Tag Archives: beautiful destinations

Croatia: Legends and charm of Dubrovnik

Can’t be a better time to remember my rainiest summer holiday than a rainy evening of May. If now I’m happy for the forests surrounding my hometown, the fields with tall grass and all that’s green and alive is finally enjoying rain after a dry spring, I wasn’t so happy that day, arriving in Dubrovnik on a ferocious storm……

Dubrovnik under waters

I felt lucky when I found tickets for the buss departing in 10 minutes from Split, heading to Dubrovnik. It was going to rain heavily, the dark clouds and winds weren’t joking, and the first heavy drops started hitting the window next to my seat very soon. The rain continued the whole trip, in violent episodes, as we passed through Bosnia Herzegovina and back to Croatia, and finally reaching Dubrovnik. A light rain, a afar away thunder and a sky that seemed to get brighter. I was optimistic those were the last drops and I can walk to my not so far accommodation with my clothes dry. But little do I know about rain… In a few minutes the drops became more frequent, the sky got darker and the wind was blowing the rain towards us, under the bus station roof. Should I take a taxi? But was very close…. I saw a little pub across the street which seemed a good refuge. By the time I’ll have lunch, rain will stop. But little do I know about rain… All I could do was sneaking under the roof of a tinny newspapers kiosk that was on my way. And that was it! A curtain of water started falling down, violent and determined to cover all in water. Lightnings, thunders and strong guts followed by darkness. The afternoon became evening under the black clouds. In a few minutes all got flooded, the street I had to cross to reach that pub and the pub also. So no more lunch! No more refugee. I was stuck under the tinny roof in the middle of a storm. I decided to buy an umbrella from the lady only to hold it in front of me under that shower. People were running, cars were swimming and soon nothing moved but the rain and wind. I was now sharing the tinny roof with other 4 people. We exchanged empathy smiles. After 30 minutes the rain calmed down but the whole place was a lake. A car drove by and we all watch the driver to see if he’s gonna have the same faith as the one before him with a X5 BMW with German numbers and now a dead engine. His car survived but we all had to hold our suitcases up from the waves of water coming from the street. After another 30 minutes of waiting and watching the terrible effects of the storm, I finally find a safer zone to walk away, hoping there’s no canal opened under the ankle deep water.  And so I was welcomed to Dubrovnik!

– How come a girl like you is not married?

After climbing up and down a few tens of steps, when I finally got out of the flooded area and I was misdirected by the only person I meet, I was finally found by my host looking all drenched, this time form the effort not the rain. And there I was, in their living room. My hosts were two nice seniors renting 2 rooms of their apartment to support their pension income. Nice and curious like people who have reached a certain age. The homemade sweet cherry soften my tongue and I answered simply:

– I haven’t met my perfect match.

Classic. But I got support immediately.

– So sais Ana, our niece. She is 33 soon, said his wife nodding her head.

– She doesn’t trust men these days, continues her grandfather.

I even got pancakes with homemade quince jam so I was opened to any question now that the storm was forgotten, the sun was up and my foodie spirit was spoilt.

The 1st best moment in Dubrovnik was opening the window of my room. The area where  my accommodation was was built on a hill. I was at 9th floor. The blue sky, the clear fresh light after the storm and the panoramic view of the city by the sea was a gift.

It took a 30 minutes walk to the old city of Dubrovnik, a distance that I was going to hate the next days and regret Split and the perfect location I had there. Dubrovnik is pricey and I thought I did a good deal. Only thought…

 Old town of Dubrovnik

Finally I was in front of the drawbridge to the Old Town, via Pile Gate! Packed with tourists. Once I crossed it, Dubrovnik, the so photographed and talked about one, began. Placa, or Stradun, the main street, appears like a straight and wide limestone channel beneath grand ancient houses.

Dubrovnik Olt Town, Croatia, Dalmatia

The glistening limestone pavement walked with thousands of visitors each day connects two of the gates to the citadel, Pile Gate and Polce Gate. With small restaurants or shops on each side, it is a sudden prelude to what seems to be a different world, an ancient one where seeing a knight at the corner won’t seem here out of place. Like in Venice, one you cross the bridge, the wonder world begins. The Rector’s Palace, Sponza Palace, the Cathedral, Church of Saint Blaise, Clock Tower, the Large Onofrio’s Fountain and the little limestone streets offering teasing sights to the terracotta roofs and the long stairs passages hidden in the shade, behind the bright facades in Placa.

Croatia, Dubrovnik, stairs in Old City
Old Town, Dubrovnik, Croatia

I like it and all I wanted to was wander. And so I meet the see, the cobalt blue Adriatic, still rough after the storm earlier that day. Next to St John Fortress strong waves were exploding in thousands as they hit the massive walls build in the 16th century.

I called it a day with a glass of Dalmatia white wine and a local treat: black rice, enjoyed at Dalmatino restaurant in the old town, where I was lucky to get a table, outside, on the busy little street. Dubrovnik was more alive now, under the stars, in a beautiful summer night.

  Walls of Dubrovnik

My plan for that bright clear sky morning was a walk on the citadel walls. A perfect start for a day in Dubrovnik. The old town is surrounded by a wall so thick that on top of it there’s a narrow cobbled alley, a 2km long walk that offers the best views of the old town.

Croatia, Dubrovnik, Old Town

A fresh morning, just before the sun starts to burn is the best moment for this. The sea of square shaped terracotta roofs, hundreds of them, meet the Adriatic blue where Lokrum island is the only green spot.

City Walls, Dubrovnik, Croatia, Adriatic Sea

It’s an Instagrammable picture perfect view, one among many others: The Placa, the baseball stadium, the Large Onofrio’s Fountain. King’s Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms viewed from the height of it walls and after from its little streets kept me busy all day with long walks interrupted by ice-cream short breaks in places like the Franciscan Monastery where one of the oldest pharmacy in the world still exists since 1300.

Dubrovnik, Croatia, sea view

A swim on Banje beach cooled down the day and my nerves. After a failed attempt to find a restaurant with local food, that was placed high on Mount Srd, an adventure that took me way far from all the mainstream spots frequented by tourists, trespassing a few private properties, I ended up going down again on the same killer steps that took away every drop of energy. At least I got to see more of Dubrovnik, the less accessible part, including bird’s eye views towards the bay. And as usual, I tried to get to know a place in my own way.

Croatia, old town Dubrovnik

The golden hour turned the limestone old town into a golden citadel, where the rush inside the restaurants kitchens matched perfectly the one on its busy streets. And so the evenings begin.

Close to the Large Onofrio’s Fountain, next to the stairs of the Franciscan monastery lies one of the living legends of the citadel: the Maskeron, a 20cm wide weird gargoyle head coming out of the wall like a tinny step. It’s easy to miss it, unless there are people gathered around. It is said that those who manage to stay on top of it, keeping the balance while also take off their shirt, will be lucky in love. Therefore, encouraged by the myth, boys, girls, even adults were testing their balance with more fun then success. The performances were attracting passers by from the street and each time someone was getting close to fulfilling the challenge, applauds and encouragements were filling the night. The kind of night that  I already knew will turn into an amazing memory of one of my beautiful places, finally discovered:  the old and charming Dubrovnik.

Next: Kotor, Montenegro

 

 

 

 

 

 

Croatia – Plitvice Lakes and so much more

The narrow path was going up. Every person in front of me was like an obstacle meant to slow me down. I was trying to be as polite as someone in a desperate hurry can be. I was literally running and sweating but the worse was that I had no idea if the direction was right. At one point people became very rare obstacles. I looked down from the edge of the cliff and the view was spectacular, a row of people was crossing the long wooden bridge above the turquoise water of the lakes and a big high curtain of waterfalls was opening in front of them. All in a beautiful green scenery painted in all shades. A few seconds for a photo I’ll always have so I stopped… No faces that I could recognise around. My heart was beating so hard I could hear it. Damn it! I had to admit it, my biggest fear that day has happened: I got lost in Plitvice.

Split, what a nice surprise!

The summer of 2019 have been awarded ever since winter to Croatia. My 10 years old birthday tradition demanded a new place to be enjoyed that summer. Another two reasons were Plitvice Park, present in many tops of the most beautiful places in this world and… King’s Landing. After the fatal and disappointing end of Game of Thrones, I had to see Dubrovnik.

After a short stop in Zagreb, I flew straight to the seaside, to Split. At the end of a short walk from the port, where the bus from the airport dropped me, I easily found my hotel: tinny, basic but cosy, with a little park in front where tall pines were cooling the hot July afternoon air with their dark shade and where cicadas were singing their summer hits, right next to a very fancy and pricey hotel and…. now comes the best part: a few meters away from the beach, one of the most frequented in Split. My booking wasn’t that generous with these precious details and I was terribly happy to have my expectations so exceeded.

Beach in Split, Croatia

A few minutes later I was, of course, already out in the street, ready to start counting many steps on my Garmin bracelet that day. I had a frugal beef salad in one fast food kiosk recommended by my host. Waiting for the sun to be more friendly and less burning, I wandered around, on quiet streets with beautiful old villas with little balconies nicely decorated with flowerpots. I discovered a little church with limestone walls covered with fuchsia bougainvilleas, those flowering factories that I adore. A few palm trees in its yard were making it look so like it was somewhere on the Italian coast…

A late afternoon swim and a lazy time on the beach in front of my hotel assured me that finally my summer vacation was ON. This time made in Croatia.

Split, Croatia

Evening by the Adriatic in Split

It was amazing to discover that Split was way more beautiful than I imagined. As I walked by the yachts aligned in the harbour and reached the beautiful promenade build in yellowstone and called Riva, the central stage for the city life during the day but mostly after dusk, with restaurants on one side, facing the sea, and palm trees on the other, it was obvious why Croatia is making so much money out of tourism. I couldn’t wish for more in a summer evening at the end of July then one of those places where holiday never seems to end.

I left the lively boardwalk behind and followed a song that seemed to come from a street somewhere in the back. A party? No… The 1700 years old columns from the Diocletian’s Palace, that have seen so much history, were now witnessing a wedding. And as events like this are not always seen in an ancient site, the place was now a huge gathering of tourists and wedding guests where the bride and groom, golding red wine glasses up in their hands, were the main voices of a song that all the guests seem to know by heart. This happiness was so contagious that all the people around were smiling. The toasting continued late into the night as I passed again by the place. An important day was starting early, in just a few hours, so was time to call it a day. A great one!

OMG, Plitvice Lakes

I’m not a morning person. But there are two things in this world that would make me jump out of bed at early hours: a beautiful place I want to see, that I already payed for.

Like Cinque Terre in Italy, like Benaghil, the beach inside the cave in Portugal and like so many other beautiful places I heard about before seeing them, Plitvice was a little obsession. I wanted to get there.

Split at 7am was something I wouldn’t normally enjoy. Fresh and laid back, like all places by the sea in the morning. I arrived at the meeting point 10 min earlier. To avoid the hustle and bustle I payed for a small group tour to take me to Plitvice, 250km from Split.

