What a strange year 2020 has been, but no matter how weird things have gotten, the one bit of stability that I am keeping is my annual look back at the trips I've taken and articles I have written, as I do every year.
You can read my end of year review for 2019 here.
You can read my end of year review for 2018 here.
You can read my end of year review for 2017 here.
You can read my end of year review for 2016 here.
For obvious reasons, trips abroad this year were limited, although I did make it out to Nigeria, Kenya, Serbia and France earlier this year when the virus was limited largely in China. When lockdown was lifted, it was a chance to explore my own backyard, so I took trips to the different Royal Parks in London, as well as a first visit to the White Cliffs of Dover. I spent a considerable bit longer around the Midlands, doing a charity climb to Snowden, as well as exploring Birmingham and Stratford-upon-Avon.
As always, you can click any of the blue links to read in depth reviews of each location.
The year the world shutdown
Where else can I start but with Covid-19. At the start of the year, the coronavirus felt like a world away, limited to a large city in China, yet by the end of the year I was bed bound and isolated after testing positive in the English Midlands.
Despite warnings over the years from prominent individuals about the potential impact from a global pandemic, I had no reason to believe that this virus would shut down the entire world in the way that it did, and it seems like most governments weren't prepared either.
When lockdown started everything felt a little uncertain. I figured we'd work from home for a bit and then off we go. But pretty soon it become apparent we would be in it for the long haul. I ran through a deserted London and the empty streets were a haunting sight. One of the busiest cities in the world was nothing more than a ghost town.
Not being able to see family and friends was an inconvenience, but when people started dying it put everything into perspective. I lost family friends, and watched on from a distance as some of my friends started to get it.
Eventually, the virus came to my doorstep. Despite taking every precaution possible, and following lockdown strictly, I caught it at the gym, and within a week I was bed bound. It took a while to get over the initial symptoms, and I'm still recovering from the impact it had on my chest and kidneys but I consider myself very, very lucky. I'm young enough to hopefully make a full recovery, but there's stories of some people who are likely to be impacted for a long time.
While some people have managed to deal with the lockdown emotionally, physically and financially, others have lost their jobs or become mentally unwell being locked up in their houses.
It's one of the reasons I did a charity climb for the Sikh Soup Kitchen - because anytime something bad happens, you can rest assured there is a Sikh organisation helping out and we've seen a lot of that as Sikhs have quickly repositioned the langar (free kitchen) from something you have in the Gurdwara, to something that is delivered out on the streets to the most vulnerable.
You can read all about my thoughts on the coronavirus from earlier this year here, and you can read about my charity climb here.
Billionaires under the spotlight
With the pandemic destroying economies around the world and leaving millions out of work, it's been perverse watching billionaires get even richer. The wealth of the richest people in the world has grown considerably during the past 12 months, and it's only served as a reminder that our current economic and political system works for the benefit of the few against the interests of the many..
A billionaire is just an insane concept, if you don't believe me, check out this excellent YouTube video that demonstrates just how much a billion is. No single person should have that much power, and after a year like 2020 where billionaires have added some more zeros to their bank accounts while nurses and teachers have had to make do with applause, it should really make people sit up and think about how the world they live in works.
You can check out my reasons for why I think a billionaire is nothing more than a horrible policy failure here.
It's been a rollercoaster four years since Donald Trump came into power. I wrote an article when he won the election back in 2016 (which you can read here) and was living and working in New York when he was inaugurated. You could feel a weird energy then, and it just seemed to get weirder and darker the longer he was in office.
The world seems to be more divided than ever with extreme right-wing leaders in power in the US, Brazil and India, while in the UK we had the most right-wing government and the most left-wing opposition in my lifetime. I think I preferred it when every party seemed the same, trying to get the moderate, middle ground, rather than seeing who can promise the craziest thing to their lunatic fringe.
