Tag Archives: beach

Bali: let’s talk Nusa Penida

7:00 am, Kuta, Bali

I’m telling you this: Everyone would be a morning person on his first day in Bali. Including myself. I was up, fresh, anxious to go.

Walking on the small alley, across the garden, still quite blind at that early hour, I almost stepped on something that looked at first like a little bunch of everything. I couldn’t quite tell what it was and why was it right in my path. Little baskets, the seize of a palm, made of dry leaves and filled with rice, frangipani flowers, candies or other foods, decorated with incense sticks that were spreading a strong scented smoke in the morning air, were placed on the ground. Everywhere, so I had to make a last second jump to avoid one. In the front I saw a small shrine representing a god, with more of these stuff around. Of course! Those must have been offerings prepared by the people for the Hindu Gods. In Bali these offerings are called canang sari.

The taxi driver from the night before was waiting outside, to take me to Sanur, for the ferry to Nusa Penida island. What a nice morning as Kuta was waking up! On the way I saw what a serious thing those offerings are in Bali. They were literally everywhere, in front of every house, restaurant, big temples, small temples, shrines, even by the roads. And the next abundant thing were the scooters. Thousands of them, showing already the signs of the mad traffic later in the day.

My taxi driver helped me find an exchange office. This was the 4th Asian currency in 10 days, so, damn, I was totally lost in exchange when it came to Indonesian money. We then reached the jetty, I got my tickets and headed by myself to the beach where the boat was waiting. By the way, a very ugly, muddy and dirty beach with waters looking like 3 days old tea. But the mood was something else. People from every corner of the world were there, and not a single posh looking one. It was a very laid back atmosphere, as if each of us knew a fabulous day was to start. Serene faces, probably my first contact with the Bali effect.

Nusa Penida’s wow mood

One hour later I stepped on the beach in Nusa Penida. Tens of scooter drivers were waiting in front of the jetty. Scooter taxi. In a few seconds, most of them have left with clients. Some tourists were renting scooters and I wished I had the guts to do that too. I said my ok to the first guy with a scooter who stopped me, after a short eye scan to make sure he looks safe. I agreed the price on the spot and we left. Later in the evening I learned I payed him 3 times what was usually the price. Some lessons needed to be learned.

In a few seconds we left the jetty and the beach behind and we rode on narrow bumpy streets, passed through small villages, by bannanas plantations, small warung (the small businesses that offer food everywhere you look in Bali). In some parts, too many maybe,  people have left their marks on the island, a lot of construction going on, in others the landscape was still untouched and nature was winning, covering everything with a vibrant jungle green. The breeze smell like happiness and peace.

Nusa Penida Bali, beautiful destinations, beautiful places

– Will you take me to Manta Point? I wasn’t sure if he didn’t hear me or he didn’t know the place. My scooter driver who’s name I couldn’t pronounce after 3 attempts so I gave up, didn’t answer.

After a while we stopped in a small village, his village as he said and he excused himself for a few minutes. Meanwhile I saw some towers, the Balinese kind and decorations behind a high concrete wall. Probably another temple, I thought, like the so many that made my head turn on the way, so I just headed there straight, on a narrow path between locals houses. I found a large gate and entered, amazed by the beauty of what seemed to be a small temple. A shrine inside was decorated with fresh flowers and plenty of offerings. Was beautiful and so peaceful. This until the very next second when I was running out the gate, as a barking angry pit-bull was chasing me. Dear God! Who keeps pit-bulls in temples? I stopped running only after I was out in the street.

– Dogs in a temples….chasing people… I mumbled while meeting my friend driver, pretending I was relaxed but I was as scared as hell.

– Yeees, home temples, many people have so they can honour the gods in their home and so protect it. And so I found out about home temples and that I was actually trespassing someone’s property. Bali was an island of surprises.

My now friend presented me his brother and they exchange the scooters. Apparently ours was broken and needed to be fixed. We continued our journey.

– Do you know where Manta Point is? I started once again…

– Yes, but you can’t drive there, only boat…

– Then how can we get there?

– We will, I show you.

Broken Beach

We stopped in a scooter parking, actually a very dusty place where everybody left their scooters. We followed a path like everybody else and soon the blue sea was drawing the horizon in front of us.

Broken Beach, nusa Penida, Bali, Indonesia

An Asian woman, dressed in a long translucent dress, totally out of place for where we were, carrying a heavy makeup case from one place to another, was driving her 2 friends crazy while she was posing like a celebrity on the very edge of the cliff, miming what looked like some sort of Titanic scene. So this is how instagrammers die for a photo, I thought. I was in flip-flops, shorts and t-shirt, wearing only sunscreen on my face. Couldn’t care less but the place looked like a photo shooting set. There were more of that woman’s specie around, men too…..

Instead I climbed a dry tree around, one with a funny shape, that my driver lead me to for a nice shot. The Broken Beach was like a window formed on one side of the shore with high straight walls ending down into the rough waves. The high cliffs were reaching far in what was an impressive 180′ landscape. Angel Billabong’s natural pool carved by the waves into the rocks, was a crystal clear green wander, opening to the blue sea. The salty breeze was caressing my skin. It was perfect with one,  I was hungry.  I was too busy to eat since the night before.

My driver friend came carrying a paper bag with something fried, hot and oily inside. I remembered about Bali belly and how I should avoid funny foods… Maybe just a bite so I won’t refuse him as a rude person. Ohoo… and that one bite was just the start. Those were mango fritters, slices of mango fried in some sort or crust, very popular in Bali, mostly with bananas. With mango, trust me, are divine. I ate them all, I forgot about any Bali bely, I could die after and be happy.

Crystal Bay

Another scooter ride and we arrived on a beautiful alley with high palm trees on each side. The path was becoming sandy as it touched the beach in the front. This was finally a nice beach. Sandy, clean, crystal blue sea. It was also a starting point for Manta Point but at that hour of the day I could only take a private boat for 60$. Too much! I tried to negotiate, it didn’t work.

