India varies greatly between its 29 states. Yet there are some things you’ll discover no matter where you are or how long you stay in the vast Subcontinent. If you’ve been to India at least once, you’ll relate to a few of these lessons we’ve learned over the years…

1. The street food is incredible

For 50 cents you can fill up on any number of delectable dishes, from masala dosa (rice pancake with chutney and daal) to pav bhaji (veg curry in a soft bread roll), to simple snacks like samosas and chana chaat (spicy chickpeas). You’ll never tire of what’s on offer. If you miss out on street food, you’re missing half the fun of coming here.

2. People will go out of their way to help you

This is true anywhere in the world, but is especially evident in India. Sure, some of the people you meet will be trying to pull a fast one, but others will go unexpectedly far out of their way to help you. Total strangers will share their meals with you on a train, give you their seat and make sure you get off at the right stop, or show you all the way to the front door of your tucked-away guest house. Go with your gut, and be prepared to get it wrong – everyone does at some point.

3. Chai is a blessing

Thick, milky, spicy and sweet, the ubiquitous chai (Indian tea) is usually served in a small cup for about 10 cents. It’s reviving, comforting and delicious. You’ll find it on trains, in bus stations and on street corners – they don’t make it this good anywhere else on Earth.

4. The temples are beautiful (and a great place to cool off)

Religion permeates the very core of Indian life, and as such the country is home to some of the world’s most spectacular and awe-inspiring temples. Whether Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian or Jain, places of worship are a great place to cool off and gain some tranquillity. Often placed at the top of hills with magnificent views, the buildings range from humble shrines to palatial marble structures with glittering spires and swirling fairy-tale-like towers.

5. You can bargain for most things

…but don’t quibble over 10 rupees. Whether it’s for a room, a trek, a rickshaw ride or yet another pair of Ali Baba pants, keep it jovial. Walking away usually brings the price down, and it’s a good idea to know what you’re willing to pay for something before you start haggling.

6. There’s always a celebration

The Hindu calendar is jam-packed with festivals. Getting involved in the major ones such as the colourful paint-throwing revelries of Holi is a great way to immerse yourself in Indian culture. However, there’s no need to fret if you miss the big hitters, as smaller local festivals take place all the time in communities throughout the country. When you hear loud drumming, be sure to follow that sound – you’ll likely discover a parade of fantastically decorated elephants and people dressed up as mythical creatures and deities.

7. Cows have right of way

Seeing cows merrily wandering anywhere they please can take some getting used to. Stopping traffic in the street, lying casually on the beach, nosing their way into people’s front doors… they are all over the place. Fortunately, Indian cows aren’t fussy eaters – most of the time they’re munching on anything they can find, from food waste to paper bags.

8. You will get asked awkward questions. Constantly.

What is your salary? How many girl/boyfriends have you had? Are you married? Why don’t you have any children? What is your father’s salary? What is your religion? Such questions are perfectly normal in polite conversation among strangers in India, and asking them does not appear negatively intrusive, as it would at home. It’s not worth getting offended – you’ll soon tire yourself out with the effort. All the same, you may want to invent a few white lies to make life easier.

9. Personal space is subjective

Joining another long queue? Prepare to be continually pushed from all angles and uncomfortably squashed between the people behind and in front of you. Standing on a train? Don’t even think about being able to move your limbs or work out an exit route. You’re going to know what your neighbours ate for breakfast, and nobody is going to give two hoots that everyone’s all up in your grill. Personal space is a luxury most Indians can’t afford.

10. You are going to be a curiosity

Walking around in anonymity and gaining a fly-on-the-wall experience in India is simple never going to happen. Everywhere you go people greet you, stare intently at you, chat to you and even take photos of and with you. Travellers are intriguing and endlessly entertaining to many of the local people. You may as well enjoy the attention while it lasts.

11. Bum hoses are the bomb

You will probably scorn it at first, thinking Western toilet habits superior. But you’ll come around soon enough. Using a jet of water that shoots out of a hose means you don’t have to worry if you forgot to bring toilet paper, you don’t have to go anywhere near the disgusting overflowing waste bin, you’re saving the trees and you come away feeling much cleaner… if a little damp. Bum hoses win, hands down.

12. You are probably going to get sick

Even those who only eat in the classiest restaurants and don’t let a drop of tap water ever come near their toothbrush still often get sick. Taking probiotics can help strengthen your weak foreign stomach, but you should still always be prepared for the worst, and check in to somewhere decent when it happens.

13. The Indian head wobble is an essential skill

Somewhere between a nod and a shake of the head lies the Indian head wobble, a side-to-side tilting that means “yes”, “I get it”, or acts as a sign of acknowledgement and encouragement. You’ll definitely look silly trying it, but you’ll always get a positive response.

14. Everything takes ages

Want to post a parcel but didn’t bring two passport photos, three copies of your passport, seventeen copies of your visa and numerous identical forms filled out with a heinous amount of unnecessary information? And you didn’t leave three hours to spare? The British brought some good things to India; bureaucracy was not one of them.

15. Expect the unexpected

India is one of the most bizarre, crazy, hectic, magical and sensational places on earth. You literally never know what’s going to happen next, but it’s one of the most exciting places to travel. Find out where you should start your adventure in India.

Explore India with the Rough Guide to IndiaCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Japan is one of those countries you can’t really prepare for – the famously impenetrable etiquette, complex traditions and bitingly modern pop culture combine to make a place which could wrongfoot the most experienced traveller. Here are just a few of the things which any gaijin (foreigner) can expect to find out on their first trip.

1. A little Japanese goes a long way

It’s always a good idea to learn some of the language when you travel, if only out of courtesy. In Japan, even managing a hesitant “arigatō” when you buy something or a tentative “sumimasen” when you need to get past someone will have a marked effect. Many Japanese people see a Westerner and worry that they’re going to have to dust off their high-school English, and their relief when they find out you’re making an effort is pretty gratifying.