At about 11am we were in front of one of the entrances in the national park. The parking lot was packed with big buses bringing tourists from all the cities on the coast, also from Dubrovnik and even as far as Zagreb. A few tourists who didn’t had a tour booked and came by themselves were trying to buy entrance tickets. They were told to wait and see, at that hour all tickets were already reserved by the tour operators. The joy of summer high season…

– The authorities had to limit the daily admissions to the park, they had to, the place was too crowded before, our guide told me.

Then, with a little map of the itinerary in the hand, we were directed to the tourist bus. After a short ride, we reached the starting point. I looked at the map… I’m terrible with these things and space orientation in nature. “I hope I won’t get lost here” I thought, thinking about what the guide repeated a few times during that morning, “If you get lost, you’re on your own, we will have to leave at 5pm from the parking lot.” I wasn’t in the mood of socialising but I tried to remember o few of the people in the group by the clothes they were wearing: the tall blond guy in shorts, the Spanish girls, the Indian family…

It started like this:

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

The more we advanced, the greener and wilder it became. Like an Avatar land of wonder where lakes with the clearest water were either reflecting the trees around or offering perfect views to their depths, where plenty of fish were moving among fallen tree trunks now covered with dark green algae. Swimming was forbidden. The Spanish girls I was with at one point, we couldn’t stop fantasying about a swim in that paradise. The place looked spotless, no track of garbage as if the thousands of people wandering around every day didn’t exist to spoil it. The park was well taken care of.

As we walked deep into this trekking paradise made of a chain of 16 terraced lakes, united by waterfalls, walkways made of wood across the water were offering breathtaking views.  My photos took time, I wanted to breath in this place and take my time so I lost sight of any person from the group. I was too relaxed to care and I still had plenty of time to enjoy this:

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

And this:

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

The place was becoming crowded and at one point we even got blocked and had to wait for about 30 minutes. The moment I figured out people were actually waiting in line to take a photo in a specific place in front of a waterfall, I went further, outrunning the crowd. I found another spot, even better.

Waterfall in Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

An electric boat inside the Plitvice park links the 12 upper lakes with other 4 lower lakes. By chance I suppose I got to the jetty in the same time as many others from the group. A short boat ride took us to a new starting point, this time to Veliki Slap, a 78m-high waterfall, known as the Big Waterfall, the largest fall in Plitvice and in Croatia. The landscape was constantly changing, from unreal turquoise lakes to forest clearings where the sun rays were sneaking in and again to lakes, this time with light blue shades, with shallow waters where hundreds of fish were swarming in peace right next to the narrow path where, this time, no one else was walking. Such a bliss! For a few minutes I was all alone, sitting in the shade, watching all those fish so close I could touch them and hearing nothing but the birds. I stopped and look around at how wonderful this place could be. Waterfalls everywhere, small and big, solitary or covering an entire wall where water was pouring down noisy on parts covered with vegetation or on rocks. The picturesque landscapes were indescribably beautiful, with picture perfect spots every few meters.

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

Time was running out and one of the main attractions, the Big Waterfall was close. As if all the people in the busses that morning were gathered here in the very same time, the narrow path leading to the place was very crowded. I saw two women in the group but they were too fast to follow if I still wanted to enjoy the views I was passing buy not running as if I was on a treadmill at the gym, facing a window with nothing to see. I was in a hurry now and I got a few shots from above. It was impossible to stop for more then one second since we were now packed, moving like a human snake formed by hundreds.

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

I got down only to take a look from the bottom of the fall all the way to its top. A few seconds was all I had. I started running up again, grateful that most of the people were heading down and not up so I could move faster. 30 minutes left to find the parking lot where the bus was waiting. The top view of the Big Waterfall hold me in place for a few seconds in a aww moment.

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

It was so hot outside. The perfect blue sky from the morning was now turning lighter. The way up was dusty from all the people walking up and down. I got to a crossroads. I made a choice though I wasn’t sure. Then I turned back, took another way. At one point the crowds were far away and I could run. 15 minutes left. Then 10. I thought OMG! Then, one minute later, oh shit! Where the hell was everybody? I saw light, a sign and I was out in a parking lot, a huge one with a few busses. Now which one is ours? I saw an information office and went to ask them. Damn it! it was another parking lot! The one I had to go was down the alley, then turn left, continue straight, then at the sign turn right… the king of answer that can drive one crazy even in a relaxed moment. I ran on the alley back again. 10 minutes passed the meeting hour. I was already thinking wether I will sleep in the woods or beg for a car to take me somewhere, anywhere where I could find public transport. I was desperate but in a way accepting the drama and looking for solutions as I was left alone there. And then, I saw in front the Indian family! They were running too but seemed to be more confident about the direction then I was. I followed them and I finally found the right parking lot, the bus and the guide:

– Why didn’t you called me to wait for you? I waited for your call…

– I didn’t think I will be in time so…. I was barely articulating the words but I was so relieved! I wasn’t going to sleep in the woods that night! And I had all the beauty of Plitvice with me now, as a dear memory.

Right now, as I write this, in my balcony back home, after a month since I have escaped my quarantined big city and returned in my hometown to wait here or better times, these memories are so sweet. From the slopes of a mountain, between two high hills covered with forests and a river, nature has been my comfort where the song of birds have silenced any bad thought and the scent of acacia flowers in bloom makes me grateful for this never expected break from a constant rush and optimistic for the better times to come.

Next: Dubrovnic and Kotor

Bali: Temples, monkeys and butterflies

Memories in the time of corona

I tried but I just couldn’t… Between those long hours of working from home and the few minutes of sneaking outside when the dark covers well enough the deserted city, so that my secret strolls feels less as a guilt, I was tip toeing through my mind, through my memories. I didn’t wanna wake up the monster…. But as every glass of red wine sipped on my couch brings back the scents of Tuscany, the sweet potatoes I just baked in the kitchen bear the feel of wandering the streets of old Cairo, the black sticky rice pudding I made this morning brings a sweet air of mornings in Ubud…. the wanderlust monster is so awake. The sound of a plane earlier before made me run to the window, open it wide, only to check the night sky and see nothing… Still, I knew it was there….

At one point, weeks ago now, we’ve put living on hold, without knowing. Yes, there’s life behind walls, there’s work, dear ones, passions…. but the trees, the grass, the puffy white clouds on a blue sky, the waves, the so many things we love, these are all outside the walls.

1 hour and 45 minutes. This is how long the sun visits my balcony every day, if the sky is clear. And if the wind blows, I might feel some perfume from the blossom tree far beneath. I love every minute of it because I know I will have again more of what I love. From all the beautiful places I have so far seen, I now miss the most those I haven’t yet. But for right now, I’ll feed the monster with some memories… and I’ll adapt & wait.

Last hours in Bali

Wayan, my driver and guide and now friend, came earlier that morning, looking handsome, with a white turban and a blue sarong.

– Here, that’s for you, he said as we got in the car, and gave me a black plastic bag. Sticky rice cooked in small packs of banana leaves, algae pudding and a little plastic bag with orchids.

– This one, from my mom, if you wanna go to the healer, it’s good to offer him flowers as a gift.

We talked the other day about my intention to see a healer in Ubud, an experience I wanted to have but in the same time I felt unsure and intimidated: What if it’s true what it’s said: that person can look into your soul and read it like in an opened book…

I thanked him for his kindness practicing my 3 words so far Balinese and I started devouring all he had brought. I only stopped when I was too full. Yet, never too full to taste a new fruit. Was jackfruit’s turn. People were selling it by the road, entirely or already cut in small pieces and put in plastic bags. The woman we bought it from assured me it was freshly cut. Ignoring all the Western rules about food hygiene and eating peeled fruits in Asia, I had that jackfruit and it was delicious and with no regrets later.

Tanah Lot Temple

Probably the most spectacular places in the world where temples were build are in Bali. Tanah Lot is one of them. The rock that houses the temple, a pilgrimage Hindu site, faces the strong waves since the 16th century, in perfect solitude, on a rocky beach who’s shores are turned green by the algae. A ceremony was undergoing and tens of worshipers were moving around. I entered inside the cave, I drank from the holy tirta (spring) and when I came out I received the Bija, grains of rice washed with holy water or sandal wood placed on my forehead as a symbol of praying and wisdom by a pujari, the temple’s priest.

We took a few steps on the rocks covered by algae, with the majestic silhouette of Tanah Lot in the back and we asked a passer by to take Wayan and I a few photos. I was so happy to have participated in the ceremony and wear the Bija.

Temple in Bali, Tanah Lot
Bali temple, Tanah Lot

Back in the car wanted to know more about the healers in Bali and I kept asking Wayan about this. He said he never actually saw one in person but he heard about one frequented by many locals in his village, including his mom. She, on the other side, believes in “these things”…

– She goes sometimes to see this old man, and then she comes back and….aaa look, the Butterfly Park is here.

– What? Where? Here? I turned my head and yelled: STOOOOP!

A sudden break shook my head and the sharp noise of wheels broke our conversation about the healer.

– What happened, why you said stop? he asked calmly.

– Sooorry, I didn’t expect you’ll stop like this….

Probably any of my friends back home would have killed me for this. But not Wayan, he is the ZEN-est person in the world. I was half out of my car window already, looking at the back, for the big and colourful sign in front of the Butterfly Park.

– I have to get it, I won’t stay long, pleeease, I have to see them….

I have heard about the place but I had no idea was in our way that day. So I left Wayan in the parking, to take a nap and I went inside the garden…. I got the entrance ticket and opened the door to what seemed to be a huge greenhouse. A black shadow instantly crossed in front of my eyes, almost touching the tip of my nose. I made a step back. It was huge: a black butterfly just like the one I was chasing in vain the other day. I followed it for a sec and when I finally looked around, all was moving. Not the plants but the hundreds of butterflies. The plants and many flowers around were packed with them. There were about 10 different species, the biggest butterflies I ever saw, black, white, yellow, one almost transparent, blue, orange and black…. I watched each specie closer, observing every little detail. It was heaven, and an empty one since just me 5 other people were inside. Time has then stopped as I let myself carried out by this butterfly magic.

Butterflies in Bali, Butterfly Park

Inside the greenhouse, hidden in the back, was another greenhouse, smaller and much  darker, with little windows and no plants inside. Hmm… I went there. Wow! Cages filled with cocoons were covering whole the place. A worker was sitting on the ground, picking the cocoons from a big pile of leaves, putting them all together in a basket. We exchanged smiles and he points silently to one of the cages. I got closer and witnessed life and beauty in the making: a few butterflies were just hatching, trembling and slowly stretching their crumpled young wings to a new life, that of a few days only. In a far corner, separated from the others, I noticed something moving. I got closer, determined not to scream and embarrass myself  if I will get attacked by that beast. Cause that’s what it looked like. I was so introduced to the majestic Atlas Moth, the largest in the world, with its wingspan reaching up to 25cm. An absolute wonder with large velvet wings. It surely looked intimidating for someone like me, who’s afraid of anything larger then a fly, but hearing that it has no mouth, I felt encouraged. It lives up to 2 weeks, relying only on its body fat, and it’s a nature’s wonder. Holding it in my palm, completely covered by its gorgeous wings, feeling its trembling fading slowly as it fell asleep in my hand, feeling its weight was simply magical! I truly had the butterfly effect, right there, in my palm.