Crystal Bay, Nusa Penida, Bali, Indonesia

My friend insisted I could still see some manta ray if I swim there, further from the shore. If I was lucky. He also promised it’s a place great for snorkelling. I left my clothes on an area where there were not so many people, close to the rocks, where a small brook was rushing from the island to the sea. The sand was covered with small fragments of corals, polished by the waves. From here I could see the entire beach, guarded by a curtain of palm trees, with a few boats near the shore, with the beach bar, with a few guys selling green coconuts to the people on the beach. I couldn’t wait for a swim after all the dust on the way. I swim far away from the shore, did some snorkelling, saw some nice corals and fish. Nothing wow and no manta ray around for sure. After about an hour, I decided that was it, to get back to the beach. I started swimming back when I realised the water was getting shallow, too shallow and I got in an area surrounded by corals. Sharp corals. This didn’t seem ok at all. I tried to find a place where the water was deeper as I was almost touching the corals while swimming. This means serious bruisers as these creatures are as fragile as rough. I tried to move very slowly. Not no mention that I had no indention of harming one, as these beauties grow 1cm in a year. But the currents were nasty and since I was approaching the beach the waves got stronger. At one point one just rolled over me and for a sec I totally lost it. I was starting to be quite scared. I looked back, another wave was coming so I moved as fast as I could. Happily and miraculously I got to the shore, exhausted but not bleeding at all.

Riding a scooter with a salty wet hair in the middle of Nusa Penida, after a well lived day, this is something to live for. Only one thing was bothering me: the manta ray I didn’t got to see. This wish was now growing to obsession.

I got back to the jetty right in time to get the boat back to Sanur. My taxi driver from that morning was no where to be found, though he has promised to wait for me there. I looked for him for about 15min and then got another one. The ride back to Kuta took forever! I so learned another Bali lesson: never a car taxi, always a scooter taxi, as thousands of scooters passed by us constantly while we were blocked in that hell traffic jam. The sunset was soon happening and I was still far away from the beach. Every minutes was like forever, I felt like running.

– I think will be better if I leave you here, if we drive will take more then an hour.

I jumped out of the taxi and literally started running, hoping the direction was correct. But somehow, I always get the right way to any beach. It seemed a never-ending street completely blocked with cars, scooters, people moving, with restaurants and stores on each side, music in one side, traffic jam noise everywhere. It was a madness! But in spite all that… all was orange.  Incredibly orange! Never seen before orange! Sunset was happening! Too many people walking too slow! I finally saw the gates to the beach, Kuta beach. And as I finally entered the beach was like I stepped into another dimension.

Sunset in Kuta, Bali, Indonesia

The biggest sunset display, one like I have never seen before, a 180′ wonder made me stop in awe. The sun was gone now but the horizon and the whole sky was in fire. So this was the famous sunset in Kuta, so praised and talked about. I believed it myself. It’s one of a hell fire sunset, burning Kuta out and send it straight to the night vibes of summer partying in Bali. Amazing!

Next: obsessively searching the manta rays in Nusa Penida

 

Indonesia, Bali: take me to Kuta beach

Jungle on the left, jungle on the right, myself in the middle, somewhere. With my hair flying in the wind, I was running on a scooter drove by a local on a dusty bumpy road. Banana trees with large leafs, some taking a bow and offering heavy green bananas, others, more proud, only red banana flowers, all were guarding the road. It was indescribably green. And wild and untamed. Every single time another scooter or car was passing by, magic was happening: we all became invisible in a thick cloud of dust. No one cared!

– Could you take me after to Manta Point? the scooter driver nod his head. Must have been the 5th time I was telling him this in the last 30 minutes, since we left the jetty.

Some dreams are old, other new. Mine was just two days ago born and was already taking me to a famous place, called Manta Point, where Andrew has told me the other days, in Mabul island in Malaysia, how he experienced something out of this world: swimming with the manta rays. September is a perfect time, he added. So there I was, dreaming eyes wide open that day, on another island: Nusa Penida.

Hello Bali

It was evening when I landed in Denpasar, the airport in Bali. Carrying my yellow padded backpack and scratching the allergy on my arm, which I was now officially calling “The revenge of the zebra prawns in Malaysia”, because, of course, of how I got it.

First thing I did arriving in Bali was searching through trash bin, in the airport. This is what emptying your pockets in the wrong moment brings you. My huge suitcase was the only one not showing up. I realised it just after I had decluttered my pockets, throwing away everything, including my ticket with the evidence that I had a luggage. I’ve managed to find it in the trash, ignoring some curious looks and soon after I was reunited with my belongings.

– How much? I needed to get to Kuta

– To Kuta? 20$ The lady answering was organising the taxi drivers waiting in front of the airport exit.

– That’s too much, it’s not even 4km… I left pretending I didn’t hear her asking how much I want to pay.

– Will you drive me to Kuta? I said to a young men I meet a few meters after, following the universal wisdom: the younger, the cheaper.

And so, with 10$ I got in front of my guesthouse in 20 minutes and I also booked a trip for the next day. I knew prices in Bali are cheap but I had no idea what Bali cheap means. I was going to learn it, the hard way, in the next 24h.

– See ya in the morning, at 7am. The taxi driver left, leaving me with my smiling hosts, in the lobby build outside, in the yard. I was welcomed in a beautiful garden with warm smiles and the famous Balinese greetings, joined by a bow. I was starting to feel excited: I was in Bali. A boy showed me my room which was actually an apartment. Huge! The bathroom was the size of my bedroom back home. Ant the price? 5 damn $! I felt as if discovering that Paradise exists.

I was hungry and it was getting late so I left my stuff and I rushed out to check the surroundings in that place named Kuta… and grab some food. I kept repeating one mantra to myself: watch your gourmand mouth, stay away of the Bali belly, getting sick while alone here is bad, bad, bad.