2. You should really learn how to use chopsticks

There is a bizarrely persistent myth in Japan that Westerners can’t use chopsticks, even though most can quite happily do so. If you’re not confident then it’s best to brush up on your skills before arriving, as some traditional restaurants won’t have any forks. If you’re irredeemably chopstick-averse, stick to international foods, things on skewers, and Japanese curry (which is always eaten with a spoon). Just be prepared to look longingly over at your friends’ delicious plates of sushi, bowls of udon or steaming festival yakisoba.

3. It’s surprisingly hard to be vegetarian

Many people think of Japan as a herbivore’s heaven, but actually if you don’t eat fish you may find yourself with an unwelcome fishy surprise in the most innocuous-sounding dish. The main culprit is dashi, the umami-rich fish stock which forms the basis of most Japanese soups, broths and sauces. Many people in Japan don’t quite understand vegetarianism, but if you’re careful about how you explain it – “I don’t eat any meat or any fish, including dashi” – then you can find plenty of delicious tofu- and vegetable-based meals. Plus, you have a perfect excuse to treat yourself to shōjin-ryōri, Japan’s delicious vegetarian temple cuisine.

4. Being naked isn’t that big a deal

In most countries, being naked is a private matter. You’ll find that Japan is generally the same – most people dress fairly conservatively, and even at the beach it’s usual to carry a cover-up. The exception to all of this is the onsen. If you head to one of these hot springs (or to a sentō, a humbler neighbourhood bath) you’ll have to check in your modesty on entry. Wearing a bathing suit is a huge faux pas, even if you’re at one of the (far less common) mixed-gender baths. Take a deep breath and go for it – after about five seconds you’ll realise that, honestly, no one cares. It may be a cliché, but the experience really is liberating.

5. Matsuri are possibly the best thing in the world

Matsuri (Japanese festivals) are great, as you’ll discover the moment you come across one. Time your visit right and you could see thousands of drunk, mostly-naked men brawling over some sacred sticks (Saidai-ji Eyo Matsuri), a whole mountain set on fire (Yakakusa Yamayaki Matsuri), or a festival entirely about penises (Kanamara Matsuri). Slightly less terrifying festivals feature dancing and singing in the streets, traditional dress, beautiful mikoshi or nebuta and stall after stall of delicious treats. One thing’s for sure: you’ll miss them when you’re home again.

6. “Gaijin” is a very confusing word

Once you’ve learned the word, you start to hear it everywhere: gaijin. Technically it just means “foreigner”, but the nuances are complex. It might be meant affectionately, patronisingly, with a hint of xenophobia, or purely practically – and trying to figure out which it is might drive you crazy. The best response if someone calls you “gaijin” is, as usual, to smile, be friendly and hopefully demonstrate that, not only are foreigners not that scary, some are even quite nice.

7. Laces aren’t worth the hassle

Going into a Japanese house? Shoes off. Traditional restaurant? Socks, at most. Changing room? You guessed it. No matter how lovely your lace-up boots may be, you’ll very rapidly start resenting them – much better to leave them at home. Oh, and while we’re on the topic of footwear: lavatory slippers really are a thing, and you really will be embarrassed if you wear them outside the loo.

8. Japan’s not as small as you might believe

Japanese people tend to espouse a fair few myths about their country, from the idea that Japanese cuisine is irreconcilable with a Western palate to the often-repeated “Japan’s such a small country”. Really, this doesn’t hold up to scrutiny: north to south, Japan is about 3000km long; it’s bigger than Germany, and half as big again as the UK; just Japan’s northern island, Hokkaidō, is larger than Austria. None of this would matter, apart from the fact that you may be misled and think you can definitely fit in a side trip to Aomori on your way to Ōsaka…

Mount Fujiyama and Lake Kawaguchi / Corbis: Image Plan

9. You will make some mistakes…

Don’t wear shoes inside; purify yourself on the way into a shrine; never pass food from one set of chopsticks to another, or gesture with them, or stick them upright in rice; don’t leave a tip; do slurp your noodles; don’t apply make up on the train; never blow your nose in public; always bring a gift when you’re staying with someone. Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg: there is no way you’re going to get everything right.

10. …but you will be forgiven

One of the many good things about being a gaijin in Japan is that, when you do mess up, you’ll probably be forgiven. If it’s something that absolutely has to be pointed out (like wearing toilet slippers around the house) it’ll be done politely, and if not then most Japanese people will just let it slide. So long as you’re trying your best and learning as you go, you’ll be accepted with good grace.

11. You’ll leave desperate to come back

Crazy festivals, complex etiquette, incredible food, stunning landscapes, beguiling history… there are so many amazing experiences in Japan that you’ll never even scratch the surface with one trip. Whether it’s the genuinely warm, hospitable people, or the desire to visit that one famous temple you missed (oh, and that mountain you didn’t climb, and of course that restaurant your friend recommended, and that day-trip you couldn’t squeeze in), you’ll leave with some inarguable reason to come back to this bizarre, beautiful country and learn everything all over again.

If you want to do some research before you go, try checking your nearest JNTO office, and explore more of Japan with The Rough Guide to Japan.

Morocco‘s third-largest city tends to go overlooked, and it certainly isn’t shouted about as a culinary hotspot. Even getting here – with limited flight connections and rail services – requires some effort. And once you’re inside the largest medina in Africa, a colossal walled labyrinth of around ten thousand lanes, things get even trickier.

It’s a far cry from ever-popular Marrakesh, whose main square and souks, packed with snake charmers, fortune tellers and acrobats, have become a movie set of tourist-orientated camera-ready experiences.

Get hungry in Marrakesh and there’s a whole host of restaurants that crowd the Jemaa el Fna, many dishing up the same tick-box menu of tagine or pizza. Not so in Fez, where finding a good place to eat is both the challenge and the charm; book a restaurant here and someone will have to pick you up to guide you there.

In the medina street food oscillates between the bizarre and the delicious. Snails prodded with safety pins sit alongside mysterious vats of meat wedged in what resembles a yellowish, greasy lard. Tempting bowls of glistening fat olives accompany piles of sticky dates.