Bali, huge butterfly Atlas moth

This corner of paradise stands as a conservation centre for many species of butterflies of Bali, housing many of those also protected by law. I left the Butterfly Park happier.

On the way to Besakih Temple

I was still thinking weather to go or not see a healer, the balance being rather closer to no then yes, when we stopped at a gas station. The road was a straight black line splitting in half the rice fields. On one side a row of high palm trees was mirroring into the water as the rice had just started to grow, on the other the crops were ready to be harvested and people were working on the fields. I got closer to a fence to take a better look. Four women were there, with their feet and hands black in the thick mud, carrying large baskets with green rice. One of them saw me. She suddenly stopped and for an instant I felt like a spy. Then she reached her lips with her palm wide opened and released it widely towards the sky with a large kiss sent to me from the green fields, together with a great smile. I answered her back the same way and wave my both hands to them.

Rice field in Bali

– What did you saw there? Wayan asked me in the car.

– I just got a kiss from a few nice ladies.

Wayan didn’t quite understood but also didn’t insist. I was still smiling, looking outside as we drove by villages and rice fields and people. I was collecting visual memories.

 Mother Temple in Bali

The most important, the largest and holiest temple of Hindu religion in Bali, sitting still on the slopes of Mount Agung for more then 2000 years. The complex of 23 temples is known as Mother Temple or Besakih. This was the temple I wanted to see most of all!

Wayan had this idea to let me go visit the temples with a local, apparently a friend of his. They know the entrances, are allowed inside anytime, can bring people with them and I can see more with him then with a regular tour, Wayan promised. I suspected it was just a way to help a friend earn some money but I played the game. Still, I didn’t agree to pay what he asked first: 25$. I said 5. Wayan didn’t intervene. We continue and finally I greed to support the locals and be a good visitor and offer 10$. I then read that some people were asked at the official entrance some donations that can go up to 100$. I guess it depends on luck and negotiation skills.

My “guide” was in his 50s, short, slim and suuuper fast. I did my jogging following him through the village, to the secret entrance he knew. He told me about the temple, its history, the big religious festivities it holds throughout the year and about the last time Mount Agung, the volcano, woke up from its sleep covering all in thick volcano ash and damaging parts of the ancient temple. That was 2 weeks prior my visit. Unfortunately then it was a cloudy day and the author of all those damages was hidden in the clouds.

– It can erupt anytime, you know.

I looked towards the place where I knew the imposing volcano was, hoping that day it won’s woke up. Nor many more after for the sake of people there.

We had a 4 legged companion, a dog, my guide’s dog, who kept starting fights with all the dogs we met in our way. We was trespassing following his master. So constantly it was the two of us and 4-5 different dogs fighting and chasing one another around. Quite a noisy apparition in the little village, that made people look outside their yards and windows to see what was happening. Finally the dog gave up when the number of its opponents got to big for him. He looked at us disappointed and finally listened to his master and went back.

The temple was breathtaking. Or should I say the temples… around 80 of them. We passed from one to another, admiring huge shrines, high pagodas with up to 10 layers of roofs each, some smaller but all with their perfect black shapes made of what seemed to be some sort of straws perfectly build together. The Balinese gates, the high and large steps build in black stone and the multitude of statues of gods were giving the place a mystic air. We met almost no other tourists.

Besakih Temple, Mother Temple, Bali

– You see their faces, it’s both the good and bad. Just like in every one of us: the good and the bad are part of us in the same time.

From the top of the main structure, Pura Penataran Agung, the Great Temple of State, build in stone, the view was incredible. Temples as far as I could see. A faded line of grey smoke was rising up to the sky in the horizon. Probably a ceremony in one of the temples. A cold breeze from the hights of Mt Agung reminded us that in Bali, the first days of September, the sun sets soon after 6PM se we should hurry to get back.

After the previous experience with the restaurant where Wayan took me the other day, where I actually payed for the view to the rice fields, (which I admit, it was great) rather than the food…. I should have ran from the first sign: large white plates…. this time he listen to my words: local food. We went to the night market in Gianyar, his town, a few minutes drive from Ubud. Chicken satay, for me, of course and it was great. Plus, the atmosphere of eating with locals at one of the long tables covered with red oilcloth that were placed in front of the stalls where roasted piglets and chickens were served as food among hot pans lifted in the air over the high flames or bowls with vegetables waiting for their turn. In front was the food, but the cooking show was in the back.

Street food Bali, Ginyar, chicken satay

An unfortunate event has happened as I entered back my chalet: the entrance door became a deadly weapon for a curious lizard that has sneaked inside while I was away. I tried in vain to save the poor creature while Wayan was waiting for me outside, to drop me in the centre of Ubud. I came back really affected by this accident.

I ended the day with a late dinner at Dewa Warung, one of the open space warungs on the main street with bars and pubs in Ubud, listening to traveling stories shared by the people with whom I shared the table. The place was packed with travellers. Another favourite of mine is the nearby warung Biah Biah, where the food is delicious and served on banana leaves, but I like trying more places. The evening shower was just starting when I left so I found shelter under the roof of a store nearby. Huge drops were making people run and the street empty. Ubud is so peaceful on any weather, but rain, rain in particular has a special feel here. I have to say, I like it more then in other places.

It was late when the rain stopped and I could finally walk to my accommodation. I was walking concentrated, trying not to fall since my flip-flops were wet and slippery, when I heard “Hello, dear!”. It was the masseuse who helped me with a late massage the other night, though they were preparing to close. She was from Sumatra and she used to be a man. I wished her good night. I love this, when I travel in a place and get to know some people.

In front of my door was a black spot, an army of huge ants were devouring the poor dead lizard. Nature has turned a tragedy of one into the benefit of others.

Time to leave

Bali, street in Ubud

I had a few hours left in Udud so I spent them wisely: wandering the streets, buying more silver rings with abalones shell in the market, getting lost among stalls with merchandise and paintings, gazing at the lotus flowers at Lotus Cafe. And finally visiting my relatives. I couldn’t leave without a visit to Monkey Forest. I found the monkeys smarter and more civilised then my human fellas. It was funny to watch the two species with so much in common interacting.

Monkey Forest Ubud, Bali, wildlife

Wayan came an hour late. He had a wedding to attend in his village. After a warm and long good bye with my hosts, we left for Kuta, where I was planning to get my last amazing sunset on the beach and my last delicious chicken satay at Bamboo Corner. The traffic was terrible. When we finally reached Seminyak, it was almost sunset time. I wanted to stop but Wayan kept postpone the moment until we reached Kuta. The sun was gone. I was so disappointed and angry with him. I had one last wish: the chicken satay at Bamboo Corner. We split, he left to park the car and I went to get my last supper in Bali. I tried to contact Wayan again, I couldn’t. My connection was dead. I panicked after a few attempts that we lost each-other and we’ll be late for the airport. I decided not to go to the restaurant until I talk to Wayan to make sure we’re in time. I don’t know why I needed extra assurance. When I finally reached him, he was at Bamboo Corner and had no idea where I was. It took us many more minutes to find each other since he had no idea where McDonald’s in Kuta was. I was now desperate. The sunset was lost, the dinner too, now all I wanted was to catch was my flight. When I finally saw Wayan, all sweaty and desperate, I didn’t wanna kill him anymore. We literally ran to the place where he had parked the car, which was at the end of the world. If I only knew…

– I’m so sorry you lost the sunset. And dinner.

– Yeah, me too.

That was our last conversation until we reached the airport. The trip was a nightmare, we were blocked in the traffic, nothing was moving and the minutes were passing. I was so afraid I will lose my flight to Singapore. The next day I had my flight back home. Miraculously, the car started to move. I got in that plane. And so I left Bali, in a total chaos. Probably the only easier way. It’s always hard to leave a beautiful place. And Bali is special. As the plane took off, I promised myself I will be back.

Good Bye Asia!

My first taste of Asia was phenomenal. Back home, for 3 full weeks, every single night I dreamt I was back there, swimming with green turtles, gazing at skies set on fire at sunsets, defying luck on crazy rides on scooters, tasting new foods, praying at all gods and above all falling in love with the world, our world to explore.

8 months have passed and I was back for the second dose, this time in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. But about this, soon. The third Asian adventure was about to end today. I should have visited by now the Great Wall of China, be enchanted by sakura season in Japan and finally fly to the Philippines where I had big plans. All these were postponed…

But no matter what, the thrill for the next beautiful place is here. In the heart.

P.S. Yesterday Wayan shared on Facebook photos with his family’s rice field in Gianyar, planted with his own hands. There’s lockdown in Bali too and no work at all now for people living out of tourism, as Wayan. But as always, he’s smiling.

A few days after I arrived back home, I wrote him. We both apologised for the chaos in that last evening. And we stayed in touch since then. I sent him photos with white winter in Europe and he sends back the forever green of Bali. I hope we’ll meet again soon. He still owns me a sunset in Kuta and a chicken satay 😉 The last, as usual, is on me.

Next: Croatia and Montenegro

 

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

 

Malaysia: Too hard to leave Paradise

I left the unbelievable Sipadan island feeling at peace. And grateful. At peace because such places, like this small drop of paradise in the Celebes Sea, still exist, in times when we look around and wonder what’s gonna happen to the world, to nature. And grateful, for I had the chance to see it, to step on its pristine white sand beach and swim in those clear waters, so abundant in life, right next to endangered huge green turtles, in the middle of schools of silver jacks and surrounded by colourful corals and fish of all kind. And I was also bringing with me the few regrets of a day that didn’t turned out exactly as I hoped it will. What I wasn’t bringing with me was a photo. Not even one. But it didn’t matter. I already have all Sipadan here, in my mind.

Back to Mabul

Mabul island was getting bigger in the horizon, as our boat was approaching the pontoon from Uncle Chang’s. We were all silent, me and my new Malaysian friends, with salty hair but sparkling eyes from what we have just seen. The freshly made memories were keeping us all like this: quiet. We soon stepped on the wooden stairs, as the boat was back in Mabul. The diving day was done. The experience was now ours.

