Tag Archives: holiday destinations

Kenya: the Big 5, flamingos and night safari

On the darkest of nights, little before midnight, a rusty white old van in a cloud of dust stopped in front of a camp, somewhere in Amboseli National Park. A light was lit, a door opened and three Maasai young men came out with sleepy faces. One man and 5 women stepped off the white van, dusting off their clothes with slow tired gestures. Richard, our driver, three Chinese young women, a Spanish woman and myself. Our unplanned night safari was over and so was our last drop of energy. We made it to the camp and we were all safe. We briefly saluted our new hosts and then let silence fill back the space. Miriam, the Spanish woman and I followed one of the men and his light on a small alley drawn on the ground by of stones painted in white, among lines of dark large tents. It was a deep dark.

Since all around I couldn’t see anything, I looked up, with no expectation. I stopped. From one side to the other of the sky, a thick white line was cutting the dark in two like a rainbow of stars. The Milky Way itself in its complete beauty, the way I could never even imagine it.

The Maasai Village

5am, Maasai Mara.

Kenya was turning even myself into a morning person. For the best of reasons: that morning we went to visit our neighbours in the Maasai village nearby the camp. As I walked the dusty road in that chilly morning (yes, mornings in Africa are damn cold), I saw through the rays of the early sun three young women, covered in red shuka cloth, the “African blanket”, carrying on their heads large plastic barrels.

–     They are lucky in this village, the river is just 2km away, don’t have to carry water for long distance, the guy leading us said. I continued to watch those women until they became smaller and smaller.

My unnecessary long warm shower in the camp the evening before felt like a waste I now felt ashamed of, while the low pressure water suddenly seemed a luxury. Just a few steps away from the village, our “urban” morning routines seemed here, in the savannah, bad habits from a different world, a world of too much waste.

I always knew water is precious. I read about it, watched tv about it. But never actually faced this reality.

Maasai tribe welcome
Maasai tribe welcome ceremony

Once at the gate, the welcoming ritual was performed by a group of men, singing and jumping high off the ground with their tall and slender silhouettes wrapped in traditional red blankets. The higher the jump, the better the prestige of the performer, we were told. After this we became their guests and we were invited inside. Small houses made of clay were built on the ground, all in the same shape, with round corners and tiny windows.

–       We only stay in one place like this for 5 years. This is how long the termites need to destroy the houses. Then we move some other place and build another village like this from the ground. Women are the ones that build the houses…

Kenya, Maasai Mara, Maasai village
Maasai village. The heard in kept inside the village because of predators

Every one of us was after invited to enter the houses. I went alone and was privileged to have the son of the tribe’s chief as my host. I followed him through a small opening serving as an entrance, lowering my head to fit it. For the next few seconds I couldn’t see anything. It was completely dark inside. I followed his voice in the dark until I saw a glimpse of light in front. It was a fire made on the ground, in the middle of a room. A woman was busy cleaning a few pots gathered around that fire. She remained silent as we took a sit down, on small wooden chairs. I now started to see better around but the heavy smoke inside made it difficult to breathe and my eyes were hurting. I struggled to keep this for me and be a polite guest. The young woman seemed disturbed by my visit. I would have been the same in her place.

My host started talking, presenting the house, offering information about the way they live. I felt he was somehow uncomfortable with this situation of having a stranger curious about his way of living. For the money that the tourists bring, the locals have to perform this show but this doesn’t meat they feel comfortable doing it. 

The woman remained quiet, ignoring my presence. I was feeling uncomfortable with this situation as well, while I was still struggling with that smoke.

–    ….and the cow we keep it here… he smiled hesitant and showed me the door in the back. 

–    So we have fresh milk every morning, this is our fridge, he joked with a shy smile.

–    Hmm, like my grandma, I said. My remark made him stop and look back with surprise. Suddenly we reached a common ground and we didn’t felt so different anymore.