With a local little knowledge, or some luck, you can stumble upon candlelit riad courtyards, quirky cafés tucked down nameless alleyways and creative restaurants that are cleverly blending traditional and new styles.

Tradesman in Fez via photopin (license)

The edible side of the medina

The medina, Fez’s timeless, ever-beating heart is steeped in tradition. This is a maze where even locals get lost. Ask a Fassi if they ever lose their way and you might be met with the chuckled response “yes, everyday – that’s the beauty of it”.

It’s no surprise; everywhere you turn worn-down stone pathways twist and writhe, inexplicably opening out into stall-lined thoroughfares before being squeezed into steep dead-end alleyways so narrow that the sun can barely penetrate and you have to turn your body sideways to pass through.

This is a place, in many ways, living in the past. Heavily-laden mules are the only form of transport, camel heads are displayed outside local butchers and taking your family’s bread to be baked in the communal oven is still a morning ritual. And best of all, food – often in unusual guises – is everywhere.

Camel: 70 dhs/kg via photopin (license)

To truly get to grips with the edible side of the medina, the cookery course at Palais Amani is a great start. Before whipping up a selection of traditional dishes – anything from a delicately spiced tagine with a smoky aubergine zelouk, to a cinnamon dusted, flower water-infused orange dessert – chef Hussim will take you on a shopping mission through the medina.

Let yourself be guided along streets where men sit on stools barricaded in by their goods, peering out from behind walls of carrots, mounds of fresh mint, huge piles of purple radishes and crates overflowing with oranges.

Explore passages where row upon row of vibrant spices spill out from woven sacks and perfume the air.

The stalls here are made for grazing: women skilfully spread out delicately thin pancakes, hole-in-the-wall operations dish out steaming bowls of harissa soup, and stalls display rows of syrupy almond pastries.

Image by Olivia Rawes

Back in Palais Amani, the intricately tiled, lantern-filled restaurant serves traditional treats with a modern twist. Try the incredibly tender lamb tagine presented on a bed of artichoke hearts, or delve into a colourful mosaic of Moroccan tapas dishes on the roof terrace that overlooks the medina’s sprawl.

Modern cooking with cultural influences

Today, many restaurants in Fez are waking up foodie trends by blending Moroccan culture with new ideas.

Café Clock, a quirky restaurant that doubles up as a creative hub offering everything from yoga and calligraphy classes to film screenings, is famous for its cinnamon-salsa-topped camel burgers, a delicious mix of local, traditional ingredients repackaged as a western favourite.

The most striking example of this modern take on cooking is Resto Número 7, an innovative pop-up style concept that hosts chefs from around the world for three month placements. The restaurant’s chic black-and-white interior acts as a blank canvas against which the resident cooks bring their own creative twist inspired by Moroccan cuisine and the local, market-fresh ingredients.

Recent chefs, Oliver Truesdale-Jutras and Phoebe Oviedo, mixed their Canadian and Filipino backgrounds with the local influence to create dishes such as seared swordfish in a buttermilk, fennel and Harissa sauce, adobo-glazed turkey thigh with garlic couscous and a deconstructed panna cotta topped with sautéed banana and torched cinnamon crumble.

Future rumblings

Even more change is on the horizon for Fez. Plans to transform part of the medina are already well under way and are due to be completed in 2017. Locals say this redevelopment will turn the city into the “Venice of Africa”, creating a boulevard along the river where people can stroll right through the heart of the medina – a project that will undoubtedly bring more places to eat and stay.

There is hope that it will draw more visitors to Fez, increasingly allowing it to compete with other Moroccan tourist hubs such as a Marrakesh.

Only time will tell what effect this has, but for now at least the pulls of modernity and tradition seem well balanced. Fez has hit that sweet spot: the perfect mix of enchanting time-warp and exciting city.

It’s a food lover’s dream: come, eat your fill and don’t forget to get lost.

Olivia did a four night cookery break at Palais Amani, a luxury riad located inside Fez’s medina. Explore more of Morocco with the Rough Guide to MoroccoCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Dozens of countries, hundreds of flights, half a life on the road. That’s the life of a travel writer. And it teaches you a fair few things. Rough Guides author Helen Ochyra shares some of her travel tips and tricks.

1. Be annoying

It’s time to talk to strangers. The concierge. The waiter. The bar staff. That customer at the next table who looks cool. Ask them where to go and you’ll find most people love to share. You’re one conversation away from your next “hidden gem” – well worth the potential embarrassment. There’s always the Spottedbylocals app for those who simply can’t.

2. Get out of bed

Not an easy one this. At least, not for anyone who loves a lie-in. But a lot happens before brunchtime out there and you don’t want to miss it. So get to Angkor Wat for sunrise, head out to a diner for breakfast in New York and hit the beaches in Italy before the hordes. You won’t regret it. You can sleep when you get home. Or on your next flight.

3. Charge on the go

There’s nothing worse than being forcibly detached from technology due to a dud battery. A MiPow Power Tube 3000 will save the day. It can charge a phone fully more than once and has a built-in charging cable. It even alerts you if you leave it behind by telling your iPhone to beep at you.

4. Join the Cloud

That iPhone is invaluable for one main reason of course: photos. With its iSight camera, it can render a clunky DSLR obsolete for some. Memories are viewfinder-shaped these days, and without shots of our trips we’d be lost. Gone are the days of the manual back-up: Apple now does this for you with iCloud. Set yours up and every photo and video you take will be downloaded to the cloud automatically and become accessible from anywhere.

5. Choose favourites

Remember the name of that great restaurant you went to in Barcelona three years ago? No? Next time, just ask your phone to remember it for you. In Google Maps simply tap the name of the place and then hit “Save”. This will mark it with a star so you can always come back to it.

6. Carry cash

From Scotland to Cambodia, being strapped for cash is never ideal. Not everywhere has an ATM, and you can’t always pay with plastic in restaurants, hotels and bars. Carry an emergency £50/$50 or the local equivalent on you at all times.