In the distance, on the sea, I saw a group of people from the island carrying baskets and picking up something from the sea. Must have been clams or other seafood. The water seemed so shallow where they were, though it was far enough from the shore. I was determined to end that last day on Mabul island with a great seafood dinner, one to remember. (So it was but for different reasons…) It was the promise I made myself the night before, while eating cold rice and some remains of green beens, listening to Louise  telling me how much seafood they all had the night before, at that party, how juicy the prawns are and how sweet the fish. I was trying in vain to ignore all the big plates full of seafood from the other tables and keep my eyes on my humble dinner. There was one simple rule to turn mine into theirs: bargaining with the locals, the sea gypsies, the Bajau Laut, who were selling the products, fresh, actually still alive. After that, the staff in the kitchen was so nice to cook the “catch” for free.

I first headed to the little store at the end of the pontoon, close to the beach, where a local lady was selling a few basic products. I bought two bottles of water and headed straight to the “fanciest” – NOT of showers, the one we had in the dorm room, to rinse the salt from Sipadan off my hair and remove for good that wire look hairstyle I had. Now, looking back to that moment, it seems so silly to waste two bottles of fresh water to cleanse my hair…. But then I did it.

A salty shower in the bucket and I was fresh, ready to go! I went out on the terrace to dry my hair in the warm breeze. I was hoping to “catch” some seafood for my amazing to be dinner.

– Ok, ok, ok….

One of the two Chinese girls I saw around before was sitting on the stairs, by the water, negotiating with a young man. He was showing her something in his boat…. I got closer. The small wooden boat was full of plastic bottles, each containing a prawn. They were huge, white with black stripes. The zebra prawns. All were moving their multiple feet inside those bottles. Among those plastic bottles with prawns was sitting, quiet, a little boy. I first came on the island fantasising about how I will buy and set free some prawns but now my killer instinct, encouraged by a sharp sensation of hunger, was kicking in… I choose to ignore the signs of empathy I was feeling for the poor captured prawns. I took a sit and the girl send me a friendly amused smile. That kind of “watch and learn” smile.

I have noticed her before: very posh, wearing designer flip flops, with porcelain perfect skin, always having a flawless makeup and leaving behind a persistent trace of Coco Mademoiselle perfume. She was in serious contrast with the landscape around and, of course, all the rest of us.  She came on the island with her friend, who dive that day in Sipadan and was rather the sporty sexy type. On the opposite, she couldn’t swim and had no interest in water activities. They were both pretty and fun to have around.

The young man was trying to sell her something but the price she offered was way too low for him. The difference between them, economically speaking, was sticking. She seemed to be enjoying a little fun, at one point I had the feeling that she wasn’t even willing to buy anything at all. On the other hand, the young men was trying to get home with some money. I stood and watch and listen her repeating for tens of times: ok, ok, ooookkk. Few tens of minutes later, she suddenly left, distracted by something on the terrace. The young man, still a teenager as I now saw his face better, with a sad expression on, as if his purpose for that day, to bring some money home, was lost for good. He had tried before to engage me too into the negotiation but I refused politely. He was now picking up all the plastic bottles filled with prawns that he had presented to the girl, on her giant inflatable pink flamingo by the deck. A few fall off the flamingo into the sea and while struggling to get reach those, he lost one paddle. I now saw the little boy, who was quiet so far, jumping on his little feet, paddling with his little hands, pushing the small boat so he can grab the lost paddle. He made it.

– How much is a prawn like that big? I finally asked.

The boy turned to me a little surprised and happy and gives me a price.

– Where did you get those? He wasn’t into small talk anymore.

He points to the see and makes a gesture, imitating diving and spire fishing. He too was a sea gypsy, one of those people of the sea. We start negotiating and soon I agree to give him 10 of my only 20$ left for 3 big prawns. Expensive….

– It’s not much. You are rich, he says, looking down to the depths of the see. It took me by surprise like an ice bucket shower since I looked anything but rich on the pontoon of Uncle Chang’s, in that moment.

– I am not! I answered him as if it was an offence. And then he said something that left me without an answer…

– You have more than I have, so it means you are rich.

Right there, on the island, without any ATM, wi-fi and even full time electricity, this was a difference.

I payed him the 10$ and took the 3 big and very alive prawns. While he was preparing to leave I was having remorses for choosing a dinner instead of a bracelet for my mom… “I am such a stupid to pay that much when I only had 20$” He moves a couple of meters away and then comes back to the steps. I turned to him again, I understood he wants to shake hands. He grabs my hand inside his:

– Thank you for helping us! We both smiled and I now felt happy instead of silly.

I took the prawns to the kitchen, being afraid to even look at them. My soon to be dinner… I entered inside the stuff only area and I was directed to an entrance heading another terrace. There, a girl, maybe 14-15 years old, was sitting down on the floor, peeling away the skin from a red fish like I have never seen before, using only a small piece of wood for this. I left “my capture” on a table and left, feeling bad for the poor prawns…

– Hey, we found abalones, amazing abalones, this big, look, look. On the terrace, Andrew approached me so excited.

– What did you got? A-ba….?

– Abalones, you don’t know? The best clams in the world, are really the best and very expensive and hard to find even in the best restaurants in Kuala Lumpur. And then he whispers to my ear: Here were expensive too but the owner here negotiated with the fishermen for us and got us a very good price… We’ll all share it, if you want to join us…. Join us was actually translated into share the cost….

– Aaa, well, I just got something, but thanks, I will see… and I left quickly thinking about the only 10$ I had left and some change for one last green coconut in Mabul.

Happily, all I could wish for then was for free: one a last walk around Mabul, see the locals, their beautiful children with yellow painted faces playing along the beach, (the Bajau Laut use this technique to protect from sunburn), take countless sneak peaks inside their modest houses as I was passing by every one of them, feeling as if I was inside for a blink of an eye. I had my huge green coconut, sweet as only Mabul island can grow, using the same straw I was carrying with me for the last days.

– Without straw, yes? the lady from the store asked me. I was happy she now remembered me.

I checked all those fancy resorts on the other side of the island to try to change my 10$, the only cash I had left, into Malaysian ringgits. I was hoping to buy my mom a black pearls bracelet as the one I took for me a day ago, as my precious magnet form Malaysia. Such a gorgeous adding to my bracelets collection, gathered from all my beautiful places. But…No chance, no one was changing any money on that island. I already knew this but had to give one last shot.

I walked the island barefoot, loosing minutes in front of the large shark teeth from the pearls accessories little stall, collecting countless hellos from children and heart warming smiles from the people. I felt as if I was there since I couldn’t remember when. I passed by again the protected area with the green turtle nests and checked the days left until the eggs buried in the sand will hatch. When I will probably be back home, dreaming of Asia.

Asia, Malaysia, Borneo, Mabul Island, Sipadan

As the sunset was close, I went back to my place, had my prawns who had been fried meanwhile. The meat inside was sweet and delicious but unfortunately already cold when I got there. Some other guests were having dinner too and it seemed they all had made better choices…. I finished fast since was not so much to deal with and left to the office to plan my departure the next day and the boat back to Semporna. I took a short walk back to the island, looking magical in that blue hour, as locals were lighting fires by the beach, pulling the boats to the shore and the sun was disappearing into a pink line, far away on the sea. It was getting dark, the day was over.

– Finally! Where were you? Come on, we’ve been looking for you! ….That’s what I heard when I stepped on the terrace, back to Uncle’s Chang. I almost looked around, not sure the welcome was indeed for me.

In front, about 10 people gathered around a big table, full of food, fish and seafood, were waving in my direction. Andrew was there, his cousin, and all the people from Sipadan that day and their friends.

– Come, the abalones are already cold. One of the girls gets a few remains from a large plate in the middle of the table. That’s all what’s left, she giggles.

– It’s enough, I only wanna taste…. thank you, thank you so much, I said, still in full surprise.

And I understood why the abalones are called the best: because they really are. They insist I join them for what was next to come from the kitchen. A carnival of plates follows, full of hot steamed huge zebra prawns, fish, OMG, was a feast! I kept insisting they will allow me to contribute to this but they insist I was their guest. The girl next to me teaches me how to eat properly the prawns, and splits her share with me. She is a Chinese living in Borneo. We then exchange Facebook accounts to become “friends for life”. We eat and laugh and talk about all in the world. For a second I stopped and looked around at my new friends and our big table and the amazing food and I couldn’t stop thinking: If this is what traveling solo means, then I don’t need anything else.

The fancy Chinese girls were next to us, we all laughed seeing the huge quantities of seafood on their table. It was food for 20 hungry men: prawns, fish, crabs, some I did’t even know. They were working hard over there, also laughing like crazy of how much they took. They invited me also but I was already a guest and I refused politely.

Next we all moved on the pier, by the water. The Milky Way was lighting our night bright as thunder lights could be seen far in the horizon, as flash lights in the dark. It was the most perfect night on the island.

Leaving Mabul

I woke up scratching my hand. It was still dark in our dorm. It was raining like crazy outside and all was grey. I went out on the balcony and I looked at my hand: was all covered in red dots: the revenge of the prawns! I had some sort of allergy, apparently. I knew the seafood in exotic places can be more then we can handle but now I got it too… At least I wasn’t choking as some friend was during her trip to Cuba, after eating shrimps the night before there.

I grabbed my stuff and went out the dorm. We waited for about 2h more for the boat to come from Semporna and take us back to Semporna.  Andrew and his cousin, the fancy Chinese girls and myself. When we finally left the island, packed in a small rusty boat, the sea was still quite rough, with big waves making our journey a hell of a trip. 1h seemed like 10h as I had constantly the feeling the boat will capsize each time a big wave was heating us, changing the direction of the boat and pouring salty showers all over us. Though we were drenched and I was quite scared, there was some fun in this. Not that much when, at one point, the engine died… After a few minutes of trying, the guy managed to turn it on again. To me all that seem quite dangerous and stressing, but my companions, they were all so calm, just covering their faces each time a wave had hit us. It’s something that amazes me, how confident around water get people living by the seas and oceans. A big relief for me was seeing us all safe and drenched, back on land, to Semporna, back to the jetty.

– You know, I envy you…

–  I looked back to her surprised. You… why? It was the Chinese girl who has joined the group the other day in Sipadan.

– For having the courage to travel like that, by yourself, I want to have your courage. I’m afraid to…

– You have the courage, do it and will be fine. But watch out, soon you’ll start to love it.

We both smiled and made a gesture instead of goodbye. Who knows: maybe one day she asks a friend to go some place she wants to see, the friend says yes but cancels the last moment. And so she will taste the feeling of the absolute freedom that solo traveling brings.

My last 10$ payed my way back to Tawau, to the airport. Driving among the jungle of Borneo, surrounded by endless shades of green, I relieved all the moments I have lived in Malaysia during those past days, from the sounds of Taman Negara, the 130 million years old jungle, to the colourful steps of Batu Caves and the hindu ceremonies, to the infinity pool facing the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and laughing in the rain in Merdeka Square with a total stranger, and back to the paradise in Borneo, swimming with endangered green turtles and seeing the Bajau Laut. This was one of the few places I got to where leaving hurt and brought tears in my eyes.

What a rich trip Malaysia was!