I told him how my grandparents lived back in the days, having seven kids and keeping animals in the stable build close to the house. Next we spoke about how people process milk, conserve the meat without freezing it or use plants for medical purposes. We both knew that mint was good for stomach pains and we laughed abut this. It was interesting to exchange these information. His voice became different, relaxed and he was smiling.

I asked about the Maasai tradition involving men that turn 18 years old and need to have their initiation in life: they leave the community and go live for 3 years in the wild. They learn how to stay alive in the savannah and most of all to respect the greatest teacher: nature. The final exam is to hunt a lion and is performed the Maasai way, not waiting like a coward with a gun in a jeep to shoot the animal in the back, from a long distance. The skin of the lion is then part of the ceremony back in the village.

An ancient tradition that is rarely kept nowadays, after the cowards with guns have succeeded to reduce the lions population too close to extinction.

So the Maasai are finding themselves forced to adapt to the new reality.

I completely forgot about the smoke and the pain in my eyes and when we finally came out of the house, laughing and chatting, my Spanish friends from the camp looked fully surprised and as soon as we left the village they were curious to find out more about my visit inside the house.

-I want to offer you something special. It’s a good price, my host said, taking me aside, before leaving the village.

–    Is it a…

–    A lion fang, yes…

–    You want to see me behind bars? I joked, with the beautiful piece in my hand. I knew that in Kenya, wearing, owning, buying or selling any piece of wildlife material is is strongly prohibited and punished. – Look, this is fantastic but I can’t have it, it belongs to only one owner – the lion. But thank you, I’m deeply honoured.

In reality I was shocked…

Before leaving the village, the Maasai taught us their main survival skill: how to make fire in the wild out of 2 pieces of wood and a little dry grass. Rubbing the dry wood until the ash comes out and then blow it on the dry grass till fire is born seemed easy but I know looking is not equal to doing and my chances of surviving in the wild are below 0.

–       It’s marketing…

 Richard, our driver and guide cut down my enthusiasm about the lion’s fang necklace. Maybe he was right. But one thing that I know for sure is that any other necklace bone I saw after, during the trip to Kenya, and I’ve seen many in a lot of places, didn’t even got closer to the one I hold in my hand in that village.

–       Maybe, just marketing… I answered him, playing with the new copper bracelet on my hand and the new camel bone necklace on my neck. Souvenirs from the tribe’s chief son.

The Maasai market

In an improvised flea market outside the village, a bunch of women were selling hand made crafts: Maasai jewelries, small wooden sculptures and Maasai war masks. I bought a mask and two Maasai warriors chopped in ebony wood and painted in red and white. They will always remember me of the two unreal silhouettes of the Maasai warriors I first saw when we entered Maasai Mara, in the first day. Like two guardians of the wild, an unforgettable fantastic image!

Leaving Mara

The last time I touched the ground of Maara was in an improvised market. A few Maasai women were trying to sell their products to the tourists in the cars stopped in front of a gate, before exit. I liked a red bracelet and tried to negotiate the price…

–    You are killing mama Maasai! the lady said. She was wearing all the colours of the world plus a beautiful smile. Who could resist such a seller. I left the car to see more of her products. I left with the red bracelet on my hand, bought for the priced she asked, waving my hand from the window as our van was leaving.

–    The road took us through the Massai people territories, guarded by gates and barriers that opened each time Richard was paying a small tribute for our passing. And there were many of these on that dusty road crossing the savannah.

We drove for hours through the savannah until we finally reached the paved road again. We left behind all the wonders of Mara, its fantastic Maasai warriors, our tents in the camp, the village and all the wildlife and dreamy landscapes that not even dreams could project.

Maara is truly, madly, deeply unforgettable.