Bali belly is just as famous and terrible as the Delhi belly in New Delhi.  It keeps you in the bed or should I rather say: on the toilet, for a few days. The rules are simple: only bottled water, even when brushing your teeth, no peeled fruits from markets, no fresh anything, and God forbid, no street food! That’s the devil. Meanwhile I kept hearing in my head my Aussie friend, Ilana, telling me a few months before, while we were tracking in Petra: “Don’t worry, you’ll get the Bali belly, everyone does, we all did, but you’ll be fine, cmon, you’ll enjoy Bali”…

I was so determined to play it safe. Until the first street food stalls I met around the corner. They also had green coconut so who could resist??? It’s been 24h already since my last green coconut in Mabul. I got fried rice and shrimps, thinking that street food might be ok since is well cooked on fire. The lady was way over nice to serve me since they were closing the place. She stopped from what she was doing to take my order and then ask the cook, a guy next to her, to make one last fired rice for me. It was good, quite delicious, but I was eating and thinking how bad it will be if I will spend the next days in bed… vomiting and trying in vain to live outside the toilet.  I was quite frightened of this perspective and stopped eating after a few bites.

– Finished? the lady asked me?

– I am soo full, yes, was super good, thank you… I was so lying considering that I ordered it saying I was starving. And the idea I was wasting food, which I almost never do, made me feel so bad.

She brought me a spoon to use it for the soft interior of the coconut, that white soft part which is so delicious in green coconuts. I was alone, sitting on the margin of a long metal table with white plastic chairs. The surrounding street-food stalls around, decorated with tens of photos of dishes that they serve, were closing also, washing dishes, throwing garbage, preparing the next day.

Even if I knew I shouldn’t judge Bali by the impression Kuta leaves, I couldn’t stop thinking: what’s all that? A short walk after my frugal dinner, on the main street, didn’t help me change that poor impression. With the beach on one side, big but too dark to see much though the impressive Balinese gate at the entrance, hidden after behind a 2m concrete wall and the pubs on the other side, passing by Hard Rock caffe and a few night clubs, all these didn’t help me doubt my first and bad impression of Bali. Is this all? Can’t be! That high gate to the beach, the famous Kuta beach, that was the only one related so far to how I imagined Bali. And what I could see from the beach, the wide beach with high palm trees, was promising more.

I went to my room, took a cold shower, again (no hot water apparently) and fell into a deep dreamless sleep at the end of a long trip and the beginning of a fantastic new one.

 

 To be continued: Nusa Penida and the famous sunset on Kuta beach

 

 

Malaysia: Swimming with turtles in Sipadan

6am

Mornings on Mabul island are a definition for calm. No waves on the sea, no human made sounds in the chalets, just a light breeze slowly teasing the palm trees. On the opposite, I was anything but calm. This was The Day, when all my efforts, my 30+ emails seasoned with a good dose of persuasion skills will bring me to one of the world’s top diving sites: Sipadan. “An untouched piece of art”, as once called by Jacques Cousteau, the famous explorer and pioneer of sea conservation, now a Mecca for experienced divers all around the world. One slight detail worth mentioning: I’m not a diver, yet. I snorkel.

How did I find out about Sipadan? Googling. For the best places in the world to do diving. Sipadan was no 1 in many worth considering tops. Since I was going to Malaysia, I thought I could also fly to Sabah province, in Borneo, from Tawau drive to Semporna, take a boat for 45 min to Mabul…. which is 30 minutes away from the famous Sipadan. Simple, right? All I was missing was one diving permit for Sipadan, one of the 120 offered daily for divers only. It’s a highly protected area and this is due to help preserve it. And I got that one too. Dangers to be considered? Some nasty trigger fish that might bite a piece of you, literally,  and the pirates from Abu Sayyaf, the terrorists group form southwestern Philippines, that pledged loyalty to ISIS and have kidnapped some tourists a few years ago around Sahah. Details… All I had in mind was that Sipadan was one of the few left places left on Earth right now with a very high bio diversity. While the Red Sea, which for me is a paradise, has around 1000 species of fish, around Sipadan are 3000…

Heading Sipadan

At 7 o’clock everybody was out, getting ready. I left the room feeling quite proud of my gear: a new UV protection t-shirt, snorkelling glasses and tube, my new water sports camera, recently bought in Singapore and… that was all. I felt like running and hiding under the bed when I meet the other people in the group for that day, all Malaysians, all certificated divers: great wetsuits, professional masks, fins and dive boots, gloves, watches, dive lights, they had Everything… I don’t even know stores back home where I can find all that. That’s the difference between what Europe has to offer in the underwater world compared to SE Asia. Incomparable.

I stuff it down and had rice noodles with soy sauce and tofu for breakfast, which seemed the best option out of a very limited offer. The abundance of breakfast was my last concern at that point anyway. The diving instructors checked one more time the air tanks. Andrew and his cousin, my new Malaysian friends from the day before, and I were waiting now on the pontoon. Two kids came paddling in what seemed to be a small boat carved in a single piece of wood.

Bajau Laut people in Mabul island, Sabah, Malaysia, Borneo, sea gypsies, bajau laut, Asia

– I wanna take a photo, Andrew says. The youngest must have been 3 years old, the oldest maybe 5. I couldn’t stop thinking how any parent in Europe would freak out only thinking of letting a 3 years old in a boat, on a see. Here, for the Bajau Laut, the sea gypsies that live more on water then on land, is natural. They were begging for money. Then a woman came, in a boat so small it could barely hold her and her 1 year old son. Naked, with eyes like the sea and sun kissed skin, he already was belonging to the sea. She was selling clams and payed so little attention to the boy sitting in front of her in that very small boat. What a way of living…

We were heading to Sipadan, two diving instructors, (I presume one for me), about 8 divers, myself and the boat captain. Everybody was curious how come I wasn’t a diver and still going to Sipadan. I used the excuse that back home there is not much to see underwater. They understand but still I was still like the only kid in the yard who couldn’t ride the bike. Later in the day, as we became friends and they realised I can take a good joke, we even made fun on my situation…and my tones of bad luck that followed.

