saw their reproductive rights openly discussed this summer, while the rest watched on eagerly.  

Decriminalisation of abortion would have been historic as Argentina, already becoming a leader in human rights issues in the continent, would have been the largest Latin American country to do so. Unfortunately, on August 8th, Congress rejected the bill 38-31, leaving the procedure illegal in Argentina except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother. So for now in Latin America, abortion remains legal only in Mexico City, Cuba, Uruguay, Guyana, and French Guiana. So what caused the bill to fail, in spite of 60% public approval? 

Activists cited pressure from the Catholic Church, whose conservative influence not only affects the general population but is deeply extended into Argentina’s political parties. They had taken heart from Ireland’s passing vote in May, despite a strongly Catholic population, but the church’s influence is potentially stronger in Argentina – enough to keep abortion a polarising issue in spite of the global trend towards liberalisation which Latin America is following.  

Religious groups such as Yes To Life, especially obvious during the wave of counter-protests, claimed not only to be defending family values, but argued that science has proven that life begins at conception and therefore abortion, equal to the termination of a life, cannot be legal. This is then supported, and perhaps informed by, the statement of the President of the Argentinean Synod of Bishops that this would be the first law passed in democratic Argentina which permitted “the elimination of a human being by another human”. This not only draws upon those scientific and ethical debates, but likens abortion to the crimes during Argentina’s Dirty War which resulted in thousands of desaparecidos. 

And Pope Francis, himself Argentinian, also drew upon war crimes, bolstering fierce anti-legislation campaigns by relating abortion in cases of congenital abnormality to Nazi eugenics programs with white gloves. Anti-abortion supporters cited the protection of family values, while Jael Ojuel, an evangelical doctor, used her social media platform to make clear she would have refused to perform abortions, as many doctors do even in the few legal cases. She then claims to also be a feminist, arguing that the “my body, I decide” attitude of pro-choice feminists is a “selfish cause”.  

A prominent pro-life argument is better adoption than abortion – but Argentina’s pro-legislation campaign argued that the real choice is between safe and unsafe abortions. When abortion remains illegal, clandestine abortions become the only option – and official figures from Argentina say 500,000 take place every year, with 50,000 women subsequently hospitalised. Amnesty International has reported that 3000+ women died in the past 25 years as a result, making it the number one cause of maternal death in spite of Argentina’s developed healthcare system and considerably compromising the nation’s progress on human rights issues.  

Although sceptics claim Macri used the debate to distract from economic disaster; the open discussion of abortion, a proscribed subject in Argentina since the 1920s, shattered taboos. Others credit the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe & Free Abortion whose green wave, so-called for its signature bandanas, began in 2005, and feminist movements such as Ni Una Menos (Not One Less). Their movement began in 2015 with a 200,000-strong march in protest of gender violence which was killing 1 woman every 30 hours, and came to encompass deaths by clandestine abortion. Film director Lucrecia Martel framed the fight as one for women’s control over their bodies; her declaration that “for some, their last bastion of power is their power over women” referenced births by captive women during the dictatorship, while critiquing Latin America’s machista culture which inevitably prioritises the life of the child over the mother.  

Of course, the pro-life, feminist campaign for legal abortion was problematic in its own way. While some believe that Ni Una Menos represents a too singular version of feminist identity, others were concerned that abortion was not the only reproductive right absent, a sentiment best encompassed by a chant I heard (and joined in with) at a women’s march in Rosario: “aborto legal, educación sexual, y anticonceptivos para no abortar”. In order to prevent the fears of pro-lifers materialising, and to truly improve the situation for women, abortion legislation must be accompanied by access to contraception and sex education – without information and the means to safely pre-empt a pregnancy, abortion could then become a form of contraception instead of the life-saving, accessible last resort that it should be.  

So where does Argentina, and Latin America, go from here?  

Supporters of legal abortion argue that a new era on human rights has been entered and one day their cause will be won, not only in Argentina but throughout Latin America. Regarding the future of abortion, Alaska, an Argentinian friend of mine, says: “The question shouldn’t be abortion yes or no; it should be legal or illegal. I’ve read that quote in a lot of places and I think it sums up everything. And it will be legal sooner or later!”  

The anticipated ripple effect of legalisation following a successful bill in Argentina has of course not materialised, but activists across the continent have used its campaign to get the issue into their own national discussions. Chile, which only legalised abortion in cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother’s life in 2017, has been divided by their neighbour’s campaign, with both sides adopting the same colours. And the green wave even spread to Mexico, with the pro-choice debate intensified in a country where sex and reproductive health remains taboo.   

As it stands now, a year must pass before a bill on the issue could be considered again, and the debate is not as simple as yes or no. Despite its particular context, it comes down to global ethical and scientific arguments as yet unresolved. When does life begin – conception or birth? Whose rights do we prioritise – the mother or the foetus? Is the foetus itself a separate entity? Is it worse to abort, or bring a child into the world with poor quality of life? And is legal change enough?  