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Lake Naivasha

 We’ve been driving since forever. The whole day…

The group in the van changed on the way, the American couple stayed in Maara for a day more, we said a long goodbye that morning as they were continuing their 7 months trip to Africa and after to Asia. Together with the Spanish couple and the two Chinese girls we were heading to Naivasha. On the way Martina joined us, a Swiss girl that has been working as a volunteer in Uganda for the last three years with an NGO involved in offering protection to abused children, from sex trafficking,  child marriage, violence and even slavery.

At first she was silent. But with a Catalan guy and a Venezuelan woman in the van, no one can stay silent for too long. Marina started soon talking and just minutes after she had all of us silenced. She told us about what she saw in the last three years in Africa, about the kids in the centre, the terrible abuse cases, about Congo, the rebels there and the lava lake, the mountain gorillas in Uganda… We were charmed. This 20 smith years old woman has seen a lot, more than many in a lifetime. 

–    Ahhhhhaaahhhh, Ahhhhh, Ahhhhhhh

We heard out of the blue this scream that brought us all back to reality from the world where Marina’s stories have taken us for the last hours.

I was looking on the window and saw the pink line somewhere in front, far away, by the shores what seemed to be a large lake, but I didn’t realised what it was until I heard the same Chinese girl as loud as she could:

–    Flamingooooooooos!

After all that we’ve seen together the last days, lions, leopard, giraffes, elephants, all the incredible wildlife and the views that made us express in all ways from tears to laughs or exclamations, in all that time the Chinese girls were quite reserved in reactions, as if they did safari their entire lives. In fact all of us in the group were first timers.

Well, this time Kenya had got them truly! They were going completely nuts seeing all that pink! We all turned back to them in surprise and the next second an explosion of laughs followed.

Truth is, we were now getting closer to the wide beach and understood what provoked their exuberant and hilarious reaction: all was pink in front of us. Thousands and thousands of pink flamingos were colouring the shores of Lake Naivasha in pink! A spectacular sight!

Flamingos on Lake Naivasha, Kenya
Pink shores of Lake Naivasha

We all jumped off of the van as soon as we reached the beach. We tried to get closer but they seemed determined to maintain the distance. And then, something incredible happened: a few flamingos opened their wings and flew off, cutting the air meters above the shore. In a perfect synchronising, they were joined soon by hundreds of others until the point where whole sky turned pink and the sound of their beating wings replaced the silence.

In the sunset light this was a view to remember!

Flamingos flying over Lake Naivasha, Kenya
Flamingos on Lake Naivasha

I was the last to leave the beach and brought with me incredible photos and the promise to share them with the rest of the group after. I was wearing pink flamingo feathers earrings bought from a seller on the beach. I felt nothing but pure happiness.

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We spent the night in Naivasha, in a hotel. After sleeping in a tent for so many nights, a hotel room seemed like a long forgotten comfort from another life. 

Safari in Niavasha

We completed the famous BIG 5 during that morning safari in Naivasha park. The missing one was the rhino, after we’ve already seen in Maara lion, lepard, water buffalo and elephant. The feeling was of the purest happiness. 

Rinos in Naivasha Park, Kenya
Rinos in Naivasha Park, Kenya

We then took a boat ride, saw hipos from very close, quite too close at one point where about ten of them started pop up at the surface and our guide made a sudden manoeuvre to get us far from there fast. They are not necessarily violent but getting too close to them drivers them mad and if so, yes, they have what they need to kill a human with little effort if they want so. 

After a few tries in vain to tempt an eagle that was too full for that day for another easy meal, he finally offered the much desired show: left its brunch and cut the air in high speed to catch the fish thrown by our guide.

–     Maybe he couldn’t see the fish we threw…was my silly conclusion coming from a too tired brain

–    He’s an eagle…

Olga and I started laughing loud in the boat at her very correct remark. After the Spanish couple and Marina left the group that morning, Olga, a Russian woman that I’ve already seen around in the camp in Maara, joined us, as her trip plan through Kenya was at that point the same as mine. She was living in Chicago after graduating in US and was initially traveling with her brother and his wife and kids in Kenya. After the safari in Maara, she left them and was heading back to Nairobi. On her way she was sent by the tours agency to our group.