A bad day in paradise

After a short ride, the boat stopped. We’ve already reached the 1st diving site. Everybody was ready and in a few minutes they were all gone in the depths of the sea as if they were never there. So no dive instructor for me that day… I like being alone in the water, maybe not so much in a place with such a high biodiversity. I remembered I had signed at arrival a paper where all responsibility for the trip to Sipadan was on me only.

– Do you know how to swim? The captain teases me, seeing I was looking so indecisive, staring to that deep blue around the boat. I was still processing the information offered in a hurry by one of the dive instructors: some trigger fish nests there, some very strong currents over there. I couldn’t read the map he was seeing around, it all looked… just sea.

Minutes were passing. I realised what I was feeling was fear. After all it took to get there, the emails, the bookings, the flights, the money, I was now afraid to jump off the boat. I started to get angry for feeling so silly. I grabbed my snorkelling kit and the camera, checked if the water was deep enough and I wasn’t risking to hit some sharp coral and hearing the fast beats of my heart, I jumped in. Was probably the worst jump of my life, I took so much water.

– Are you ok, I heard the captain. I was still coughing, trying to get back my breath. I looked around calming my breath, prepared my mask and then I froze. My tube was nowhere. This was the last level of being stupid, I must have jumped without having it attached to the mask and it has sinked. I just imagined how my next hours will be, sitting in the boat, without a tube or holding my breath until I get dizzy. I approached the boat hopeless and ashamed for littering the place.

– I’m soo stupid, I think I lost my tube. I litter the place…. I’m so sorry, don’t know how it happened. The captain smiles and hands me a new tube saying not to worry so much.

And finally, I was underwater, enjoying what was left of the 30 minutes we had in that place. I was so stressed and kept looking for any tail of triggerfish. I did the stupid think of watching before some YouTube videos about attacks of this fish that looks as if he was born to bite, with a big funny head and big teeth. I knew from one of the instructors that if you see one, the one that attacks you is actually its partner, who’s already behind you. They only do this to protect their nest from human invasion. Having all these crossing your mind while in the water is no fun. About the promised paradise around, I was disappointed. E few small corals, very few fish, nothing spectacular or even getting closer to the Red Sea I was so impressed by in Eilat, Israel, the only place I saw it by that moment.

I was happy when I saw the sign to swim back to the boat. The others didn’t seem to be so impressed either so far. We had 3 more spots. Next was the world famous Barracuda Point, where, if lucky, you can find yourself in a tornado of Barracudas, thousands of them swimming in one immense vortex, like a whole living creatures that splits into pieces and then forms back again and again.

In the boat I had a huge surprise: one of the guys have found my tube. It was at the bottom of the sea, at 10m deep. I was incredibly happy. My day was getting better, too bad my bad luck was still with me and I was soon going to find out.

The Barracuda Point started to show what Sipadan was promising. We didn’t got to see the barracudas, unfortunately, but we were swimming in a sea of jacks. I have never seen in my life so many fish, of this seize, swimming all together. They act differently, they don’t move in circles as the barracudas, instead they form a massive silver structure that moves all together, in round shapes, constantly changing. It was amazing to just stay still and have them getting very close to me, then move and have that immense living structure change its shape in fantastic forms, different each time. I thought I saw for a moment a reef shark at the bottom but was just too much fish around to se well. Unbelievable!

This time I got back to the boat happy. I had my mask and tube, my camera, even took a few photos, very bad though.

Sipadan island, diving, scuba, Asia, Malaysia, Borneo, beautiful places, adventure

We then headed straight to the island, on the only point you can access Sipadan. Walking on the island, though very small or using another point to stop the boat is strictly forbidden. A few species of turtles, among them the green turtle, now listed as endangered, lay eggs here so the whole place is like a sanctuary for them. As we approached, a deep green circle of trees surrounded by a white sand line broke the blue horizon. It was such a small island, formed on the top of a volcano by the corals grown there in millions and millions of years. Closer to the shore, it looks truly like a pristine paradise: white sand, huge trees, turquoise waters and a few meters away, the deep blue. It’s where the edge is and from that point below it goes deep 600m. I could also confirm what it is said about the currents around Sipadan, indeed they are so strong, you can’t stay still and every time I saw something and went out for a breath, the next second I was underwater again I was already moved by the currents in another place. When you try to swim is when you actually feel the force of the currents, holding you still.

We had photos on the island and lunch (once again rice noodles with soy sauce and tofu but I was too starved to care) and change impressions. Other groups were there too, on the small terrace made of wood where divers were allowed to stay on the island between 6am-4pm only. Outside these hours I was told you can get shut, the army boats only are patrolling to make sure the pirates don’t come closer again. Two women were sitting on two wooden sun beds, under a palm tree, didn’t seem too interested in what Sipadan had to offer.

Sipadan island, Borneo, Malaysia, Sabah province, diving, top diving places, scuba, snorkeling

After an hour on the island, we left for the Turtle Tomb Cave spot, where the divers were going inside a dark cave, to see nothing but rocks, sand and a few turtles skeletons, that if you ask me. They were excited but caves and mostly underwater caves are not my thing. So I enjoyed the surface around the island, the corals, the small colourful fish that live in the reefs and finally… the turtles. I did saw one which was huge, a green one, maybe larger then 1m, eating algae. Then another one… I saw parrotfish, porcupine fish, needlefish, angelfish, butterflyfish. I was literally in a tank of fish. It was perfect. At one point, being so fascinated by the fish and corals, I realised I was getting too close to the island, in very shallow water, probably dragged there by the currents. I panicked and tried to get out as quick as possible. The worst you can do when surrounded by sharp corals, I am sorry I had to lear this by myself. I started to swim fast and I felt a sharp pain at one foot. I must have touched a coral and got myself with a nice scratch, painful but not so bad. My concern was actually the coral and that it was ok, I don’t think I did any damage to it by the seise of my wound. These beauties of the oceans and seas grow 1cm in a year. So breaking one can be as ruining a few years of its growing.