In any case, after Charlottesville, nuclear brinksmanship with North Korea, and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner and many others, I'm looking forward to someone that should (hopefully) be closer to the middle ground. But if the 2010s have taught me anything, politics can be crazy.
You can read my thoughts on the latest US election here.
Farmers uprising: the kisaan protests
Speaking of billionaires and far-right leaders, Panjab is currently in the midst of it's biggest protests in a generation, and not since the 2012 protests against the proposed execution of Balwant Singh Rajoana has the Sikh community in western countries come together to support their Panjabi family in such large number.s.
The reason for the uprising is simple; farmers feel that a raft of new laws will leave them financially ruined and at the mercy of corporates. What started as a largely Panjabi protest against these farm laws has become a nationwide protest bringing together Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims in the face of government crackdowns and media slanders that have tried to paint the protesters as terrorists and secessionists.
The protests are still going on, as millions of farmers remain camped in Delhi, sleeping in the cold, removing barricades and road blocks, and battling police charges with sticks and water cannons, all to exercise their right to protest and to fight back against billionaires, corporate interests and a nationalist government,
You can read about my article that lists the causes of the protests here, and an update on the protests here.
Before Covid became a global pandemic, I spent two weeks in Africa in January. I spent the first of those weeks on the east coast of the continent in beautiful Kenya. It was my first trip to the African continent and I fell in love with Nairobi.
The city is energetic, youthful and incredibly green (although the traffic pollution is uncomfortably bad). There's a lot to see and do, and highlights for me included the Nairobi National Park, the Giraffe Centre, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and the opportunity to do yoga with the Africa Yoga Project.
On the other hand, visiting Kibera, the largest slum in Africa was sobering and took me back to favela that I visited in Rio de Janeiro (the largest in South America) although this was on a whole different scale.
The Sikh community in Nairobi is sizeable and well established and I took the chance to pay my respects at the Singh Sabha Gurdwara in Nairobi, one of the oldest and most beautiful in the city. I sat down with the Giani and spoke at length about the history of the Sikh community in the city. It was a moment of peace and calm in the middle of hectic city.
You can read about the 5 things I loved about Nairobi here, or if you have more time, you can read my in-depth review of the city here.
Lagos and Abuja, Nigeria
I spent the second week on the west coast of the continent in the most populous African country. Nigeria. Lagos is the largest city and was significantly more hot and humid than Nairobi, and somehow the traffic was even worse.
I don't think I've seen a city as crowded as Lagos before, this was Hong Kong levels of chaos, but less orderly. Getting from one part of the city to another felt like a Lord of the Rings style mission, and a journey that should take minutes ended up taking hours in gridlocked traffic.
The security situation in Nigeria isn't quite as safe as Kenya so I was limited in terms of what I could do, but I enjoyed a visit to Victoria Island Market, even though within minutes we had a crowd of people around us.
Abuja was very different. An open and functional city, planned and relatively new. The broad avenues kept traffic flowingly freely, and the city was considerably less busy than Lagos. It felt like the Nigerian Washington DC - functional, low rise and relatively quiet. It was hotter, but also drier which meant the heat was at least tolerable.
Before the pandemic, the plan was to spend a significant amount of time this year in Nigeria, and particularly Abuja, but those plans were quickly changed and the first of many trips to the country, became the only one.
You can read about my trip to Nigeria here.
Skiing in Serbia
Another one before the pandemic became an actual thing, was a trip to Serbia. I've always wanted to go skiing, but it's so expensive, so the chance to do a cut-price trip with old friends was something I jumped on.
It seems a different lifetime ago, given what happened afterwards, but while the virus was circulating in a Chinese city, life around the world continued as normal. I spent a short bit of time in Belgrade, and got to see the beautiful St. Sava's Church as well as walking around the city and being stared at by literally everyone - and honestly, I mean every single last person. Imagine, an all white city, and you get a brown Sikh man, and two black guys (one of whom is basketball levels tall) so to say we stood out would be an understatement.