While legal abortion would not change society overnight, a reproductive health bill which includes legal abortion, sex education and access to contraception could give women a chance. And with a growing campaign to separate church from state following the failed bill, it seems pro-legalisation activists are right to maintain their optimism. But until the law passes, the unfortunate conclusion is that many more women may have to die of clandestine abortions before the possibility of aborting without endangering their own lives becomes available.


A Beginner’s Guide to Saint Petersburg

With the World Cup currently taking place in Russia, what better time to take a look at the country’s second city? While Moscow’s Red Square might be home to some of the most iconic monuments to Russia’s turbulent history, there are some real gems to be found four hundred miles north-west in Saint Petersburg, too.

Long known as one of Europe’s cultural capitals, locals tell you that Saint Petersburg’s tumultuous past is reflected partly in its name changes. Founded in the early eighteenth century by Tsar Peter the Great, it became Petrograd in 1914, Leningrad in 1924, and was renamed Saint Petersburg in 1991 as the Soviet Union crumbled.

Indeed, it was the capital of Imperial Russia until the end of the First World War, a fact reflected in its grand architecture. The city was the main flashpoint of the Bolsheviks’ October Revolution, just one example of the defining moments in world history centred there. Nowadays, Saint Petersburg is more westernised than you might imagine, especially in the busier areas populated with restaurants and department stores, and it is still the centre of modern ballet.

If you’re spending any length of time in Russia, it’s definitely worth taking the eight to nine hour night train from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. Although perhaps not the most comfortable night’s sleep you’ll ever have, the four-person pods consisting of two bunk beds make for an interesting travelling experience. And the cramped overnight arrangements will all seem more than worth it when you pull into the city and start exploring.

Saint Petersburg’s centrepiece is the beautiful Palace Square. Once a royal residence, the green and white Winter Palace which runs along one side is now home to the Hermitage Museum, one of the world’s most famous art galleries, home to works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Da Vinci, some amazing vases and clocks, plus a hilarious dog sculpture that some tourists noticed bears an unfortunate resemblance to a certain Mr Putin. However, perhaps the most interesting things to see are the stunning rooms themselves.

Elsewhere, in the middle of the square is the imposing Alexander Column and opposite the Winter Palace, the impressive General Staff building is constructed in a curved semi-circle around a ceremonial arch. It was realised during the reign of Tsar Alexander I and used as government offices until the relocation of the capital to Moscow, with its sheer scale and grand façade making it a must for those with an interest in architecture.

While Moscow’s sixteenth-century Saint Basil’s cathedral is perhaps Russia’s most iconic building with its ice gem rooftops, Saint Petersburg has its own answer. The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood is built in a similar style, although was only completed in the early 1900s. Whilst it’s not quite so eye-catching from the outside, step inside and the gilded walls and mosaic portraits of ecclesiastical figures are breath-taking, whether you’re religious or not. Like Saint Basil’s, it is now a museum featuring various exhibits about its city. Of course, this is Russia, so the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood is just one of many imposing religious buildings nearby.

With the Soviet Union being one of the nations hardest hit by World War Two in terms of casualties, this is respectfully commemorated by the sprawling Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad. Complete with roses and eternal flames, this monument remembers the grim siege of the city which starved many civilians. Visitors can walk down the steps into the bowl-like monument, and admire the stone tower and casts of soldiers on the other side.

The Peter and Paul Fortress is an interesting complex of buildings, with the centrepiece being a political prison, which up until the Bolshevik era housed a who’s who of political prisoners. The Peter and Paul Cathedral here is an important site for those interested in the Russian royal family.

One quirkier site is the Smolny Institute, a government building still used today for official business. Here you can see not only the conference rooms and various exhibits, but, also, Lenin’s old office has been preserved – making for several great photo opportunities. The view from his window is hardly befitting of a great revolutionary leader, though. It’s hard to gain access unless you’re on an organised trip and security is naturally quite keen, but it’s well worth a visit if possible.

If you can bear the sub-zero cold and go in winter, as well as benefitting from cheaper flights, you can see many of the city’s rivers frozen over. Saint Petersburg is hardly short of waterways, and they look incredible when they freeze and crack.

While it might not be your first thought when planning a holiday, Saint Petersburg has a generally safe, chilled out atmosphere. Like in all major cities, there is a risk of pickpocketing, but if you keep your wits about you and stick to busier areas you should be fine. As with most places, knowing a few words of basic Russian will help, and despite the tricky alphabet it’s easy to pick up. What’s more, exchange rates are very favourable to roubles – I mean everything is dirt cheap – and because the rouble is a very small unit of currency, you can enjoy carrying hundreds and even thousands in notes without breaking the bank!

You shouldn’t let the current political situation put you off visiting one of the world’s most historical, vibrant cities if you get the chance. No matter what culture you’re into, chances are Saint Petersburg will have it in abundance.