I was now in deeper waters, safe when I looked around for the boat. It was no where around. I started having all those creepy scenarios where they forgot me there and I will be stranded on the island, surrounded by terrorists pirates, fighting strange insects and God knows what else. For sure my imagination didn’t helped me much that day. I was all alone, no boat closer then maybe 200m. Then, looking for solutions, I thought I might ask some other boat to take me to Mabul, if they don’t come back for me. I was so relief when I finally saw our captain. He saw me acting so worried and thought something happened.   The whole group was in the boat and I started to swim very fast to them. And somehow this is how it happened again. I lost the tube for the second time. I had it for a few years and it has never fall off the mask belt. Well that day it did twice. I felt so miserable when I realised, in the boat, I lost it again. I was littering that beautiful pristine place with another piece of our plastic.

The last time we went on the island for a stop I was too upset to eat anything or to talk. My food has bleeding and hurting, I had a sore throat from the cold I brought with me from Sri Lanka, that got even worse after using the tube to breathe for so long, I wasn’t used with my new camera, bought especially for this trip, and I barely managed to take any videos, my phone battery was off and the photos I got so far were very bad… Could I get more bad luck in one day, a very long awaited day, with so high expectations?

We went back on the boat and left for one last dive. The captain gave me again his tube, one of the instructors fixed it on the mask belt with a piece of plastic to make sure I won’t lose this one too. I decided to fight my bad luck that day so I used my teeth to untangle the white rope I had around my wrist, the one that Deesa gave me in Sri Lanka. He got it from a monk in a Buddhist temple, during a special ceremony performed for him. That was the only thing I could use. I managed to take it off my wrist and used it to tie all together the mask and the tube. I then hold by breath, jumped in the water, swim around without all the nonsense fears before, observe all the breathtaking beauty that Sipadan had to offer. I followed a green turtle until the edge of the reef and further, as the steep wall was ending, leaving nothing but dark deep blue above me. I had no camera with me and I just lived the moment, without thinking about triggerfish, pirates or taking a good shot. And maybe this is what was meant to happen. I had to get through all those episodes of bad luck, have my food injured, for one lesson: some moments we meet in life are meant to be just lived and then kept in the heart.

When I got back again to the boat, I saw the tube was floating around me, hold only by the white piece of rope I had from Sri Lanka. I would have lost that one too…

How was Sipadan?

In the end, in spite of a crazy day, Sipadan stays unique among my beautiful places. Maybe I expected more at first because I didn’t know then what to expect, my only previous underwater experience was in Eilat, in Israel. I didn’t know what to look for or what amazing looks like in this fabulous new world for me, that is is hidden in the seas and oceans. Sipadan happened last year on September the 1st, after that I had a few more episodes, in Indonesia, in the Red Sea again, in Egypt, then Thailand and last month in Kenya. So now I have just a little more to compare with and I can say my first impression didn’t do much justice to Sipadan. I never saw in any other places after so many fish and so different in a small area as I saw in Sipadan, never met again a school that big of jackfish, nor huge green turtles. Maybe it was meant to bring back the memories of Sipadan now, a year later, after living more and seeing more. And maybe, as Andrew did, I will go back one day to the island for a dive and see what I couldn’t see from the surface. Maybe I’ll get in the middle of a barracuda vortex, thinking I must be dreaming.

PS I hope someone found my lost tube and got it out of the sea. This guilt still hurts

Next: Good bye Malaysia

 

 

Egypt: Paradise Island and cheers to 2019

“Don’t be afraid of life! Don’t be, because then you will not live at all.”

This plain and simple truth was Mustafa’s answer to my question about the exact place where a bomb attack has killed 4 people 3 days before, in Gyza, a short drive from Cairo, the place where we were. My cat like curiosity… Mustafa was the Bedouin guiding us from the camel ranch to the plateau where the ancient Pyramids were, fascinating people for over 4500 years. My guide recommended a camel ride for two reasons: to avoid the people trying to sale souvenirs, that can get pushy sometimes and to more easily walk through the desert sand on the plateau.

And so, here I was again up on a camel, though I have swore myself I will not ever do it again after my first camel ride in Israel. Why? Because of the permanent feeling I’m gonna fall down and break something. This seems even more close to happen when they kneel, only then I get close to smashing my face to the ground. And as camels are not at all short animals, chances are high. Plus, they also seem to hate it, getting in their knees on and on and on. I was trying to ignore this while on my right, the Pyramids and the Sphinx were offering one of the most iconic views, that of a world wonder.

December 31st

2018 was a fabulous year! It was so rich in experiences I couldn’t have ever dreamt so far or wished it will be that much. From the northern lights at the Arctic Circle in Norway to the rose city of Petra in Jordan and my first bare footsteps on the desert sand in Wadi Rum, from the streets of Jerusalem to the tea plantations in Sri Lanka or the green rice paddies in Bali, from the breathtaking views of Kuala Lumpur or Singapore skylines, from infinity pools, to the jungle sounds in Taman Negara, the 130M years old forest. This year gave me so much. 15 countries with 13 of them seen for the first time, 3 continents, my first trip to Asia (I really need to find the time to write about this adventure) and my first steps in Africa. 30 flights and my first long haul flight of almost 13h to which I survived successfully. More than 35 cities, 3 islands and I don’t remember how many incredible beaches and sunsets. But most of all the people, the amazing people everywhere and the absolute feeling of faith in humanity. It’s truly a world of wonders and people really are good and caring.

There was no better way to end such a year than a trip to Paradise. Paradise island in Hurghada. It surely looked as its name was promising. Turquoise clear waters, white sand beach, sunbeds in the shadow of low umbrellas made of palm tree leaves and an unbelievable underwater paradise with colorful corals and plenty of fish.

At least the misfortune from the previous day in Luxor, when I was taken to the “never heard of” Valley of the Queens instead of the iconic Valley of the Kings, brought me something: endless excuses from the owner of the tour company, which I didn’t necessarily needed and a VIP status on this trip to Paradise (Island), with everything included. This one was really helpful since I was so messed up to forget in my hotel room my brand new snorkeling set and the beach towel.