We started talking and got close during that day. I found out that she has joined the American couple in their extra safari day in Maara. That day they went again to the river in Maara, the place were the great migration crossings happen and they saw a crossing that very day. Hundreds of wildebeests rushed out of the blue towards the muddy waters. It was a life and death battle as crocodiles are waiting there a whole year for the feast. I saw the photos she took, the event I too wanted so badly to whiteness. But no wildebeest was willing to die when I was there.

Amboseli Park and the night safari

My eyelids were heavy, my mind filled with images of safari, lakes, flamingoes, too dusty roads, colourful dressed people in front of colourful stores, endless roads, crowded markets… And everywhere the red soil of mama Africa. From our initial group the only ones left were the two Chinese girls with whom I wasn’t talking much anyway. The trip through Kenya was continuing towards Amboseli.

Another Chinese young woman, a teacher, traveling alone and a Spanish woman, Miriam, also traveling alone before her 3 weeks of volunteering in an orphanage in Kenya, have joined us. We were now 5 women, 3 of us solo travellers. I wasn’t in a friendly mode anymore, I felt like I had enough new friends for the last days. The two women were just starting their trip to Kenya and were excited to have their first safari in Amboseli. I realised how lucky I was to have joined such a cool group from day one: all pretty close as age, coming from different countries but all had travelled to enough places to have nice stories to tell and most important: all coming to fulfil a lifetime dream: the first safari in Africa. So we shared all the happiness, intensity and excitement of each moment. And this truly made the trip more exciting for everyone.

We made a stop in a small town where Richard, our driver had something to do. A few kids were playing around and as we waited, I had the idea to call two of them and give them some candies. I had a one kg bag of caramel candies that I had in mind to share with some kids at one point, as a friendly gesture. The next second I found myself pushed agains the van by a tsunami of small bodies and a sea of little hands grabbing my hands in a me, me, me, me, me noise that immediately attracted all eyes around. I tried to organise them, to give an equal number of candies to each, but i was fulling myself. They calmed down when the last candy I had was in the hands of one of them. I wished I had 10 kg more candies… With cute candid smiles and mouths full, next second they spread all around, continuing their play from where they left it.

Kenya, Africa
The kids

The Chinese teacher was apparently inspired by this and she went to buy something from a store nearby. For my surprise, minutes later, she came back with a big bag full of pens.

– Didn’t they have candies?

– Yes, but I want to give them something they useful for school.

I smiled and wanted to see where this goes… She waves the kids that rushed again towards the van, ready for another round of candies. Her authoritarian air stopped them from repeating the episode they had with me. After a well prepared and full of motivation two minutes speech about the importance of education and the benefits of a pen in the life of a student, she starts sharing a pen to every kid. Well this time the interest was that low that some of them didn’t even wanted the pen and those that did took it were having long disappointed faces.

– Now you can also make drawings if you want, she tried to advertise the pens to the kids that were already leaving.

A few hours later, on the road, I realised that my cooper bracelet bought from the village, from the chief’s son, was gone. This made me sad and I remained silent for the rest of the drive.

Small towns, villages, markets, the live colourful movie of Kenya was developing on the screen of my window. In a small town we made a stop and I got off the van to stretch my legs a bit. I bought the most perfect mangos from a lady. I could feel their delicious scent from the stall. I had in mind to eat them in the camp, once we arrive in Amboseli.

I was amused when the Chinese girls, after all those days when they had separate food from the rest of us, prepared for them only and never touched the food or fruits we had served at the points where we stopped on the way for lunch, this time they totally broke the no 1 rule of food safety when traveling: “if you can’t peel it, don’t eat it” and they bought from a vendor on the street two packs of assorted fresh pre-cut fruits. I then was waiting for them to ask Richard to pull over so they can run into a bush… it didn’t happen.