7. Pack extra bags

Muddy boots, exploding toiletries, extra shopping – there are many reasons why you might need them, so carry a few plastic bags with you. You never know when an impromptu dip in the sea might lead to you carrying your wet swimmers on the bus.

8. Take a taste of home

This is one for the Brits. If you love – no need – a decent cuppa at the end of a hard day’s travels, there’s nothing worse than a weak cup of the brown stuff. Nowhere does it quite like we do, so accept that and take your own teabags. Not a tea fan? If you’re away on a long trip, you’ll really appreciate having something familiar, be that a hidden stash of chocolate or a nip of something stronger.

9. Dodge pointless fees

We know, it’s dull, but you could save a fortune with this one. Take out a credit card that offers no transaction fees abroad. Some banks can charge extortionate rates for foreign transactions, so save yourself some cash that could be better spent on another sundowner.

10. Book in advance

I’d love to say it’s best to be flexible but some sights are just too popular for rocking up unannounced. Queues for the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam, the Empire State Building in New York and the Vatican Museum in Rome can stretch to hours. Book in advance online and they disappear as you smugly step up to the front door. A no brainer.

11. Hire a car

Local transport can be an adventure and a more authentic way to view a country. But it’s also more inconvenient and more limited. So even if it’s just for one day, don’t rule out hiring a car and going wherever the mood and the roads take you; competent drivers will cope with most destinations (though maybe leave Africa and Asia to the locals). Check if you need an International Driving Licence (you do in Croatia) and take out car hire insurance if you plan to do this a lot. One chipped windscreen and it pays for itself.

12. Shoes off

Airport security is the worst part of travel. Fact. Make it easier for everyone by removing those shoes without anyone even asking. Chances are you’ll have to anyway. And of course it goes without saying that you’ve already taken off your jacket and belt. And emptied your pockets.

13. Don’t queue for the plane

You’ve got your boarding pass, you’re sitting at the gate, and they call your flight. Do you A: leap up and join a winding queue that is barely moving and thereby stand for half an hour? Or B: stay seated, finish your coffee and your emails and stroll up as the end of the queue reaches the gate? Yep, you’ve got this one.

14. Buy the guidebook

Books don’t run out of batteries, break down at key moments or (generally) get stolen. So buy the Rough Guide and have travel advice with you wherever you go. Those maps can be invaluable, and those restaurant listings could lead you to your next favourite. And isn’t finding those places the whole point of travel anyway?

Get a Rough Guide for you next tripCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Travelling is about education: learning about the world, yourself and life in general. The lessons are endless no matter where you are in the world, so if you’ve ever been backpacking, you’ll know what we’re talking about. Here are fourteen things every backpacker learns on their first jaunt around the world:

1. You need less stuff than you think

You might leave home with three pairs of shoes and an XXL fanny pack, but after a few weeks away you’ll be permanently glued to your flip flops – and you’ll start carrying your money around in your pocket, just like everyone else on the planet. The best advice is to pack as little as possible; everything else can be picked up along the way.

2. Earplugs are a good investment

Bargain bunk beds and the warm embrace of a drunken sleep, surrounded by new friends from around the world. Ah, yes: snoozing in shared dorms is an essential part of the backpacking experience.

But wait… is somebody snoring already? Why didn’t Big Dave from Australia mention his sleep apnoea? And how are those two backpackers from the bar doing god-knows-what in a bunk that’s barely big enough for one person? Add in the nocturnal farters and pre-dawn plastic bag rustlers, and you’ve got a recipe for a pretty rough night’s sleep. Pack earplugs, and be prepared to use them.

3. There’ll always be someone who’s done more

Swum to a remote beach and survived on venomous snakes that you caught with your bare hands? Smoked weed with a yogi during a solar eclipse? Been to every hostel in every country on Earth? Awesome! But there will always be someone staying at your guesthouse who’s done it all too, and then some. The solution? Find your own path and do what makes you happy, rather than engaging in the un-winnable war of one-upmanship.

4. There are good people everywhere

Despite what TV news would have you believe, there are good people everywhere. Get yourself into a spot of bother pretty much anywhere in the world and if you’re polite and respectful, there will be some good soul willing to help you out.

5. It’s okay to get lost

See point 4, above.

6. No one wants to hear it

Your guitar, that is. Or your ukulele. The whole reason the people go travelling is to experience something new, not to listen to someone muddling through a cover of Wonderwall after a few too many local beers.

7. Not everything is online (yet)

There are still amazing places that don’t have a presence online. Smart backpackers learn not to limit themselves to the restaurants, hotels and restaurants they’ve seen getting good reviews on the web, as often it’s personal recommendations that lead to the best experiences.

8. Your body copes with a lot (but not everything)

The average backpacking trip puts the human body through a lot, including long flights, sleepless nights, litres of cheap beer and tasty, exotic seafood, which is not always prepared to the same squeaky-clean standards you’re used to back home. You’ll cope with most of this stuff pretty well but there are still limits, so expect at least a few of your ‘comfort breaks’ to be rather, well… uncomfortable.

9. If it sounds too good to be true, it is

That five baht tuk-tuk ride around Bangkok sounds cheap, but will wind up with you getting dragged around gem shops that you never wanted to visit. Likewise, the ‘free’ walking tours offered in European capitals often end up with tourists being guilt tripped into tipping the guide, or paying for a longer tour. If you want a good experience, be prepared to pay for it.

10. Banks don’t like backpackers

What happens when you call your bank to let them know about your travel plans? That’s right, they wait until you’re having a good time thousands of miles from home and then put a block on your card, saying they suspect some kind of fraudulent activity (when really it’s just you, frantically trying to book a last-minute flight).

Worse still, if you really are a victim of fraud, they’ll cut the card off completely, and then helpfully offer to post a new one out to your home address – that’s right, on the other side of the planet.

11. Cheap doesn’t feel cheap for long

A beach hut for $10 a night seems like great value at first, but you’ll soon come to expect low prices and moan when they edge even a few cents higher – completely forgetting that you’d pay ten times the amount for similar digs back home.