Paradise Island, Hurghada, Egypt

I was actually hoping to stay away from this guys by planning this trip with the help of my new friend Nura instead of the guy at the hotel reception, who first booked the Luxor trip. But it seemed I ended up on their tour again. The way I found this out was quite funny: when I arrived to the port, where the guy who came after me at the hotel drove me, I was met by another guy who asked me again about Luxor. Since I saw still irritated about the subject, I made a little drama starting with “better don’t ask me”. Soon after I found out he was the owner of the agency. The reason I insist on this is that I was so surprised they actually cared so much, the owner of the agency came in person to meet me because of what he heard: someone was not happy with his service. He even waited for me in the port when we came back and drove me back to the hotel, promising me a free tour to Luxor whenever I come back to Egypt again or any other tour I wanted for free or even a discount for a PADI certificate when he heard I was interested in. He miraculously got me to the point where I wasn’t upset at all anymore and I told him I really can’t accept so many instead because that won’t be fair. Well, Egyptians really take hospitality to a level I never seen before.

Paradise island offered us a perfect hot summer day in the middle of winter, actually my first experience like this. Replacing boots with flip flaps and the winter coat with a swimsuit is heaven… And yes, I entered the Red Sea and yes, as they all said already, the water temperature was perfect. If only I wouldn’t have forgoten my snorkeling set and the one I was given wouldn’t have been damaged to make me breathe water… Even so, I saw enough to confirm that Egypt coast is ideal for observing the underwater world. It can compete to famous places for diving from Malaysia and Indonesia. 

At 8PM in that evening I still had no idea how I will spend New Years Eve. I was so tired I could have slept immediately. But I remembered what my grandmother always says: your new year depends on what you do the night before it starts. So I wasn’t going to risk a whole sleeping year.  

It all arranged by change. I went out on the hotel terrace to play with a cat. It was an amazing evening with 18C. I decided to take a walk and buy some chips and water. The main street was so alive. The possibility of sleeping wasn’t so tempting as I got contaminated to that energy. I saw Gad, a restaurant Nura recommend. It was a fast food and a restaurant in the upper level. I went up and had the best shawarma in my life, on a plate full of deliciously cooked meat slices, a big plate of fries, garlic sauce and salad of veggies freshly chopped. I got a message from Mandy, one of the guides from the trip to Luxor. I have sent him earlier that evening a message to tell him that Paradise island was indeed a paradise, as he said. On the way back from Luxor he made me promise I will send him a message with my opinion. He was right in front of Gad and he was hungry. He joined me for dinner and we decided to meet after for a drink. I was in desperate need of a shower after that day on the beach.

At 11PM we met in front of my hotel, as he was living right nearby. And what was to come was the most crazy New Year’s Eve I ever lived. Egyptians do know how to party wild! They might not have the spectacular fireworks show in other places, but they have all it needs for a memorable fest: the joy of life.

We meet two of Mandy’s friends, great guys too, and we had whiskey and then guava and chips and oranges brought especially and immediately for me when I said I’m not so much into drinking alcohol. It was an old office with a screen showing images from the security cameras outside. I found out this became common for any building in Egypt after the revolution in the Arab Spring. A large window was opened to the street and it felt like a summer night outside.

Hurghada, Egypt

00:00 o’clock found me on the front seat of Mandy’s old car, with the side windows opened completely and loud Egyptian music playing, mixing with all the other songs played in the main street we were driving slowly, through crowds of people, with his friends singing and dancing on the back seat, shaking hands with others in the street. Men, women, children, all were outside, celebrating. A few fireworks were shot in the air marking the first seconds of 2019. I said my wish full of hope and so happy. We continued in a club where Mandy managed to got us in, the owner was a friend of his. We got a front table, ordered beer for the 3 of us and celebrated together with Egyptians, Ukrainians and Russians there. The dance floor was on fire. People were dancing, men were dancing. I don’t get to see this very often in other places. Two men started a fight at the entrance. It was violent but it bothered no one and has ended soon. The atmosphere was just like Egypt, loud, intense, alive and so addictive.

It’s unbelievable how wrong we can be when we just don’t know. 3 days before I was arriving in Egypt feeling quite worried. And here I was now, only 3 days after, at 2am, celebrating New Years Eve with 3 Egyptian men I barely knew. Perfectly safe and enjoying the best time, more than I could have hoped for. I was happy I came alone, this couldn’t have happened otherwise. Mandy showed me the photos posted minutes before, on Facebook, by some people from the tour to Luxor. They were a big group of friends, all together in the photo, all in black tie, wearing the classical New Years Eve shinning hats and holding champagne glasses inside a nice restaurant from a luxury resort there in Hurghada, surrounded by other people, also tourists. That photo could have been taken anywhere, mine in Egypt only.

Open your eyes means open your world. And as long as we’re alive, cause truth is no one is getting away alive from this life, we shall live.   

  

Italy, Puglia: the perfect hidden gem

A narrow silent street in central Bari. A large open terrace on top of an old building. It was midnight already and a huge full moon was lighting the sky of this night in the end of July. At the round glass table with six seats, I was having the purest Italian fest: freshly baked sfogliatelle from the miraculous near pasticceria Fittipaldi, still warm and crunchy, with their tens of layers in cinnamon flavor and full of cream. I was making my eyes busy trying to decide which balcony on the building in front was more beautiful. My God, for moments like this, how I love Italy!

The one hour spent earlier that evening in front of the building, trying to find a way to enter using the smart lock that was apparently stupid that time, assisted on the phone by two Russian girls, didn’t even existed anymore. Nor the pain in my feet, from the so damn silly idea of wearing high platforms on that day back home, at work and after, going straight to the airport and then all the long walk to find my B&B. It didn’t matter.

I was in Italy again, the second time this year, after Venice in February, and that’s more than I could ever thank for.