After hours and hours of driving when we all couldn’t wait to finally reach the camp, we stopped. The road was blocked by a long line of vehicles. After about 30min we realised no wheel has moved so something was going on. The cause of all this was far away, in the front, but no one knew what it was, not even the local kids that came to see why so many cars were blocked on the road. The sunset signalled that the last hour of daylight was going to end soon. We were blocked. From one person to the other the information finally reached us: the Maasai tribes that were owning that land had a dispute with the authorities and in conclusion they blocked the road. Police came and a rock fight started. I saw Richard was becoming worried and keep talking to other drivers. Some cars were turning back.

As the last rays of sun were disappearing behind the horizon, Richard came to us and said we’re going to follow another road, through the savannah since we were not far from the camp. We left the road and minutes later the road was gone behind our van in a cloud of dust. The bonus safari at sunset made us very happy. For Miriam it was a first and she got very exited to see the first wildebeest.

– You’ll see thousands, I said and the Chinese girls and I started laughing.

We drove by groups of wildebeests, impala, zebras. The night was conquering the day and soon all I could see were little lights disappearing in the dark: the eyes of different animals.

We were driving for an hour already. Sometimes I could see in the lights of the van, in the front, groups of wildebeests or zebras turning heads and looking at the van surprised as if they were saying: what the hell you do here at night? We didn’t knew either… Richard was driving fast and was very silent. Every few minutes the van was jumping in the air and landing back. I had to use both hands to hold myself and avoid being thrown and get hurt. My hands were so tight it hurt. I couldn’t see it but I smell dust. Tones of dust, the whole dust in the world. I feared that we got lost and had no freaking idea where we were. No one was saying anything and the Chinese girls have stopped asking questions long ago.

The night was so black and the sky was turned into a curtain of stars. I didn’t know which feeling was stronger, fatigue or worry or both in a hard to bare mix. I was waiting for the moment when the van will either break in two or crush in the middle of no where since there was no road around, not even upon savannah standards.

Out of the dark a gate appeared in front. Upon it I could read Amboseli. Richard got off the van and I saw a light cutting the dark and then a small window. Richard talked to the man for a minute. The gate opened, we entered and after who knows how many minutes we reached another gate, the one to the camp. Our mighty van bit the dusty road and the breaks hold in still, finally. When the tones of dust in the air around started to lay back to the ground, I saw a light was lit, a door opened and three Maasai young men came out with sleepy faces. Richard opened the door for me and the 5 of us stepped off the white van, dusting off our clothes with slow tired gestures. The night safari was over! When I saw Richard I was shocked: his face was now all read not black, his t-shirt all wet and lines of sweat were pouring down its face. I then understood how worry he was not for us but only for our safety. But he got back his smile and we joked about our adventurous night safari. We thanked him. We’ve reached Amboseli safe and I was relieved, even though my Maasai mask arrived broken in two and the mangos I bought from that nice lady were turned into mashed mangos and ruined.

I shared the tent with Miriam since the last thing I would have been able to do at that point, after that day and that evening, was sleeping alone. That’s the last memory of that night:

– Miriam, I think we have mice inside the tent….

– Yes, there’s mice shit everywhere…

– Do you think mice can climb up the bed?

– In the bed… no, they can’t.

– Ok. Good then.

And I feel asleep feeling safe.

P.S. It’s been a year and three months since I wrote here… I feelt like couldn’t do it anymore in all this time. A lot has happened. With every day of this last two years we all got more and more far away from what we used to call normality before March 2020. Too many “it can’t be” from the past defines the present reality. The only constant and anchor that remains is nature. The healer, the comfort, the hope.

With the Spanish couple, Miriam and Martina I’m still in contact, as Instagram friends. I was in contact with Olga as well, until last week when I saw she unfollowed me on Instagram. Probably due to my anti war in Ukraine stories. Though she was also posting same thing, it seems it was just pretending. I unliked her posts and blocked her account.  