12. There isn’t much you can’t wash in the sink

Jeans, t-shirts, and even your entire backpack – when needs must, you’ll find room for almost everything in the bathroom sink. Drying times vary.

13. You’re incredibly lucky

In some parts of the world it’s possible to survive on next to nothing and still be relatively rich. The fact that you can afford to jet away from your home country and experience new places and cultures (even if you are surviving on a diet of noodle soup and local-brand cigarettes) puts you among the luckiest people on Earth. Appreciate it, and make every second count.

14. You can never see it all

Which is why your first backpacking trip should never, ever be your last.

Take your first trip with the Rough Guide to the First-Time Around the WorldCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

There’s only one way to avoid the traffic-burdened streets of Uganda’s capital, Kampala: hop on the back of a boda boda, the city’s motorcycle taxi. The motorbikes got their name from the slang term “border border”, because back in the 1960s and 70s people took motorcycle taxis as a fast, and inexpensive way to cross the Kenya–Uganda border.

Today, boda bodas are still a cheap way locals get around much of East Africa, and in Uganda, they’re essential – except, boda boda drivers are notorious for high speeds and reckless driving, which is why Walter Wanderas began running Boda Boda Tours.

When the 30-year old became a boda boda driver to pay his way through university, he had no idea it would become a profitable full time business. Keeping speeds under control, and carrying helmets for passengers drew him a loyal customer base.

Walter’s curiosity about the sites he drove past every day in Kampala inspired him to learn as much as he could about attractions like the King’s Palace, and now, with a fleet of six boda bodas, and twenty drivers, Walter’s tours have expanded to cover national parks, safaris, and mountain biking, and touring in more traditional 4x4s for the less adventurous.

“organized chaos, or disorganized order”

Despite Walter’s infectious smile and assurances, it was with more than a bit of trepidation that I climbed on the back of his boda boda for a tour. I hate riding motorcycles, so this was a test for both of us; just how much could he calm a nervous rider, and just how much I could trust him. He’d obviously dealt with nervous riders like me. “Don’t worry, we have a spotless record – no accidents in our entire company, and we go less than 40mph,” Walter said patiently.

As we entered a busy roundabout, I looked straight ahead, over Walter’s shoulder, before we began snaking through narrow streets in a neighbourhood that’s usually unknown to tourists. “This is what we call organized chaos, or disorganized order,” Walter said with a laugh. We parked and climbed up a flight of stairs to a local billiard bar to see one of the best views over the city. If my nerves weren’t starting to ease, a sip of Ugandan banana beer would do the trick.

By the time we’d reached the Gadaffi National Mosque I’d loosened my grip, and realised this is the best way to cover so much ground. It would have been impossible on foot or by car within one day. The mosque, built in 2006, and funded by the eponymous Libyan leader, is the second largest in Africa. The entire city, with hills set against Lake Victoria to the south, is visible from the top.

“The country’s dark past is still present”

Walter’s favourite rolex stand delivered a delicious typical street meal of warm chapatti, rolled with egg and tomato inside. Chapatti is a foundation of the Ugandan kitchen, thanks to the Indians, who first came in the late nineteenth century as labourers building the railway to Mombasa. Though expelled during Idi Amin’s rule, thankfully, many have returned, to serve up delicious, authentic dishes at the many Indian restaurants in Uganda.

I discovered the country’s dark past was still present at the end of a dirt path on the grounds of the King’s Palace. We descended into a bat-filled cave, where Idi Amin’s torture chambers still stand, three cement rooms, elevated on a platform.

The former president, who ruled from 1971–79, ensured the underground chambers were surrounded by electrified water, to execute enemies of the state. Walter explained that 200,000 prisoners were held in 10×10-ft rooms, crammed so tightly together, many died of asphyxiation. Others tried to escape, only to be electrocuted. There was an eeriness about the place.

We rode to a more peaceful spot, upon yet another of Kampala’s hills. Within 45 acres, sits Uganda’s Baha’i temple, the only one in Africa. Uganda’s Baha’i population has thrived since the end of Idi Amin’s reign, when they too were expelled.

“An escape from the frenetic city streets”

The day was a mixture of crowds and calm. The quiet hills offered an escape from the frenetic city streets, where we found Owino market, Africa’s largest second-hand clothing market. Mountains of colour were lorded over by scores of vendors selling clothing, shoes and electrical goods.

We finished up with a traditional Ugandan meal at a restaurant in Old Kampala. Different dishes were served on one plate, from fresh cassava and cassava bread, to pumpkin, beans, goat, and fish steamed in banana leaves. Vegetarians and carnivores are well catered for in the city.

Need to know:
Tours run for about three hours, but can go as long as six, with no extra charge. Walter tailors them to personal preferences, but we went with his most popular city tour, visiting the original seven hills of Kampala, as well as the others, which now total 23. On weekends, lounge lizards can opt for the after-dark tour of Kampala’s nightlife; the boda bodas are parked, and Walter commandeers a mini-van to cruise the city’s best bars and clubs. You can stay at the Serena Hotel Kampala.

Forget about high-tech travel, a new trend sees tourists forgo internet access, phones and gadgets. After a weekend spent shunning all-things digital in Somerset, Lottie Gross shares what she learned about life and travel on her first (and hopefully not last) digital detox.

I’m a self-confessed digital-druggie, digitally distracted for 17 hours a day. Every waking moment – because I’m yet to master the somnolent status update – is spent glued to some sort of technology. I have an iPhone, iPad and a Macbook Pro (because one Apple product is never enough) and I carry a spare lithium battery for recharging – God forbid any of them run out of juice.

We live in a world where we’re constantly connected, always online, digging through data and endlessly downloading. We’re bombarded by an unrelenting torrent of information, made available on the internet and at our fingertips on laptops, smartphones and now even TVs.