Next: Bali

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

 

 

Malaysia, Mabul, the island of sea gypsies

I wasn’t born with a strong desire to go see far away places. I somehow developed this “condition”, in time, trip by trip. Something that keeps you up, makes you wander and doesn’t allow you to feel fine while staying in one place for long, can be, I guess, categorised as such: a “condition”. So there I was again, on another continent, another country and another beautiful place I have never even dreamt of seeing. And I had more butterflies rushing through my stomach then the Celebes Sea had fish in that morning. Then I heard:

– You can jump here, swim around this area. Watch out, there are some triggerfish nests there… If you see one, you know, the one who attacks it’s actually its mate, and will be probably behind you already. And avoid going over there also, might be some strong currents…. The guy was telling me all these in a hurry, while pointing those places with his finger, as if it was on Google Maps. But was just blue, deep blue sea.

I was listening to the diving instructor’s advices, given briefly and without any sign of concern, while he was in the same time arranging some oxygen tubes on the boat. He had that air that people living by the water gain in time, that confidence. On the opposite, I had no wish to leave that boat and jump in that water. I was the only one left on the boat, all the divers in the group were already down there, in the depths of the sea.

I couldn’t believe it! After all it took me to get there that day, in the most awaited moment I was just getting such cold feet…

This hesitation, sister to fear and brother to panic, made me angry against myself. With a beating heart and a rushed breath I wasted no other second, I climbed the upper edge of the vessel side and I jumped! I had too see with my own eyes if all was said was true: if Sipadan island is indeed one of the last underwater paradises on Earth.

Malaysia, Borneo. Living wild 

After the green paradise of Sri Lanka, I was heading to a blue paradise, in Borneo. I landed in Sabah, province of Malaysia, on Borneo island, in the small town Tawau.

– Hello, so you are going to Sipadan, nice! a guy said to me as he passed by, in the airport. I smiled back, wondering how come he knew…

Outside the airport, I finally found, after a few desperate attempts, the driver who was sent for the new guests of Uncle Chang’s Sipadan Mabul Dive Lodge, myself included. I first searched the crowd waiting in front, among tens of people holding sheets of paper with all kind of names, most of them Asian. All except mine. A few people came closer, asking if I was Chang or Young. I was only Desperate. In this chaos, with my phone dead since I had no wifi, completely disoriented, would have been a pain in the… and the wallet to find my way, all alone, to Semporna’s jetty and catch, at 2PM, the last boat that day for Mabul island. Second option was to rent a boat and pay 10 times the price. Happily miracles happen: I saw at last a guy with my name, spelled wrong. The driver was making one last attempt to find me among the few left in front of the airport. He had 2 other people in the van already and two more on the list to pick up. He looked behind again, mumbled something and then he makes us a sign we leave, without much bother. And so, in the van, I met Andrew and his cousin, two Malaysians form Penang, going to Sipadan also and staying, like me, in Mabul.

On our way to Semporna, about an hour drive, we talked about Europe, the countries Andrew visited and how they loved diving. He first got his diving certificate in Mabul, 10 years before. After completing it, he had the one dive permit for Sipadan. He assured me the place is a paradise. He was so excited to be back and fulfil an old promise now that his young cousin has obtain her PADI. They were, of course, surprised I wasn’t a diver, but still going to Sipadan, this Mecca for experienced divers all around the world. As in Europe is not so much to see underwater, definitely not like in Asia, I didn’t had a certificate. But I could see why in Malaysia diving is as natural as riding a bike.

Sabah province, Semporna

The vegetation in Borneo, as far as I could see by the road, was as I expected: dense and wild. After all, Borneo is a green paradise and home of many amazing native creatures  like the slow lorises and the clouded leopards. Semporna, on the other hand, was also a wild place, only this time because of the humans living there. With a majority of muslims, the small town looked chaotic, dirty…. a prelude for what was next in Mabul. That exotic island, mostly known only for being the starting point for Sipadan, is still holding its wonders: the sea gypsies living there, those people I was so excited to finally see.

When the van finally stopped close to the jetty, in Semporna, all I could see were long lines of wooden chalets build on pillars, above the water, housing the offices of too many tours agencies. We entered inside one, built just like the others, with a small porch in the front. About other 10 chalets were built right behind it, going far into the bay, on the sea. I looked down as I walked the bridge and the water beneath was terribly dirty and polluted with all you can imagine made of plastic. Very soon I was going to find out it was even more dirty… A lady inside the chalet, wearing a black hijab, sitting in front of an old and messy desk, full of papers, was yelling to a man, in their language. When she finished that show, she welcomed me smiling and helped me complete the form for my staying in Mabul.

– You have Sipadan too, yes? I confirmed, relieved that my reservation was confirmed.

Next, I was truly introduced to the wild spirit of Sabah: I went to the toilet. Was right next to the office. Inside the very small room: a toilet, a tiny sink and a blue plastic bucket. The bucket served for 2 purposes: for flushing the toilet and to shower in a bucket. I could see the water from the sea beneath, through the small spaces left between the old wooden floorboards. When I got closer the toilet, an unexpected light came from inside it. My eyes just got bigger. Was also the sea beneath, which obviously meant that what goes in the toilet, gets straight into the sea. Directly, no other redirection. I knew about the basic conditions in the area but I didn’t expect this basic.

After coming to peace with this new discovery, I went to the market near by, close to the jetty. All I got tempted by was some durian from a girl who was selling it under a tree, next to that nice sea water. The fruits were smaller then the ones in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. It was the wild type, from the high forests, the one I heard was the best but quite rare. Indeed, was delicious: sweeter and with a stronger flavour of vanilla and caramel.

The Bajau Laut people (sea gypsies)

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

The boat from Uncle Chang’s finally arrived for us, Andrew, his cousin, a few other people and I, we all left for Mabul, a 45 minutes speed boat trip. As we left Semporna, we passed by wide areas with chalets built on water, made of wood and rags or plastics. This is where the sea gipsies, the Bajau, in Semporna, were living. It looked like a big slum, one built on the sea. These people are fascinating to me! They live mostly on water, in chalets or boats, as nomadic divers, using only spears to collect fish and seafood. Some even get land sick when they rarely touch, once in many months, the land. As the sea is their food source, they have wonderfully adapted and became able to do free dives for up to 13 minutes, at depths over 60m. Their spleens got larger to permit this and so turning them into a different new specie then the rest of us. One more fabulous proof that nature’s ways are simply miraculous.

Mabul island

As the boat approaching the island, heading slowly to Uncle Chang’s place, I looked down, at the water. Was crystal clear, in a tempting light blue shade, with plenty of pink star fish on the white sand beneath. Mabul looked like paradise, an inhabited one: white beaches, luxury resorts with beautiful wooden chalets built far from the shore, on the sea, connected to the island by long bridges. The high coconut trees, with huge green coconuts, with their silhouettes turned into shadows on the bright white sand.

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

We surrounded the island by boat, none of the resorts we passed by was new to me. I knew them all, already, by heart, from the internet, the research and the tens of emails sent and received while trying to obtain a permit for Sipadan. Uncle Chang’s was the only place to stay that has finally accepted to give me one.

So what makes Sipadan so hard to get to? This tiny island is considered one of the best diving places in the world, like in a top 3. It’s one of the few places left where the underwater bio diversity is still at its highest. It is now a reserve where only 120 passes are offered each day, in advance, for experimented divers only. All these 120 permits are split daily between the diving resorts on the island, the only ones entitled to offer them to customers. The expensive resorts get, of course, more permits. In total are about 8-10 resorts in Mabul. There is no other chance to get to Sipadan unless you are a guest of one of these resorts, for a minimum number of nights, from 3 to 5. The access on the island is allowed only between 6am-4pm

We passed by all those fancy places and expensive resorts and finally arrive in front of, let’s say, the modest area. Uncle Chang’s place was on the poor side of this small island, where the locals, the sea gipsies, were also living. Those on Mabul, I heard after, that day, were actually migrants from the Philippines, who were promised access in Malaysia, years before, an access that never came. So they have built communities on the island they first found uninhabited. Mabul became so their country, where they are living from what the sea offers every day. They are not registered and have no papers. So basically, for the system, they do not exist. They exist only in Mabul and for a few days were my neighbours there.

Mabul, the dangerous paradise

As I looked around, the place, the whole island seemed a peaceful heaven. Nothing like the type of place where western governments advise their citizens not to go to, for life threatening concerns. Still, Mabul is that kind of place, present on every black list. Why? Because years ago, pirates from the terrorist organisation Abu Sayyaf, active around the Philippines waters, have kidnapped tourists in the area of Mabul, demanding money in exchange of their release. The last kidnappings were in 2016, some of the victims being still captive. Therefore the area is still considered unsafe and authorities in western countries are strongly advising against any sort of trips there. Malaysia Government is fighting back, turning the area in a strictly militarised one. I was told that trying to get to Sipadan without an organised group might get you shot.

But in spite all these, once you are there, all the fears are forgotten. And there I was, finally stepping on the pontoon at Uncle Chang’s Lodge, in Mabul. I was actually more concerned about something else: the rats, not the terrorists, after reading some reviews about the place I was going to live for the next days, which people were calling a dump  full of rats in the chalets during the night. The fear of rats but also the care for my budget made me consider, for the 1st time ever, booking a bed in a dorm room. At least, I thought, I won’t be alone to fight the rats in the middle of the night. Besides this, I always wanted to try this: sleeping in a dorm room. I needed this in my life so there it was, the chance to try it, in Mabul.

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

I made my check in and so I finally met the young woman who was the very person that helped me with the reservation and everything. After all the emails, about 20 of them, we were already friends and I couldn’t have thank her enough for understanding and helping me. The room was more then ok, with 6 beds, no other furniture, a small balcony facing the sea and a bathroom just like the one in Semporna: one bucket, one sink and one toilet. And again, all went straight down, into the sea, with the noise depending on… you know.

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

A Chinese girl has joined me to the room also. She didn’t speak much but also didn’t seem the bothering type. In the room we found another girl, so we were 3 in total in a 6 beds room. So I met Louise, an American from California, traveling alone through SE Asia for more then 9 months already. I told her on the spot I hated her for that time luxury. Instead she even offered me her power bank. There is no electricity there during the day.

She was there for a week already and I wanted to hear from her about Mabul. Louise in-firmed all the information I have read online before arriving on the island, about the locals representing a threat for tourists. She assured me the island is 100% safe and people very nice. I was soo excited to get outside. I found my way out of the lodge, among the labyrinth of chalets where the locals lived. No glass windows, just 4 walls made of wood-boards, barely any pieces of basic furniture could be spotted inside. Was easy to see inside every home. Some were cooking, other talking, kids were playing, as in any other home.