The next morning, opening the tent to this: Killimanjaro, before the last day of Kenyan safari. This time: Amboseli

Kilimanjaro, Kenya, Amboseli, safari
Kilimanjaro Mountain seen from Amboseli, Kenya

Next: safari on land in Amboseli and safari on the Indian Ocean, Diani Beach

Abu Dhabi: Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and more

My feet were burning! A hot long day of wandering got me exhausted. I touched the sea and felt it as if it was a step to heaven. Cold and calm. I entered knee deep with a Hmmm whispered to myself only. The sunset light melted the skyscrapers on Corniche Street into liquid gold, ready to ooze into the sea. It was my long expected moment. And then I heard in the back, someone was approaching:

– Excuse me, please step out of the sea. Is forbidden after 6pm. I’m sorry…the law…

“Ohh, Abu Dhabi, don’t do this to me!”…


Almost midnight

A never-ending 3h night bus ride took me from Dubai to Abu Dhabi the night before. Finding a taxi driver that spoke good English, with no Indian accent, was the first big and good difference that happened in the second Emirates city I came to see: Abu Dhabi. He was from Uganda and my 3 Swahili words turned our conversation into a friendly one.

The second difference, a lavish one this time, was the 4 stars hotel by the sea in central Abu Dhabi I afforded. In Dubai that would have been a fantasy. Thanks to the late room service and the Indonesian restaurant downstairs I had chicken satay with peanut sauce and nasi goreng, Indonesian fried rice. What a dinner at 2am!

12pm

I overslept, damn it! Or my phone didn’t rang… Or maybe I ate too much to late…

I took a look at the hotel pool and fancy interiors and left. I lost more then an hour looking for an exchange office. After the posh Dubai, Abu Dhabi was just another city: large empty boulevards, a few fast food restaurants, shops with ugly dirty windows and an unbearable heat.

After sweeting 2l I finally jumped in a taxi and drove to the very reason of my visit there: Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, ranked by travellers in the last 2 years as the world’s second favourite landmark, according to TripAdvisor, after Angkor Wat in Cambodia. (about that one soon). A place I found about from Instagram….

After a 30min drive the white minarets of the Grand Mosque started to be visible and soon was clear why it is called Grand, cause it’s huge!

No entrance fee, all man and women were split in groups to the changing rooms. I wanted a burgundy abayas, a robe, those looked prettier, but I got a light brown one instead. Only two colours available to rent, for free as well. The garment had a hood so you can cover your head, which is mandatory inside. The rule is simple: no visible ankles or head. If anyone wants to wear her own clothes, no problem, as long as that rule is applied.

I then joined the row of hundreds of people going in, passing by the other hundreds getting out. When I stepped out into the light and all became suddenly bright white around, I know I have arrived to another beautiful place I so much wanted to see: Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was sublime!

Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The strong sun shining right above and the perfect blue sky made the whole place look like an Arabian Nights white palace. The details were gorgeous.

Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The interior yard was surrounded by a no crossing tape so that no one could pass over the limit, on the mosaic forming large flowers spreading all over the white yard. There were special spots where photos could be taken, so photographers, instagrammers, likes addicts and others have all the conditions they needed for the perfect shot and the best memory.

Well that for a change was a struggle to me: I was alone. And I only wanted one nice photo of myself with the mosque large yard in the back. If possible no minaret getting straight out of my head. Simple? Nop! It took me an hour to get it and 7 people who tried. In vain. I got either an ID type photo, either one without my feet, one without my forehead, of course the one where a minaret coming straight out of my head, a few with my eyes closed and many on the move… I felt discouraged after all the options I could think of for how to ruin a photo ran out. I thank everyone for their (usually) one photo taken. The 3pm free tour was lost. I stood in a corner and admire the place. It was too beautiful to care about a photo. The photo opportunity spot I was sitting got empty, when a Japanese couple came. He had a camera. I thought I should ask him nicely for a photo, like I did previously with other 3 people carrying good cameras…. He accepted smiling. That’s a good start, some people look interrupted… I found my place. He made a two steps more in the back. Hmm…another good sign, not a close up photo this time, huh! He gave me back my camera and they leave before I could check the result. I never do this on the spot, my reactions can hurt feelings.