We’ve become reliant on it: we can’t get around without Citymapper, won’t order cabs without apps like Uber, and if your restaurant doesn’t have more than three stars on our peer-review app, forget it. It sounds so destructive, so noxious. But the truth is, I love it.

But I’m beginning to wonder: rather than being empowered, am I becoming digitally-impaired? What am I missing as I walk that 300 metres from office to Underground, eyes down on my phone? A smile with a stranger? The love of my life? Who knows?

So in a willpower challenge, and kind of social experiment, two friends and I took to the Somerset countryside to have a digital detox. No TV (gasp!), no phone (shock!) and certainly no internet (surely not?!). How would I cope travelling like this for three days?

Lesson 1: travelling without tech isn’t that hard (and is quite fun)

We decided to “go dark” just outside the M25 – just after the satnav got us lost near Heathrow Airport. The universe was already telling us to disconnect from the world and look up.

Three hours later we successfully navigated with our AA road map through the country lanes near Taunton, and just 30 minutes from the motorway we arrived at the Bumblebee Barn in Halse.

The key was in the door, wifi switched off and the hot tub was warming up. Our excitable but lovely landlady, Tammy, even assured us our phones wouldn’t get signal even if we did try to turn them on. This was to be our disconnected home for the next three nights.

Image courtesy of Classic Cottages

Our AA roadmap became a lifeline over the next few days as we took a 25-mile jaunt to the quaint seaside town of Porlock, and we got well acquainted with the local area using an OS map to guide us along little-trodden footpaths. Without GPS to guide us we found an immense sense of satisfaction in reaching our destination – even if the pub in the next village was closed when we finally arrived.

Lesson 2: people are far more interesting in person

After three hours in the car with no radio to entertain, I was worried we’d run out of conversation before we even arrived. As it turns out, my friends are pretty interesting people, and right from the beginning we learned more about each other than we ever would in our Facebook feeds and Twitter timelines.

Instead of staring at a TV or avoiding eye contact through our laptops, we took three-hour breakfasts sipping tea and putting the world to rights. We debated politics, work and love and embraced the few silences that fell in between. Without technology to distract us, we were all fully present in every conversation – a refreshing and empowering feeling.

Lesson 3: connections aren’t only made online

I’ve made new friends through Twitter and kept in touch with old ones on Facebook. But it’s not just through social media and the internet that people are connected.

On a breezy spring afternoon we followed the black lines on our OS map up to the village of Milverton. We saw few other walkers and it felt like we had the green expanse of the Somerset countryside to ourselves – until we met Derrick. A kilometre from the village we took a path along the side of a hill and came across the most perfectly-poised bench for a five-minute mull over the surrounding natural beauty. On the back of this bench, a plaque read:

Derrick
Who expressed a wish to be remembered in this way

And so we sat in silence, admiring the rolling hills and farm fields, listening to the wind in our ears and remembering Derrick, a man we’d never known.

Lesson 4: without technology there is no boredom

Among the hiking boots and waterproof jackets, I packed a number of board games, three different books and a pack of playing cards. We were bound to get bored and need some form of entertainment.

But not a single one of those board games made it out of the bag, and I only read a couple of chapters of my book. We spent the weekend walking, talking, cooking, eating and, of course, hot-tubbing – there was no time for boredom. We embraced every moment there was, whether it was looking out over the ocean on a sunny afternoon or listening for the sound of owls at dusk on Halse Farm.

After two days of tech-free fun, I realised: I’m only ever bored when I’m scrolling aimlessly, either on my laptop, tablet or phone.

Without tech there would be no time for boredom because we’d be doing other things. Rather than obsessing over the World Wide Web, we’d be looking up and appreciating the real world for what it is, enjoying all it has to offer.

Lottie stayed in the Bumble Bee Barn in Halse village, Somerset. You can book this little retreat through Classic Cottages here.

Gilly Pickup discovers the enduring allure of Cuba’s bright and breezy capital, Havana, the island’s cultural heart.

Havana’s effervescence is palpable. The city is reminiscent of an old picture postcard come to life – awash with faded grandeur and crumbling ice-cream coloured buildings. Bartenders mix up mojitos in time to the hip-swaying, hypnotic sounds of salsa and straw-hatted, cigar-puffing men driving vividly coloured vintage Cadillacs, Pontiacs and Buicks.

Habana Vieja and beyond

Havana’s UNESCO listed Habana Vieja or Old Town, almost an open air museum, was once the Caribbean’s main Spanish settlement. With a glut of castles and baroque churches it has more old colonial buildings than any other city in the New World. Head to the Camera Obscura in the Plaza Vieja for the best views.

Of course there are countless museums to explore, too. The most famous is probably the Museum of the Revolution in Centro Habana. This big blast from the past is housed in what was once the Presidential Palace, headquarters of the Cuban government for forty years. Besides plenty of rusty revolvers and a life size wax figure of Che Guevara, it contains maps tracing the war’s progress, innumerable photos of Fidel Castro and some blood-stained uniforms.

Behind the museum are parts of a plane shot down during the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, a surface-to-air missile and the yacht that brought Guevara and Castro together with eighty plus revolutionaries to Cuba from Mexico in 1956 – today rather incongruously kept in a glass enclosure.

Another important landmark is the Capitolio Nacional. Once Cuba’s seat of government, the building is similar in appearance to the US Capitol Building in Washington DC. It is home to the National Library and Academy of Sciences and houses a planetarium and museum. Under the dome, a 24-carat diamond – an imitation – is set into the floor. This is where distances between Havana and other sites in the country are measured.

A cigar stop-off

No trip to Cuba would be complete without a cigar, and close by the Capitolio is one of the city’s most famous cigar factories, Real Fabrica de Tabaco Partagas.

Here, a reader is employed to entertain workers while they make the cigars – the reason why some cigars are named after literary characters. Tours allow visitors to see how cigars are made and, of course, there is the opportunity to buy some from the little shop at the end.

In the footsteps of Hemingway

While in Habana Vieja, it makes sense to pay a visit to El Floridita, one of the bars where Ernest Hemingway liked to have a bite to eat and down daiquiris.