The long night walk in flip-flops through Bari, on the promenade by the Adriatic Sea, watching the people, the discussion with the Italian guy about how he saw more of my country than I and I saw more of Italy than he so far did, and of course the long walks on all the streets of the old town, again and again. All these were hints of a great trip just happening.

Alberobello

The next day, the moment I opened my eyes I was already excited. Wonderland was my destination. I grabbed some hot pastries with tuna and mozzarella from a random coffee shop in the station. It sent me straight to the heaven of taste, so surprisingly good it was. After 1h40 I put my first step in Alberobello, a place made in fairytales that I so wanted to see since the first photo of it came before my eyes, years ago. And there time has stopped. I have no idea for how many hours I walked the tiny streets among hundreds of trulli, the whitewashed stone huts with conical perfect roofs made of grey, flat slate-like stones matched together, bearing white signs of mystical origin, christian or primitive, dating back to old times and cultures venerating the sun. Today, still believed to protect the house from demons or just for good luck.

Alberobello, Italy. Beautiful places

I entered the small shops with colorful local craft products, pottery, jewelry, embroidery, I stare in front of so many trulli I lost any track of time, I had a huge delicious and creamy italian ice cream, I spent minutes to take each photo to avoid the crowds and I long enjoyed a 360 top view on the roof of a local shop.

A short summer shower made everybody disappear in the tiny restaurants around. All I wanted was a glass of red wine, bread and fresh olive oil.

I left Alberobello only after I was fully convinced that I walked every street at least two times.

Alberobello, Italy, beautiful places

I spent the evening walking the limestone streets of the old town in Bari, just randomly, so I could enjoy every sight found by chance. From the lively Piazza Mercantile to the quiet streets around Basilica Di San Nicola, where old neighbours were having long and loud conversations sitting on wooden chairs in front of their doors, under windows with hang-drying clothes. It smelled like good home cooked food and it felt like a happy life.

I choose my dinner by the number of people in front of La Tana del Polpo and the seafood was great, in a very warm Italian atmosphere and with talkative hosts. Was a perfect day and another one was to start in the morning.

Lecce

I was planning to get to Polignano a Mare, one of the pearls in Puglia. And as pearls are expensive, the accomodation there was too. So for a 2 euro train ticket, it seem a better deal to stay in Bari.  But sometimes the plans in the station don’t match those in the train. Sometimes… As far as I knew, the trip was about 1h. After about 15m,  we stopped in Monopoli. This was the station after Polignano. Ups! The Italian girl next to me who spoke very little English confirmed.

No one asked for tickets, the train was full, there was 1h20min to Lecce. While the girl was making conversation, I decide to continue the trip to Lecce and of course to rick a fine.

I got to Lecce with no budget injuries. After more than 30min waiting in a bus station where no bus to the center stopped and another 60 in a local bus that surrounded the city, stopping for 30min at the last station, I finally arrived in the centre, pissed off, thirsty and with zero interest of seeing the city. It was very hot and dry, very few people around, empty terraces and quiet. I walked a little feeling that I should be some place else than the heel of the boot. I took the next train to Polignano. 

Lecce, Italy, beautiful places

Polignano a Mare

The whitest streets with the most beautiful balconies are in Polignano a Mare. Since it has taken me so long to get here, all I needed was a good swim. The famous Lama Monachile Beach, a small area with white stones, surrounded by cliffs with cubic buildings built on top was more beautiful than any photos I’ve seen of it. But painful. First, was packed with people. I finally found 1m free to lay my towel quickly before it gets occupied too. And took a deep breath to have the courage to start walking bare feet the other 3m distance to the sea. Walking on those round white stones can be classified as torture minding my still injured feet from the high platform sandals, plus the last two days of nonstop walking.  

Polignano a Mare, Italy, beautiful places

But when I finally could swim, I felt a huge relief resting my feet. The view was amazing from this point, inside the cliffs around the beach were deep caves where people entered swimming and where a couple was kissing. I swam further until the noises from the shore got lost and replaced by those of the waves hitting the cliffs. I could see the entire cost of Polignano.

 Getting out from the water was torture ep 2. Plus I was all dirty because of something in the water. Hopefully rotten algae. It didn’t matter.

Polignano a Mare, Italy, beautiful places

I wandered the streets letting myself lost in that place and I got right in time to enjoy the sunset in the best point. The orange in the sky was reflected on the limestone houses, leaving the sea darker now. Close to me was a fisherman. But the sea was at at least 50m down.  

Polignano a Mare, Italy, beautiful places

That evening in Bari I went to try Al Pescatore, the most famous seafood restaurant in town, recommended by everybody. No tables, it was full with people dress nice and looking fresh. I wasn’t going to wear something else but flip-flops no matter what. After all that walking was a matter of survival. I finally got a table and had an amazing dinner while all the other guests were going crazy for some football players arriving there. I’m more into fish and wine than football. I ended a nice day with a huge ice-cream, gazing at the blood moon total eclipse.

Monopoli

I could walk the little streets of Monopoli in a summer day forever. White houses with colorful windows and balconies with flowers, competing one another for the most beautiful balcony title, little shops, churches and olive trees. The Porto Marzano Beach though didn’t convince me to go for a swim. It was a sandy beach but I had more masochistic taste. In Porto Vecchio I couldn’t find a boat to take me to Polignano. Or maybe they didn’t understood me. I left by train, feeling a bit tipsy. My late breakfast just earlier that day was olives and many types of cheese, salami, prosciutto and red wine. On holiday all is permitted.

 

This time Polignano spoiled me with the clearest blue water of the Adriatic Sea, as a farewell to remember. I took a last walk on those nasty stones on the beach, a long swim and a last look at this place that has now become one of my favourite beautiful places. I said my goodbye to that deep blue of the sea from the top of the famous Grotta Palazzese restaurant.