I catch them up in a few minutes, among the crowds.

– You take great photos, thank you so much. I love it.

– Yes he does indeed, isn’t it, his wife confirmed smiling.

Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

He was one of those rare begins born with a natural gift for framing a photo. We changed a few words and they told me about another free tour starting in 30 minutes and what they saw during the previous one where they can enter inside the mosque.

It was getting late and after a wandered around a little bit more, I decided to follow the crowds and see the interior of the mosque without a tour inside.

Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The interior was just as dreamy as the white yard, with the biggest chandeliers I ever saw.  After all, 545M $ for 22K square meters, about 4 football fields, do look fabulous, inside and outside!

Marathon walk on Corniche St

It looked like this beautiful! I almost destroyed my Havaiannas flip-flops rushing on the endless boardwalk, from Al Ain Palace all the way up to Corniche Beach, 5,2km in less then 30min. Passing by passers by, runners, playing kids, The Lake Park, and then Abu Dhabi Beach.

Sunset on Corniche street, Abu Dhabi

When my feet were hurting me close to an unbearable level, I arrived.  I crossed the beach, threw by flip flops on the sand and stop when I reached the see. What a feeling! It was too cold for a swim and too empty but perfect to cool away a hot long day. The beach at sunset looked fantastic, surrounded by glass skyscrapers on one side and the silver sea on the other, quiet like a hot day in the desert. I was happy there, all I had was all I needed. I didn’t even noticed the guardian:

– Excuse me, please step out of the sea. Is forbidden after 6pm. I’m sorry…the law…

So I found out in Abu Dhabi you can’t swim at sunset. That’s why there was no one in the water. The sea was cold anyway. I sit on the sand and admire the place and enjoy my peace and excitement: I finally was in Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi, Corniche Beach

I left the beach when was already dark. I took a taxi and asked him for a good restaurant with local food. I almost wanted to kiss him 10 minutes later when I saw in front of my eyes 3 big letters: GAD. My favourite place to eat in Hurghada, Egypt was in Abu Dhabi too. I ate until I couldn’t breath any more and talked about Egypt with the waiter there.

I walked on Sheyk Zayed Bin Sultan Street that evening, happy I added a new country to by beautiful collection and more new beautiful places. That evening of January, with 28C temperatures, the streets were filled with people, the restaurants, the terraces, the bars, the coffee shops… The heart of the city was beating. The big world was there and I was part of it, me and my wanderlust, ready for my next flight. How I will miss that feeling of perfect freedom later this year.

PS: lesson learned – always check the check in conditions when I book a room inside the airport. I didn’t that time and it cost me tones of stress, 100 euro lost for another room, outside the airport and almost my connection flight for back home.

Next: one day in Istanbul

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dubai – the desert and the city (Day 3)

An invisible sun lit up the horizon. Earth and Sky, soon that everything will be melted together in one shade of fire I adore, cut in halves by a straight line ready to explode: the far horizon. A sparkle slipped out behind the dark mountain silhouette, like a promise for more. I left the jeep and the cold air gave me goosebumps as my feet sank deep into the freezing sand. It didn’t matter. It was time for a rising sun. Time to welcome a new day….


5am

The window in my room was still dark. I was afraid to count how little time I’ve slept. Maybe 2 h and a yawn. Dubai was becoming the newest city to keep me awake, I thought, while making efforts to accommodate my sight and get dressed. Fast! 15min later I was out in the hotel lobby, where my friend, the Indian who’s shift was always during the night, every night, 365 nights a year, welcomed me with the same kind and joyful smile.