Nothing much seems to have changed here since the thirties, when he was sometimes snapped at the bar with Errol Flynn or Gary Cooper, though it was a favourite meeting place for expat Americans before Hemingway made it famous.

Hemingway’s celebrity status has never dimmed in the eyes of the locals and his favourite stool is cordoned off almost as if he is expected to walk back in at any minute. The bar even created a daiquiri in his name, ‘The Papa Hemingway Special’. One story goes that he once sank 13 doubles in one visit. Who knows for sure, but if he did, he must have had a serious hangover next morning.

Fans of Hemingway can also visit his home, Finca Vigia, which lies just outside town. Now also a museum, it is kept just as it was when the man himself lived there. This is where he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and today visitors can see his huge book collection and his typewriter.

Along the sea spangled waterfront

And speaking of the sea, every visitor to Havana should head to the Malecón, the eight kilometre sea spangled waterfront promenade popular with locals and tourists, swimmers, joggers and musicians.

Although it was built in 1901 to protect the city from rough seas, today a party atmosphere abounds, especially during evenings and weekends.

Feisty bands and fizzing nightlife

You’ll learn to expect continual music here. It emanates round the clock from the city’s shady squares and cobbled streets. Havana is a feisty rainbow explosion of live bands. They’re everywhere: in the airport, restaurants, bars and on the streets – and at night the experience is out of this world.

Many local musicians play the ‘tres guitar’, a rhythm instrument with three double strings, while the pulsing African ‘son’ music and Timbal drum beats are bound to get your feet tapping.

Nightlife is full on and fizzing – and there are plenty of clubs and bars where visitors can party like a local. Dress to impress, as the locals do, and head to open-air cabaret Tropicana, a great place to soak up the sounds and shake that booty. This is no ordinary cabaret, complete with a 32-piece orchestra.

Festivals galore

It’s also an idea to plan a visit to Havana to coincide with some of the popular celebrations and festivals. These include the cigar festival in February, Carnival in July, the ballet festival in October and film and jazz festivals are in December.

Explore more of Cuba with the Rough Guide to CubaCompare flightsbook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Manchester is Britain’s new cultural capital. No, really. The city may have been built on the heavy industry of the Industrial Revolution but since the 2002 Commonwealth Games, it has re-invented itself as a world capital of the arts.

Today Manchester dominates the headlines with a slew of galleries, venues and festivals. It’s home to some of the UK’s most forward-thinking developments, one of the coolest music scenes and a fast-expanding range of great hotels and restaurants. Then there’s Russell T. Davies’ new Channel Four series, Cucumber, set along Canal Street in Manchester’s Gay Village, and the Royal Exchange Theatre’s Hamlet, set to be screened in cinemas across the UK.

Is there any doubt that Manchester is starting to take centre stage in the UK? David Atkinson makes the case for why the city is the UK’s cultural hotspot.

1. It has the most intriguing art gallery

The Whitworth Gallery recently re-opened to the public following a £15m redevelopment. The new building features a glass-promenade gallery overlooking the new Art Garden in Whitworth Park. The opening show, a solo exhibition from the respected contemporary artist Cornelia Parker, runs until summer, while the permanent collection showcases the gallery’s eclectic range of fine art, textiles and wallpapers.

2. It’s about to get the country’s top arts centre

HOME, the city’s new multi-artform centre opens on the 21st May with a funfair theme for the opening weekend. The £25m development includes a 500-seat theatre, flexible studio space and five cinema screens. It will commission, produce and present a programme of contemporary theatre, film and visual art, drawing on resources of the former Cornerhouse and Library Theatre Company, both of which have evolved into the HOME project.

Image courtesy of visitmanchester.com

3. It hosts the most dynamic festival

The bi-annual Manchester International Festival (MIF) kicks off in July with 18 days of premieres, performances and events. The festival, described by The New Yorker as “probably the most radical and important arts festival today” puts Manchester on the international stage. One of this year’s cornerstone events is the premiere of wonder.land, a new musical inspired by Lewis Carroll’s iconic Alice in Wonderlandwhich turns 150 this year – with music by Damon Albarn.

4. It’s home to some of the best libraries

Manchester always had a rich literacy legacy – from Karl Marx observing working life in the mid nineteenth century to the UK’s current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy via the punk poetry of John Cooper Clarke. Manchester Central Library, reopened last March as a living-room space for the city. The nearby Portico Library is a Neo-Classical gem with a dusty-tome-filled Reading Room and Chetham’s Library is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world.

Image courtesy of visitmanchester.com

5. It has the coolest music scene

Manchester has brought us bands from Joy Division to Elbow and the city’s best record shop, Piccadilly Records, remains the lynchpin of the Manchester music scene. For live bands, pick of the venues is The Deaf Institute a three-floor independent operation at the heart of studentland where you can catch bands on the way to stadium slots and cool new comedians, while supping on craft beers and tucking into tasty burgers.

6. It’s one of the best places for urban living

Looking for cool bars, trendy boutiques and lots of independent-spirited places to soak up the urban-cool vibe? Look no further than the Northern Quarter, the city’s thriving off-duty hub. Try North Tea Power for café-culture, surviving old faves like Afflecks Palace for vintage and vinyl, and Dry Bar for beers and bands.

Image courtesy of visitmanchester.com

7. It celebrates industrial heritage

Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, the family home of the Cranford author, reopened last year after a three-year project to restore the Grade II-listed Regency villa. Gaskell documented Manchester’s burgeoning industrial revolution from her writing desk at 84 Plymouth Grove after the family moved to the house in 1850 and her views contrasted starkly with the ideals of the Victorian era.

8. It has some fantastic places to stay 

With over 6,500 hotel rooms in the city centre, places to crash range from bijou boutique hotels to homely hostels. The Radisson Blu Edwardian, the former Free Trade Hall where The Sex Pistols invented punk in 1976, is now synonymous with urban cool while The Lowry, Manchester’s first five-star property, remains the place to see and be seen. 