We went skiing in the southern Serbian resort of Kopaonik, which was an incredible experience. It took me a while to figure out the whole skiing thing, but thanks to a patient instructor, and patient friends, I ended up getting pretty decent at it. That's not to say the stares stopped - it was just as bad in Kopaonik as it was in Belgrade, but I also began to distinguish between angry "you shouldn't be here" stares, and curious stares.
You can read about my trip to Serbia here.
The White Cliffs of Dover
After a few months of strict lockdown, the world started to open up, and after 3 months on my own in a small London flat, I was ready to get outdoors as the government began to promote 'staycations' or spending time visiting different parts of the UK.
I've always wanted to see the White Cliffs of Dover, and they didn't disappoint. Rolling green hills, next to the deep blue of the English Channel separated by towering white cliffs, it was picture perfect. Other than a lighthouse and a castle, there's not a bunch to see or do, but that's exactly the point, it's an escape from the big city to see a landscape that is uniquely British.
You can read about my trip to see the White Cliffs of Dover in more detail here.
The Royal Parks of London
I counted 13 different parks within London that I visited, including all 8 Royal Parks (a park originally owned by the Monarch).
London does very well in terms of the amount of green space the city has, and the parks are well spread out (although West London seems to get some of the larger, more famous parks).
I visited all the main parks from the largest 2360 acre Richmond Park, to the smallest 47 acre Green Park and everything in between. Some of them have large animals like deer (Richmond Park), others have beautiful sculptures (Kensington Gardens), while a few have stunning views of the London skyline (Greenwich Park).
These parks are well worth visiting the next time you find yourself in London, and I wrote an article that lists each of these parks, the nearest tube station, and a ranking of my favourites - you can check it out here.
Located on the Breton coast of France, Ploumanac'h was voted the village most preferred by the French a few years ago, and it's not hard to see why.
I spent the best part of a week in Ploumanac'h and fell in love with it. There's not a tonne of things to do here, but that's the point - it's a postcard village where you can really kick back and relax.
The beach at Ploumanac'h is relatively small but well proportioned, and gets quite busy during the day with tourists from different parts of France. In the night it's a completely different story, with empty streets and little to no light pollution a short drive outside the village.
In addition to the beach, Ploumanc'h is famed for its seafood, its picturesque port and the Pink Granite Coast. The latter is particularly spectacular and the one hour walk to the nearest town of Perros-Guirec along the Sentier des Douanier is one of the most visually stunning walks I've ever done.
You can read about my trip to Ploumanc'h here.
Ploumanc'h is located in the Brittany region of France, a largely insular and isolated territory that is significantly rural.
I visited a number of towns and cities throughout Brittany, as well as spending a considerable amount of time in the Breton countryside that seems to go on forever. Every so often, the expanse of greenery is broken up by small villages that look like they been stuck in the 18th century forever.
Guingamp and Rennes were two of the larger settlements that I visited, the former famous for its Black Madonna in the Basilica of Notre Dame de Bon Secours, while the latter is home to large number of gorgeous half-timbered houses and the spectacular Rennes Cathedral. I also visited Mont St. Michel - although technically that's in Normandy.
You can read about my trip to Brittany here, and you can read about the 5 things I loved about Brittany here.
It seems like a visit to Paris has become an annual tradition, mainly for work, and this year brought with it another trip to the French capital.
After being less than impressed with Paris on my earlier trips, this was the year I finally fell in love with the city, thanks to some fantastic weather, the presence of a French speaker, and exploring different areas of the city.
A trip to the Palace of Versailles fulfilled an old dream of mine, and it was every bit as gaudy and over-extravagant as I had imagined. A boat trip along the Seine was a great way to see the city, and after numerous trips visiting the footsteps of the Eiffel Tower, I finally got to go on top (although at €25 it isn't cheap).