After Taormina in Sicily, with its red oranges scent and salted lemonade, the Ligurian coast with the so chic Portofino, Rapallo and Camogli, Amalfi and Positano with their lemon perfume, the sophisticated Capri where everybody drinks champagne and the restaurants have views to the blue Med and white pianos, the breathtaking views of Cinque Terre with my beloved Manarola and Vernaza, Tuscany with those dreamy landscapes and incredible wines, it is hard to decide what to see in Italy. How about all? In each of these places, when I was there, I thought that was the best in Italy. And this July, for me, Puglia was the best in trully la bella Italia.  

How I survived 10 days alone in the Middle East.

Day 1: Tel Aviv, Israel

I was lying on a bunch of pillows and colorful carpets in a big Bedouin tent, made of only a few high wooden pools and a black rough membrane of camel hair. Our host was making the food for us: pita bread, prepared on a piece of wood, right there, on the ground and cooked on a large pan heated above the fire in front of us, served with labneh (goat yogurt) with olive oil, dry mint and green olives. I was drinking my mint tea while talking to the Thay blonde young woman about how it took her years to get her visa and be able to visit her boyfriend’s county, Israel. There I was, in Israel, at the shore of the Red Sea, a stone’s throw away from Jordan and Egypt.

It was the 10th day of my holiday in the Middle East, my back was all sunburned, the skin of my hands was never that dry, my clothes and I were dirty and smelling like camel but it was the purest freedom and happiness.  So…who says Mondays are no fun?

How I got there, with a big smile on my face and memories for a lifetime?

10 days go, on a hot Saturday morning, I arrived in Tel Aviv. I received my 3 months stay permit after a series of question that lasted for about 10 minutes at the passport control. It was the Sabat, almost no one was working and the only way to get to the city was by taxi. I knew taxi sharing was common here and when Boris, a russian israeli taxi driver approached me, all I needed was a couple to share the drive with. And so we were 3 on our way to the beach front area in Tel Aviv, for 50 bucks, a good deal. Boris was so talkative and had no problem in sharing intimate details about him and his wife, but the word he pronounced the most was “money”.

I was tired from the 1 hour night sleep, thirsty and hungry when I reached my AirBnb room. The apartment was shared with two really nice guys and its location was ideal, right there on the beach, in front of Ben Gurion iconic statue representing the first prime minister of Israel in swimwear, doing a handstand on Frishman Beach. Summer was already here in Israel, though it was only the end of May, it was a laid back August mood. The beach looked perfect, with clean turquoise water, soft sand and packed with people, all tanned and fit and cool, singing or skateboarding, speaking all the languages. The large boulevard by the sea was full of rainbow flags as the LGBT pride was to be held in a week or so. The tall buildings in glass facing the Mediterranean sea, with fancy hotels or business centers were completing the image of a present, cosmopolit, and alive city which I did not expect to be this amazing.

Tel Aviv beach

After a slice of cold watermelon, one of the best I ever had, I was ready to explore a new beautiful place.

I started walking the promenade towards old Jaffa, where a friend have told me about a restaurant where they serve you 20 types of mezze on the house. That is something a foodie can never miss.

Yafo in Hebrew or Yaffa in Arabic, the ancient port that has stories to tell about Solomon, Saint Peter, Andromeda and Perseus, was the place I first saw the two big cultures, the Jews and the Arabs, separating and mixing each other. The old buildings with dusty antiques shops where an old Jew was selling hundreds of big old silver rings on a silver plate and the small street food restaurants where muslim man were selling pita bread and humus and many more, all had names in both Hebrew and Arabic. Al-Bahr Mosque (Sea Mosque) and Mahmoudiya Mosque with their minarets reaching as high as Jaffa Clock Tower, built of limestone, as most of the buildings I was going to see and live in the next 10 days. I wandered the empty silent streets of old Jaffa in the afternoon heat. It smelled like good fresh food, spices and oriental perfumes, and the light  notes of a song in Hebrew, similar with Greek music, reached my ears.

Hunger determined me to head to the port, a few minutes away, where I immediately notice The Old Man and The Sea terrace by the impressive number of plates on every table. And here I had an unforgettable food experience. As soon as I sit down, my table was covered with not less than 12 small plates of different starters, from humus, falafels, all sorts of salads, fried cauliflower + hot pita bread and freshly squeezed lemonade with mint. Again, this was on the house, for free, no money… Though this was more than enough, I had to order something and a big plate full of shrimps in garlic butter cream have joined the feast. It was more than I could eat but I did my best. It all ended with zalabyieh or lokma (deep fried dough soaked in syrup) and tea made of fresh mint. Incredibly tasty and on the house again. I thought I was in paradise.

After this feast was rolling towards Neve Tzedek, one of Tel Aviv oldest neighbourhoods, a fashionable area with avant-garde design stores, handicraft shops, trendy and stylish bistros, white small houses and most of all full of bougainvillea flowers which I simply adore. While you wander its quiet street, enjoying the shade of trees in blossom and playing with lazy cats that are everywhere, indulging yourself in a cozy small village like atmosphere, when you look back you are brought back to reality by the view of tall shiny skyscrapers that seem to touch the clear skies.

IMG_0140

I was amazed by Jaffa, enchanted by Neve Tzedek, I was so satisfied after a gourmand fest, was wearing a new bracelet on my hand (I buy bracelets instead of magnets) and all I wanted more was to head to the beach for a swim. The water is perfect, I was told by Gal, my host and I thought we might just have different standards of appreciating water temperature, though I don’t mind cold water for a swim. I let my feet feel the sand for the first time this year and touch the waves of my beloved Med. It was close to sunset and Gal was so right, the water was more than perfect.

I ended a beautiful day on the beach in Tel Aviv, watching the sun hiding beneath the sea, feeling the warm salted breeze on my skin, with my feet hidden deep in the soft sand, not even realising how rapidly the city lights replaced the day. A couple of good conversations with locals about Israel and Palestine and how this place is now the safest on earth made me smile thinking of my friend how was here last year and told me the opposite.

The start of my journey couldn’t have been better and safer. And as soon as the sun was rising again I was to discover more, as I was heading the Dead Sea, Jerusalem and parts of Palestine.

To be continued… soon 🙂