A few steps more on the wooden long bridge and I was, at las, touching the white sand of the shore. As I tried to decide which turn to make, two monster lizards came right in front of me. The bigger one was maybe 1,3m long, with a huge tongue, fixing me. I stopped suddenly, thinking what to do next, to run back to lodge or just try to pass by since the island inhabitant didn’t seem to move away any soon. What if it will bite? Are those dangerous? Do they attack? I didn’t remember having read anything about these crawling locals…

While I was busy with all those nonsense, a local man just came, passes by the beasts as if they didn’t existed and sends me the kindest smile, saying: Hello, it’s ok.

I stepped over the biggest lizard’s tail as he did, the animal didn’t bother at all and I continued my way. This was the moment when all my concerns about the locals in Mabul were vanished. Thanks to this man and the warmth and kindness he sent in 2 words and a look.

It took me an hour only to surround the entire island, Mabul was this small. For sure, before people started to move there, it was a pure paradise. Now it still has its charm but garbage too. A few men were burning huge amounts of trash on a beach. I hurried since the air there was unbreathable and dark smoke from the plastic burned was rising high.

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

I walked through the village where many locals have started small businesses, selling raw seafood, cooked fish, boiled corn or sweets on improvised stalls in front of their modest chalets. In each of those I could again see inside, see those people’s lives. I  tried not to stare and be intrusive, but was impossible to resist to steal a glimpse of true life in Mabul. Tens of kids, the most cute girls and boys you can imagine, were running all around the place, dressed in colourful clothes, some having their faces painted in yello, a Bajau Laut people thing. It’s actually a pounded rice powder paint to protect their skin from sun damage caused by the water’s reflection. Walking among them I have received tens of Hellos, of smiles and seen only friendly faces.

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

I passed by an area where green turtles nests were surrounded by a gate, to protect them. Some of the stuff from a few diving resorts are very involved into conservation activities and this is one of them. Locals used to get the eggs to eat them. And you can’t blame them the moment you see life in Mabul. So the people from the resorts are paying them 5 times the price they normally get for the eggs. After saving them from becoming an omelette, the eggs are put back in the sand, this time in man made nests where they wait for the miracle of life to happen and release the baby turtles into the sea.

I bought a huge green coconut from a man who has just got them down from the tree. I will never forget the price: 3 Malaysian Ringgit, meaning 0.6 euro. I was in heaven!

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

I then got to the rich side of the island. Not more then a few meters were separating the luxury resorts from the slum of chalets where the locals lived so modestly. I was now so happy with my choice of staying, in the perfect spot of the island.

As the sun was going to reach soon the horizon line, I went back to my chalet, enjoyed my basic toilet and had a bit of a salty water shower, in a bucket. I “survived” this and felt great leaving somewhere far behind what we call comfort zone.

Louise was on the long pontoon, sitting on the stairs very close to the water, watching the sunset next to a huge green coconut. Plenty of colourful fish were wandering chaotically  right next to the steps, chewing on the algae grown on the wooden pillars. The last drops of sunset were spreading an orange-blue shade over that flawless crystal Celebes Sea.

– What a paradise! I exclaimed from a few meters distance, as I came close to her.  I took a sit on a step 2 meters away. She looks back to me and sends that kind of smile that says “now you know it too”.

– Your name is on the board for tomorrow, she said. You can only be sure you will get to Sipadan once you see your name written there. Some people had the permit but changes were made and they were postponed.

1 million pinches could not have made me realised this was true. But it was. In a few hours I was going to Sipadan, one of the top diving sites in the world, for many, the best. All I could feel was that I was blessed, right there, in the pontoon in Mabul island.

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

Next: Sipadan, a wonder day with a bit of bad luck

 

 

 

 

Sri Lanka: safari & wildlife in Udawalawe

It was dark for hours already when we finally arrived in Udawalawe, home of 500 wild elephants living in this natural reserve park that covers 308 km2. A few of them I was hoping to meet during the safari, next morning.

As the car stopped, I jumped out and stretched my hands above my head, had a deep breath of that warm but fresh air. I felt the scent of field, of dry grass and dusty ground. We have left the lush greenery behind is, in Ella and here I was surprised to find a totally different landscape, of savanna, with less green and more yellow.

Our hosts from the B&B were waiting for us, Deesa, my driver during the trip in Sri Lanka and myself. Was such a warm welcome, as if I was visiting some long time friends. The lady of the house, her husband and their young boy were kind and friendly. The house looked lovely and had a nice garden around where they’ve showed me papaya and mango trees, with fruits hanging down, and many more other plants and flowers. They spoke little English but we found ways to communicate even without Deesa’s help. My room, also, was just perfect. We were the only guests of the property for that time so we were spoilt. I still can’t believe all this was less than 8 euro a night. But something else had brought me there, and was nor the house or the garden. Was the food, praised by many other previous guests who were calling the dinner there as the most authentic and fingers licking good they had in all Sri Lanka. So there I was!

And the most important thing for a starving foodie like I was, who saved her appetite for the best to come: dinner was ready: home cooked rice and curry. I kept hearing “rice and curry” from Deesa all day long and I thought was just that, rice cooked with some curry. I was hoping will be served with something else, though… So when the lady brought a large plate with simple hot rice, put it in the middle of the table, in the yard outside, and then started a come and go back series at the end of which the entire table was full of smaller plates with… everything: chicken, sauces, vegetables of all kind, all with curry, all yellow, I finally understood what the famous Sri Lankan curry and rice actually means: a feast!

The host didn’t forgot to bring me a spoon and a fork. But I was decided to have my amazing Sri Lankan dinner the Sri Lankan way: by hands. They all seemed happy to see me embracing the local customs. Deesa showed me how it’s done: he first used a big spoon to take some rice, puts it in the middle of its plate and then surrounds it with little portions from all the dishes on the table, ads sauces on the rice, then mixes it a bit with 3 fingers from one hand and with the same 3 fingers starts to eat from all at once. Eating with hands, indeed makes food taste better. For dessert we had pineapple, the best I had so far, sweet and with a delicious flavour. I also brought on the table rambutan and langsa, from Malaysia, and invited everyone to have as much as they wanted.

An interesting thing happened: while we were eating, our hosts joined us with their presence, standing nearby but without taking a seat at the same table, even after I invited them repeatedly. This was only for the guests and so a gesture of deep respect. We talked, laugh and I ate so much I couldn’t even move in the end.

It was a perfect dinner in a perfect company. At almost midnight they left, leaving the house to us only. Deesa and I were having a last Lion beer when I started hearing something outside, over the gate, not far from where we were. Something was moving in the dry vegetation, seemed like something big.

– Shhhh, hear that? I said

Deesa, who was in a very good mood at that moment, said was nothing, just my imagination. He continued his story about Singiyria and the king who build a kingdom there, up on that 200m high rock. Then again I heard it, even closer and louder.

– Do you hear it now? I interrupted him. See, it’s not my imagination. Maybe it’s a leopard, I joked. The noises continued until we heard some barking, like 4-5 dogs maybe but very aggressive.

– Ha, ha, it’s just dogs, you see… No lion, only Lion beer here, Deesa said.

We started laughing and the very next second we stopped suddenly and looked to one another with both surprise and uncertainty.

It sounded like a fight, a wild animal attacking, just a few meters outside the gate surrounding the yard where we were sitting. Roars followed by other noises, a clash and after, once again, those dogs barking. It lasted for maybe a couple of minutes during which non of us even blinked. We heard a few more barking noises and then suddenly it was silence.

– This was no dog, Deesa, I said, a bit worried. This was something wild. And pretty big!

– No, this was no dog, true.

– What was it then? I looked over my shoulder, checking the length of gate with my eyes. Is this gate safe enough?

– Don’t worry, it is safe here. Leopards sometimes come closer, they have started to eat dogs, that’s why.

I have no idea if that was indeed a leopard, I have never heard one before, in real life and either way not like this, attacking. But it was certainly a wild animal. After this episode, the silence that surrounded us was interrupted by nothing else but the joyful crickets. I went to bed soon after, around midnight.

6am

I thought I was dreaming but after a few more seconds I realised that terrible noise coming from the door was real. First I thought it was Deesa, who went nuts to hit the door like that, as if he wanted to tear it apart. Then I heard something that sounded like some squawks. So this was not Deesa!

Are monkeys hitting the door like that? I thought. It can’t be! I was in a natural reserve, true, but still… I heard a rush outside and for a couple of seconds was quiet. But right before I started to feel relief and happy I’ll have a few more minutes of sleep, the noise transfered quickly to the window, which happily was shuttered.

And so the show started! Squawks and scratches and miaowing and yawing and the conclusion was only one to made: was a pack of crazy monkeys who decided that no human was there to sleep at 6am. The thought that I should never complain again about the birds at home, making too much noise in summer early mornings, just crossed my mind. I had an itch to see what exactly was outside but I was a chicken, I admit. I just thought I would be quite outnumbered…

When they finally decided to leave I went outside, checking the area first from the door. Was almost 7am and and the jeeps for the safari were going to arrive soon. Deesa was just up and the moment I see him in the yard, I started:

– You won’t believe this! A large group of monkeys woke me up, they scratched and hit the door and then the window…

He just sits there with that look. But anyway I continue my description of the noises.

– Monkeys here, noooo, they don’t come here. You must have dreamt.

I didn’t got the time to insist on the authenticity of the happening and I hear him:

– Where are my sandals? I left them….. here….. Was nobody but us here last night.

– Now you still believe that I was dreaming???

As he looks around the yard and sees his sandals among other shoes threw out everywhere, we both start laughing.

– Hmmm! Those monkeys… I hear him mumbling as he starts picking up his sandals from all over the place.

Our hosts were just entering the yard. We kept all the stories, from midnight and the one in the morning, for us. Breakfast was soon ready and it looked like an Instagram post: fresh made appa, some local curved crunchy pancakes made of rice flour and fruits and honey, so again I ended up being too full.

The safari 

The jeeps arrived, we jumped in and headed to the entrance of the park. It was a very early morning and the red ground smelled fresh and life giving.

Sri Lanka, safari in Udawalawe, beautiful places

I knew I wasn’t in a zoo but I somehow had big expectations. After about 2 hours riding on very bumpy alleys in the reserve, all I got to see were a peacock, an eagle, a heard of buffaloes and 2-3 crocodiles. I wasn’t disappointed but I was dreaming of seeing the lake and the elephants bathing there….                                                                                                     It seems they had other plans for that morning…. like hiding in the bushes.

We still got to see a few of them, a large male, a young one and then another one in some bushes. They were all eating for as long as we were observing them and seem to have no problem with us around. In the end, by a lake, another lonely male was putting on his natural sunscreen: the mud.

Sri Lanka, safari in Udawalawe, beautiful places

So my first ever safari was fantastic, no doubt. I did saw the elephants in the wild, happy and free and nothing compares with the pure happiness of seeing a wonderful “beast” like this in his natural habitat, in his home. Even if this means waiting for long minutes in the sun, in front of a large bush where something moves, waiting for it to come out so you can get a glimpse. Yes, us, humans, are intrusive, with our jeeps and cameras. We probably look so silly to the animals. But if in places like this they can be free and safe, it’s still an acceptable compromise.