The Coulee Verte Rene-Dumont, a highline style park that snakes its way through the rooftops of the city, was a particularly pleasant surprise - as was the broader Bastille neighbourhood of Paris. I also finally managed to visit a Gurdwara in France when I visited the Gurdwara Singh Sabha Bobigny, just on the outskirts of the city.
You can read about my trip to Paris in detail here.
Back in the UK, I did a charity climb of the tallest mountain in Wales to raise money for the Sikh Soup Kitchen, as well as doing something positive in the memory of a friend that passed away this year.
The pandemic has seen the best and worst of society, but Sikh organisations have once again taken the initiative to assist the most vulnerable. Taking langar out onto the streets to directly help the most needy regardless of background isn't new - the Nishkam Swat team have been doing it since the financial crisis, but the sheer number of charities that are now working with Gurdwaras to redirect langar to their local communities has been nothing short of astonishing.
So to support these initiatives, a group of us did a charity climb up Snowdon. We took the Llanberis path, and it took roughly 2 hours to get the top. The climb was fairly straight forward, with just a few areas where it got slightly challenging. The good weather helped, and clear skies meant incredible views. Most importantly, we raised a decent amount of money.
You can read about my climb to Snowdon here.
It seemed weird to write about cities all over the world, but not have something about the largest city close to me. Although I've spent the majority of the past 6 years in London, I was born and grew up in the Midlands, not too far from Birmingham.
Birmingham is the second largest city in the UK, and home to one of the largest Sikh populations outside of Panjab. For half a century after the Second World War, Birmingham was unanimously considered one of the most ugly cities in Britain, the butt of many jokes and known for its horrible post-war Brutalist architecture with grey concrete almost everywhere you looked.
But substantial redevelopment has taken place since the turn of the millennium and as it gears up for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, it has also become quite a beautiful city. I explored the canals of Birmingham (it has more than Venice) as well as some of the new landmarks that are redefining Birmingham as one of Europe's most vibrant cities,.
You can read about my detailed thoughts on Birmingham here.
The final city that I visited this year was also in the Midlands and is the home of William Shakespeare.
Stratford-upon-Avon is one of the most visited cities in the UK outside of London due to its connection with William Shakespeare and its brilliantly preserved half-timbered houses dating back in some instances to the Tudor period in England.
The demographics of the people that live and visit here are either school children, or fairly old people - not sure what that says about me, but it's a very pretty town that's a short drive away from my hometown.
Unfortunately, due to the pandemic many of the attractions were closed, but there was still enough to do to make the visit a memorable one - a favourite part of mine being the Stratford Butterfly Farm, which is the largest exotic butterfly farm in the UK.
You can read about my trip to Stratford-upon-Avon here.
So there we go, my fifth annual review completed. It's been a tough year for everyone, and I consider myself very lucky that I still have a job and I've been able to keep somewhat busy when the restrictions allow. Getting Covid hasn't been fun, but unless things take a massive turn, I've managed to get through it when thousands others haven't been able to, so I'm eternally grateful.
I, like many others, have had to cancel holidays, and some of them I've managed to get my money back (Istanbul), others I haven't (Copenhagen) and some others still I hadn't yet booked but was on the verge of doing so (Tokyo, Seville). Again, in the bigger picture I am hugely thankful that these are my very small problems.
While most of the cities I visited this year felt safe, if you're a Sikh, I'd avoid travelling alone to Serbia as the stares can range from curious, to pretty annoyed you're in their country. I didn't have any major issues, but there were instances where things could have gotten heated. Lagos isn't the safest city for any tourist, regardless of how they look but everywhere else was fine. Nairobi was probably my highlight of the year, and I hope that I'll get to visit it again one day.
I have no idea what 2021 holds. I have a new job which will mean moving to Washington DC for a couple of years, so at some point during the year I'll be relocating. The postponed football European Championships should mean I'm back in Europe for a short while in summer (pandemic dependent) - but otherwise it'll be an interesting year.
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British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.