Image courtesy of visitmanchester.com

9. It’s home to boundary-pushing chefs

The restaurant scene has exploded, with the Manchester Food & Drink Festival now a cornerstone of the foodie diary. Simon Rogan of Michelin-stared L’Enclume fame is currently cooking up a storm at The French in the Midland Hotel. Other highlights include Cloud 23, the panorama bar at the Hilton Manchester Deansgate, for fancy cocktails, and The Briton’s Protection, one of Manchester’s favourite traditional boozers, for local ales and spoken-word nights.

10. It’s about to get some serious investment

The government announced a £78m cash injection into Manchester’s creative economy in last year’s Autumn Statement. The cornerstone of plans for the ‘northern powerhouse’ is The Factory, a new artist-led, creative hub on a site to the west of the city centre that was previously home to Coronation Street. The Factory, a homage to Manchester’s legendary Factory Records, will combine an array of arts spaces with a permanent home for the Manchester International Festival. It’s due to open 2019.

Explore more of the region with the Rough Guide to Britain. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Compare flightsbook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Kris Griffiths takes a tour of the birthplace of reggae, following in the footsteps of Jamaica’s most famous son, Bob Marley, on what would have been his 70th birthday.

Reggae music was born in the downtrodden townships of this Caribbean island. It’s a genre that has managed to captivate most of the globe with its bouncing riddims and One-Love jubilation, thanks largely to its chief ambassador, Robert Nesta Marley.

Despite cancer stealing him at age 36 in 1981, he’s still very much part of Jamaica’s collective consciousness, and in the city he grew up in, he has almost attained the status of a prophet. Murals of his dreadlocked visage abound and his tunes can almost always be heard floating on the breeze.

For fans of Marley and the genre he helped globalise, one of the most fitting times to visit is ‘Reggae Month’ every February, when his birthday is celebrated with tribute shows and exhibitions. But Bob’s Kingston is alive all year round, for anyone from reggae pilgrims to more casual admirers just seeking some ‘positive vibrations’.

It all began here.

Growing up in Trenchtown

Although he was born in the village of Nine Mile in north Jamaica, Bob moved to Kingston’s Trenchtown as a young boy with his mother after his father died. It was in this impoverished neighbourhood his musical journey commenced. He learnt the guitar while listening to R&B from American radio stations with housemate Bunny Wailer, with whom he would later form eponymous group The Wailers.

The restored tenement block is now a National Heritage Site and fascinating cultural centre, where reggae musicians congregate to record and perform. A striking new statue of Bob has also been erected here to mark his 70th birthday.

Some tourists are deterred from visiting by a prejudice about local ‘ghetto’ culture, at odds with reality – visitors are welcomed warmly by locals promoting Bob’s peaceful message. Visiting also generates vital revenue for the still-deprived community that spawned him.

Recording at Tuff Gong Studio

Located in downtown Kingston, Tuff Gong is the label Bob founded in 1965 (named after his nickname ‘The Gong’ and being a ‘Tuff’ cookie). Today, its HQ is not only one of the biggest studios in the Caribbean but one of the most famous in the world, attracting not just reggae luminaries like sons Damian and Ziggy but superstars of other genres from Kenny Chesney to Sinead O’Connor.

Housing vintage analogue equipment alongside newer digital technology, the studio allows intimate access to the spaces where Bob recorded hits like Redemption Song and Buffalo Soldier. The label went on to sell millions of records, while Bob’s posthumous best-of Legend became the biggest-selling reggae album of all time.

Relaxing at home

Little did young Bob know, the home he would later buy a few miles uptown would become Kingston’s most-visited tourist site, the Bob Marley Museum.

The colonial-era clapboard house, where he lived for his final six years, is now a preserved shrine. Utensils in the kitchen date from his last days; his unpretentious bedroom left exactly as it was, his favourite guitar still by the bed; and poignant family photos hang on the walls. More dramatic are bullet-holes from the infamous 1976 assassination attempt, a grim reminder of the evil confronting Bob’s non-violent philosophy.

There are also museum spaces literally wallpapered with press clippings that exhibit his vast collection of Gold Records. And you can try Bob’s favourite drink, Irish Moss (made with seaweed extract), in the One Love Café, or a hearty vegetarian stew typifying the Rastafarian ‘Ital’ diet.

Retreating to Strawberry Hill

Following the shooting, Bob often withdrew to a retreat nestled high in the Blue Mountains overlooking Kingston, which is as special a spot to visit today as it was 40 years ago. Now a boutique hotel, Strawberry Hill was then owned by producer Chris Blackwell, who’d signed Marley and found his songs an international audience. Subsequently many famous artists visited, including the Stones, Willie Nelson and Grace Jones – personal photos of whom still hang on its walls alongside various Marley platinum discs.

For those with the budget to stay here, high-end features include a negative-edge infinity pool offering vertiginous mountainside views down to the city. For the rest of us, a traditional afternoon tea will do just fine.

Performing at National Stadium

Jamaica’s Wembley, built during Bob’s teenage years, has for most its lifetime served as a temple for the sport he held dear – football – which he regularly played. Home of the national team, internationally-known as the ‘Reggae Boyz’, it backdropped a significant moment in Bob’s career.

In 1978 the Wailers headlined the massive ‘One Love Peace Concert’ here, Bob’s first homeland show since returning from self-imposed exile, at a time when Jamaica was riven by deadly political civil war. During the song Jammin’, however, peacemaker Bob called for the leaders of both warring parties to join him onstage and shake hands, in a plea for national unity. For that night at least, peace reigned on Kingston’s streets.

Three years later Bob would return to the stadium, for his funeral. A commemorative statue of him – one of several around the capital – still stands outside, wielding a guitar.

Kingston has celebrated his life every year since on his birthday, but for visitors that musical high is on offer here perennially. As his son Ziggy said recently, Bob is more alive today than ever.

Kris stayed at Spanish Court Hotel. For further info on visiting Kingston go to www.visitjamaica.comCompare flightsbook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month