Sri Lanka, safari in Udawalawe, beautiful places

After having a bite of this wonderful wildlife sanctuary in Udawalawe, we headed south, on the Indian Ocean coast, to Mirissa, Unawatuna and Galle. Few places in this world can bring the peace through beauty as these purely exotic beaches can. With high coconut trees with swings hanging down, stretching above the sand on long sandy beaches where high waves bring surfers on and on to the shore, il looks like wallpapers. Those we get to see while at work, closed in glass and steel offices and doing tasks we force ourselves to believe are “motivating”, those we lie ourselves that are just Photoshop. But they are so real, out there.

Sri Lanka, Mirssa beach, beautiful places

We then continued our way back to Colombo, driving by that wonderful lush vegetation, by the rubber trees plantations, by the banana trees full of green bananas, by lakes surrounded by coconut trees, covered in water lilies and lotus flowers, by the greenest rice paddies or huge trees turned black by hundreds of big black bats sleeping on their branches. In Galle I watched the stilt fishermen on the costs, keeping alive this ancient tradition, one of the so many in this country, called the tear of India.

Sri Lanka, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

In the end, Sri Lanka was more then I can ever say, it touched my heart in a special way, through beauty, warmth and that charming simplicity that few places still keep. And it became one of my favourite beautiful places, where I just can’t wait to go back, for more.

P.S. It’s been almost a year since my trip there and I still keep in touch with Deesa. Last time we talked, a few days ago, he said business is going bad now. The tragedy that took place there on Easter makes people avoiding Sri Lanka and this means no customers. He doesn’t complain, he just hopes for better times.

If I had the time and money, I would go right this second back to Sri Lanka and stay there for a month, at least. I dream to go back one day, soon.

Sri Lanka – the endless green of Ella

The Nine Arches Bridge looked like a giant orange snake in a sea of lush greenery, in that surreal golden light of the last hour before sunset in Ella. I couldn’t yet believe my eyes I was in Sri Lanka. Those famous tea plantations I’ve so much dreamed to see were covering all the hills in the horizon. As far as I could see they stretched like thick green blankets. Banana trees plantations, rice paddy fields, high palm trees with orange coconuts, all were adding a last brush to this exotic painting. The most dense vegetation I ever met in my wanderings, an explosion of green. This is Sri Lanka.

There couldn’t have been a better view to reward me for all it took to get there. I was exhausted,  hungry, with a sore throat and a stuffy nose from a serious cold I had just caught. Probably during those too many flights of the last days and nights since my arrival in Asia. But who cared, I made it to Sri Lanka, the tear of India.

Bye-Bye KL

The night before was my last in Kuala Lumpur. I wasn’t going to leave a fabulous city like KL without seeing its central landmarks, which I haven’t got the chance so far. After a few walks around the impressive Petronas Towers, in that posh downtown, with large boulevards, high buildings and lavish stores, I still felt like it wasn’t enough. It was almost midnight when a “good” idea stroke me. I went back to the Platinum, at the entrance of its fancy lobby, where I start prowling the arriving cabs. After a few minutes I jumped in the first Grab car that was just dropping some customers in the front.

– Are you free?

It was a practice this, for the Asian UBER, but the driver’s positive answer still came as a relief. He stopped the application and accepted to drive me to the centre as I was going to pay him directly. And so I met Alvin (like in Alvin and the Chipmunks, as he said). Alvin Ong, a Malaysian with Chinese origins, working in constructions in Australia. And this is how I got myself into a fun and sleepless night, before my morning flight to Colombo.

– Are you traveling alone? OMG, are you crazy? How can you do this? All alone! This is soo saaad!

– You never been anywhere alone? I was starting to feel uncomfortable…

– Of course, I always go alone, I love it, he laughed!

This was Alvin, crazy, fun and super kind. But I could never tell when he was serious or when he was joking. We drove around the city for a couple of hours, took photos in the rain that came out of nowhere in Mardeka Square, had a 3am dinner in Jalan Alor, with crazy spicy Thay food and the famous sticky rice and mango, the well known dessert I instantly developed a craze for. And we talked about anything in the world.

Before the sun rise he drove me back to my hotel, waited for me in the car until I took a shower and packed my things, then he drove me to the airport where I thank him and we said god bye. And here’s how I made a new friend.

Colombo, Sri Lanka – arriving with scandal

I landed in Colombo 5h later. Tired, completely frozen and with a bad sore throat. Some have a weird passion for freezing temperatures and during the flight I had to ask the flight attendants three times to fix the temperature to a bearable level. I see no point of carrying a jacket with me during the summer, as some others passengers around did,  just because the temperature in a plane. Soo, at landing I wasn’t in my best of moods, all I needed more was a scandal with the immigration officers. Which actually did happened… My online visa length was their motif.

Shortly, I was coming to Sri Lanka for 3 big reasons: the tea plantations in Ella, a safari in Udawalawa National Park, to see the elephants and the South beaches: Mirisa, Unawatuna and Gale. For this, I managed to save a few days out of the 20 I was going to spent in total in Asia, this round. Was crazy short but the other option was not coming at all, so I decided to still do it.

Therefore, I took the short time visa, which seemed ok for the length of my stay, but once I got in the airport, I hear I actually needed a different one, for a longer period. To get that, they had to first cancel the previous one, but the system wasn’t working. This seemed an abuse, it confirmed it also the confusion of the officer from the desk I was directed to pay for the new visa. She asked me when I leave and said my visa was ok. But the other officers wanted me to pay the 30 days visa. The tensions escalated as I wasn’t going to accept that without making a big scandal and we got to the point where one of the officers, that said in the first place I needed a different visa, started yelling at me that he’ll sent me back to my country right away. I was getting so angry and this phony came out of my mouth:

– I’m a journalist, I perfectly know my rights and I have the right to enter this country. I’ll pay whatever, no problem. I threw him the 50$ on the desk, adding that they were just loosing my time and if they want tourists to come, this is not the right attitude. I now think that this have actually helped me in those moments.

They continued to move me from one office to another, the whole place looked very grim and I was getting and also sending back furious looks. I started having the feeling that the whole situation was becoming dangerous. After all, I wasn’t arguing for my rights in a Western country, so was not the time and place to be stiff and have a big mouth. I lower my tone and happily two of the officers I met after were really nice and helpful and I finally got the damn visa. For 30 days, as the crazy ones wanted.

– I hope you’ll have a very good day today! I said to the one that started this in the first place, as he put the visa stamp on my passport. He smiled back candidly. He actually believed I was sincere, when in fact I meant the opposite.

But in the end, one lesson learned: never EVER start an argue with the immigration officers. Yes, some are crazy but it won’t help you anyway.

I ran with my heart beating, as in all this time my baggage was abandoned somewhere in the airport and I feared I might have lost it. But, happily, I found it, thank God, abandoned in a corner.

The moment I went out and saw Deesa, with his beautiful smile and a sheet of paper with my name on it, I was again happy. This was the first time I was expected like this in an airport and it feels so good and confortable.

Deesa was a driver I found on the internet, thanks a thread on Lonely Planet. I briefly told him what happened and why I was out so late.

– I would have waited for you the whole day, no problem. This was the first nice gesture but was just one out of many more that overwhelmed me the following days, that proved me how warm and kind and sincere people in Sri Lanka are. And made me totally forgot about the incident in the airport, with those crazy immigration officers.

Driving Sri Lanka

We passed through Colombo rapidly and started our journey straight to Ella, the first destination. Where the tea plantations were. 1st thing I learned was that distances in Sri Lanka translate in time way differently than what I am used to. The traffic is crazy and the driving much more slower and, surprisingly, I found this actually great because I gained more time to observe. And there was plenty to observe. This country is a delight: small towns with impossible traffic, dusty roads and people roaming everywhere, women in colourful saris, some wearing a red bindi on the forehead, man wearing, sometimes, only a sarong covering their middle, tuc-tucs everywhere, in all the colours and full of ornaments of all kinds, stores with old commercials, improvised stalls with fruits, mango, pineapple or orange coconuts. And of course, the iconic Tata old busses, also painted in vivid colours, packed with people who’s heads could be seen behind the small curtains covering the windows without glass. I soon realised it: Sri Lanka is a fest for the eye that can’t be described, has to be seen. I could have spent a whole day in one spot just looking around and not knowing how time flies away.

Sri Lanka, beautiful places

After about an hour drive, I finally started to get warm. It was suffocating outside but I was still feeling cold after that freezing plane I came with. Deesa talked constantly and I like this, telling me about the history of Sri Lanka, the culture, religion, the Buddhism and its beliefs, the Nirvana, the wildlife, the beaches and the civil war 10 years ago that killed nearly 250.000 people. It is hard for me, seeing this place that looks as beautiful and peaceful as a Paradise, to imagine it getting through those horrific times.

– You can sleep if you want, Deese said at one point. I most surely looked tired.

– Are you kidding me? And not see all these? Not even if I will be dead tired

I noticed the coconuts, in coconut trees or on the many stalls by the roads, covered simply with dry palm tree leaves. In Sri Lanka, the coconuts are orange instead of green, as those I’ve seen the previous days in Singapore and Malaysia. And are called king coconut. Deesa tells me they taste sweeter. When he hears it’a my first time in Asia and I never had a coconut yet, he immediately pulls over in front of a stall by the road, covered, as all the others, with dry palm tree leaves. A man wearing nothing else but a mustard sarong around his middle appears, coming out of the dark inside the cottage behind. Ring next this place there’s a terrain where tall palm trees grow, full of coconuts just like those on the stall. Deesa carefully picks the one for me and the man cuts the upper side of the coconut with a machete, in 4 rapid moves. The last one cracks it open and the juice inside is pouring from the small opening, as he hands it to me together with a straw. I take a sip. And then I can’t stop. My first ever green coconut! An orange one actually. I loved the taste. I could, right now, as I’m writing this, just go back to Asia, fly 10h only for a coconut like that. This is how addicted I finally got to be to coconut.

– Do you know this? Deesa asks me after showing some sort of nuts on the stall, next to some leaves. These make your tongue red.

I remembered I saw something similar in the past, people with read lips in photos from India. It’s betel quid, name given to small parcels that typically contain areca nuts, wrapped in a betel leaf, coated with slaked lime. He wraps one, puts it in his mouth and starts to chew it, to show me how it’s done. Then prepares one for me. I ignore my brain sending alarms concerning the hygiene of the procedure. I’m fully committed into this new experience. Which tastes like hell, as I start to chew it. Bitter and astringent, compressing all my mouth. I bear with it for more minutes, after I finally get rid of it, leaving my mouth feeling cleaner then after the best professional brushing and completely red. Interesting but once was enough.

We leave and continue driving through tens of small towns, passing by areas with lush greenery on each side of the road, small puddles covered in water lilies. It is so incredible green. As we started going up, through the hills, approaching Ella, the temperatures get cooler. A few monkeys were sitting in a line on the electricity wires, looking at the cars passing below them. Stray reddish dogs of medium seize, with a curly tail, can be seen everywhere. It’s funny that they look identical and we joke that there was actually only one dog and they kept bringing him in our way, to give the impression they are many.

As we drove even higher, the shade of green became darker too. And then, the tea plantations started to appear, covering all the hills rising around. I knew immediately we have finally arrived in Ella.

Ella, Sri Lanka, beautiful places

Small groups of women, by the side of the road, some very old, other very young, were carrying bags, half their seize, in their backs. Were all the tea leaves they have harvested at the end of another long working day, sitting in the sun, bending down for every small young leaf, on the vast tea plantations that surrounded the town. We stopped the car on a small road. The hills around were all covered with tea plantations. I use to think that tea grows in small and delicate plant. Nop. Are bushes with rough brunches that can get up to 1m heigh, grow very compact and I got myself a big and bad scratch on the knee after trying to get deeper in one tea plantation field, for a nicer photo. I did got the photo, and the scratches.

Ella, Sri Lanka, beautiful places

The last hours of light were running fast in Ella. The green hills were starting to change their shade. We arrived on a small street, with bars and restaurants on one side, which was the very centre of this small town. Western tourists were roaming around, many backpackers. We jumped in one of the many tuc-tucs parked on the side of the road. I specifically wanted a red one. It started a crazy 20 and so minutes ride, on a dusty and bumpy trail shortcut, during which every cell of my body was moved from its place. We left the town behind, passed by banana plantations, tea plantations, small hidden cottages with nice yards and gardens where chickens walked freely among vegetables. Our tuc-tuc driver seemed to really enjoy its mission: to take us as soon as possible to the destination, scaring away chickens or dogs that came in our way. This is how I finally got to one of my beautiful places: The Nine Arches Bridge in Ella.

Ella, Nine Arches Bridge, Sri Lanka, beautiful places

The railway line was packed with people taking photo after photo, from the tunnel to the point where it was disappearing in the dense greenery, following its way further. Deesa took my hand and we started climbing rapidly a hidden path.

– Aww, this is it, that’s the place! You are great! I can’t believe I’m here, I barely articulate, catching my breath.

From this point I could see entirely the bridge, all its 9 long columns, made entirely on bricks, reaching far down and getting lost in a deep sea of lush vegetation beneath. A few small cottages were rising on the hill in front, banana trees and king coconut trees. It was spectacular.

People down there were taking photos without a cease. I also did but then stopped and just looked down and admire, staring at this beautiful place as if I wanted to print beauty  in all the details on my retina, for ever. A beautiful place that was being, right then and right there, tattooed on my heart.

I has happy I decided to come to Sri Lanka, even for a few days, because I already wantet to come back here, for more.

Deesa took my hand and only in that moment I observed the deep contrast between our skins. Mine looked so white in his.

– I am too black!

– Your skin looks beautiful, look, it’s more beautiful then mine, actually.

– I wish it was not so black… Women here use bleaching cream, to look whiter.

I did heard about this before. There is so much wrong in a society that gets people in the position of doing this, trying the change the colour of their skin, that words are unable to express.

As I was sitting next to Deesa, contemplating The Nine Arches Bridge, I realised the mistake I made: not anticipating how fabulous Sri Lanka will be. Incomparable with anything else. Modest and facing economic difficulties but so rich in beauty, nature and kindness.

We went back to the town, as the night was coming, had a stroll on Ella’s main street as the dark was covering the town. The pubs and restaurants were full of tourists and were the only ones spreading light in that deep dark.

We bought avocado, mango and pineapple from a small stall. I never knew the scent of pineapple can be felt from a few meters distance, never before Sri Lanka.

Next: safari in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka

 

Malaysia: meeting the tribe – Orang Asli

After a few hours of trekking in Taman Negara jungle, through lush greenery and sweating like never before in my life, due to that 90% killer humidity, we finally reached the Kuala Tahan Tembeling River. It was like I imagined, dreamy: the dense tropical rainforest, with high trees spreading their branches like tentacles and twisted lianas vines hanging down like green curtains, was split in two by the waters of the large river, of milk and chocolate colour. A man was waiting for us right there, on a few meters wide beach of white sand. We continued by boat, on the river who’s waters were warm like a soup, crossing tumultuous rapids, gazing at beautiful birds flying from one side to another or huge lizards on the shores, sending us curious looks. We arrived in an area where the river was running quiet, just like a lake. The trees brunches looked here like hands, each trying to reach the other side.

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

– You can take a swim if you want, says Abdullah, my guide and already my friend.

– To see what gets me first: a crocodile or some piranha? He laughs as we touch the shore on a small secluded beach with yellow sand, carried out there by that mighty river. For a second I thought I saw a naked boy disappearing behind the dense vegetation. Or maybe I did saw him. We were now on the territory of the Orang Asli tribe, heading straight to their village.

In Taman Negara there are two ethnics of Orang Asli – Batek and Semokberi. The life of these aborigines is very basic, nomadic style, but what amazes me the most is how knowledgeable they are about the jungle, their home, basically.

I look around on the river bank and smiled, thinking it looked just like a photo of the Amazon, wild and mysterious.

Abdullah continued his lessons about the fantastic plants growing in the jungle, he showed me one that closes its leaves every time it gets touched. I had fun for minutes teasing it, for his amusement. His love for nature is a mix of respect, humbleness and gratitude and the fact that got us close was exactly that he saw I share the same feelings.

We then follow a narrow path going up the hill, almost hidden behind large fern leaves. A few cottages covered with rags and dry palm tree leaves are raising out of the dense green. Were build, apparently, to offer shade. I can see now three old women sitting under. No walls, only the roof and I can barely see them from the distance. I noticed they are dressed very colourful, with sarongs tied around their slim bodies.

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

A few more steps further and we are now surrounded by more cottages, some of them having all 4 walls, all covered with palm tree dry leaves. The entire village is formed of not more than 10 homes. The Orang Asli, the original people, the oldest inhabitants of Malaysia live like this for thousands of years, in small isolated communities, just a few families in the heart of the jungle. They hunt in the old ways, with poisonous arrows blown through bamboo long pipes, making fire from dry pieces of woods, following their own rules and customs. They are protected, fed and educated by mother jungle and she is providing them with all they need. They fish, pick up fruits and hunt, and sometimes they plant corn or a few trees for fruits. Their impact on environment is almost 0. This way of living, away of all the benefits and madness of what we call the modern life, is so fascinating. From the Arctic and the Sami population to Asia and its aboriginal inhabitants, people still live like this. I can’t stop myself wonder: How come we got so far from this? Polluting all, over fishing the oceans, destroying and rubbing the nature of all its gifts, heading with fast speed to a future that looks grim and even incompatible with life.

Here time has stopped for good. A young woman wearing an orange sarong tight up from her solder to her knees takes a naked 3 years old boy and starts bathing him in a bucket, behind a bunch of fern bushes. She uses water only. Her dark skin looks so beautiful, like velvet, contrasting the light orange of her sarong. I see other two, very young, who are carrying their offsprings in baby k’tans.

Abdullah says they all merry very young and because they merry inside the community only, sometimes the children are born with health problems or major handicaps. If a woman marries a man from another community, she moves away, following her husband.

The modern world got them too in some ways. Now women are taken to hospitals to give birth, the Government is trying to keep the children in schools and to provide the tribe with clothes or food. And so, with plastic and precessed foods. In change, they accept visitors. It’s a compromise, having strangers to observe them and take photos of them in change of material advantages. Less hunting, less risks taken, easier life. I did restrain from taking photos and I tried to be as little invasive as I could. The only few images I took with me were taken without anyone’s notice.

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

We are soon greeted by a skinny man in shorts. He smiles with all his face. He’s got no teeth left but he’s proud to be a great hunter. He is ready to teach me to blow the pipe and I’m ready to learn. The arrow is like a 20cm needle made of bamboo with a round end polished with a dry leave that stands as sand paper. He starts by showing me how he makes the arrows, the technique is fantastic! Once the arrow is ready, the sharp end gets covered with poison. The wild target has no chance once it gets hit by this.

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

We use a Hello Kitty toy, pinned on a fence, as a target. I never like this character anyway so I enjoy it even more.

The pipe is more then 2m long, made of bamboo also. He does it 3 times and hits the target each time in the head.

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

My turn now: 1st time I suck, second I get closer and 3rd I hit the Hello Kitty straight to the heart. But only after I got extra indications from the master. I hear applauses and we all laugh.

– Now you are a true jungle surviver! Abdullah said

– I should move here!

Fire lesson is next. A young boy takes a piece of dry wood and a rope. he starts rubbing the two parts and seconds after we see smoke. He continues with fast moves for a few more seconds, then puts the resulted ash in a bunch of dry grass. He blows and the smoke gets even more dense. Right after he has fire in his hands. My turn to applause now. 1min 20 seconds was all he needed to light the fire.

We head then to the last cottages of the village. A few children are playing outside and I am amazed how independent they are from such an early age. We sit there, among the people, on a bench improvised from two trees. The chief of the tribe comes, Abdullah salutes him and they start a long conversation while sharing cigarettes brought in by Abdullah. He also bought candies for children and he passes them to me so I can give them. They surround me smiling, with curious looks, grab the candies and run away. I saw them after heading to the river. They reach the small beach we came from and the next second they are all jumping in the water, naked, laughing and speaking loud. What a peaceful life and what a fantastic scene was developing right in front of my eyes.

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

We got carried out and instead of spending here, with the tribe, one hour, we spent the whole afternoon, almost 4 hours. Indeed, time has different values here.

We went back to the jetty where Sun, the driver, was waiting for me. I said Abdullah good bye promising to come back one day to the green paradise of Taman Negara. We then drove back to Kuala Lumpur.

On the way back Sun made a few stops in small local markets to buy all sort of exotic fruits, like rambutan and langsat and different desserts, just to have me taste the delices of Malaysia. All was fantastic. He refused any money from me, his reward was seeing me getting in love head over hills with his country.

The day ended with a visit at Batu Caves where a hindu festival was under way. The steps going up to the caves were just painted in the rainbow colours on this occasion. A hindu ceremony was happening in the middle and huge colourful hindu gods were placed in front of a shrine decorated with thousands of flowers. Tens of men dressed in white sarongs were attending, singing, praying. Sun explained to me a little of the significance as he was a Hindu, original from India.

We got right in time at my hotel for a last swim in the fabulous infinity pool, on top of KL. What a city, what a country, what a day!

PS: I do kept in touch with Abdullah, send him photos from Europe or the places I’ve been after. Seeing the photos with winter in Finland, he said he would die there, in that cold. Every time he asks when I’m going back.

Next: Sri Lanka