– Ohh…you can’t sleep?…

– I could’ve very well slept, but I have a sunrise to catch in the desert! I won’t leave Dubai without it! I answered him in a hurry, closing the big entrance door behind me.

There I was 30 min later, with three other Indians: the driver and another couple we picked up from the opposite side of the city, driving to catch the sunrise on the red dunes, leaving the city behind, still sleeping and still quiet. I thought then of another fact about Dubai: there are more Indians there then Arabs. It surely looked so from where I stayed. On the road I listened to those three companions talking about their India and the region there they all called home.

We stopped in a gas station after a while of running on a straight and empty road crossing the desert. Surprise for the fool of me: it was freezing outside! Damn it! Of course it was, it was in the desert! If only I haven’t had forgotten that slight detail…. With all the glam and spam of Dubai it seemed I lost my head completely. With nothing to do or buy, I got some candies from the store to sweeten my cold dark morning. At least it worked for that pain in the bum flu, a Christmas Eve present, that had followed me all the way to Dubai and was still bothering me with an awkward cough. I was struggling to keep it under some control and avoid weird looks by pumping sugar in my blood while constantly eating candies until my tongue hurt.

the wait….

From all the waitings in my life, there’s one I love most: the wait for the sun to rise. Living on the bottom of a valley surrounded by mountains and high hills, where the sun rose bright and set even brighter, I was a kid that grew up without sunsets and sunrises. The once in a year occasions in summer when my family and I drove for 2 days to see the sea , set the ground for my eternal admiration for the sun in its first and last moments every day. It turned me into a sunset & sunrise chaser for life. One that fights sleepless nights, desert cold, chilly sand and more only to see that first sparkle of fire in the horizon and watch it growing until it becomes too bright to see. From the top of the large red dune, like a wave in a see of sand dunes, I forgot all but that: sunrise in the desert. Always fantastic.

Dubai, sunrise in the desert

riding the dunes

Sandboarding was not my thing. I tried it, got sand in my mouth and I was fine with it. Plus carrying the huge board all the way back on top of the dune, climbing it in a run on a moving sand was a hell of a workout at 6am. If there were no people watching probably it would have taken me the whole day. At least I didn’t felt cold anymore after. Next, please!

Our driver reduced the tire pressure, a manoeuvre meant to enable smooth movement over the dunes. And the dunes bashing started. First smoother and then faster and furious until my entire stomach was upside down. My front seat offered the best feelings of this crazy ride among waves of sand. A big like for it.

oh, not camels again….

Oh, yes! I was wandering how many times I said it was the last time…

– Did you ever do this?

– About 5 times in the last 2 years…. And I hate it, I then whispered to her, the Indian girl.

Her experience was much worse then mine, trying not to fall and break all bones. She had a zoophobia or animal phobia. Of all animals. So when my camel tried to scratch her cheek on the back of her camel, reaching her foot, this turned into a mix of hysteria and screams. It took a few long second to the rest of us, while her partner was repeating that she’s afraid of animals. Finally our driver saved the day and remove my camel away from her leg. Back home I have two good friends who are terrified of birds so this was no so uncommon.

the falcon

Falcons have eyesight eight times as sharp as humans. Peregrine falcons can dive at speeds over 300km/h. Seeing such a majestic bird imprisoned, with its eyes covered by the leather telwah, so it couldn’t fly, was heartbreaking to me. I know about speeches evoking country’s culture and history, the people of the desert traditions. But this is 2020 and entertainments from hundreds of years before can be also updated and creatures that belong to the sky will be better left where they belong: free.

We had breakfast in a Bedouin camp that looked like the scene of a long and loud party the night before. It was. Two women dancers still wearing their costumes crossed from one tent to another with sleepy faces and messed up hair. A few tourists came out blinded by the sun light and ran inside quickly. I took my plate and went outside the tent, sit down on a wet pillow and enjoyed my breakfast struggling to keep the cats away. The Indian couple joined me later, after he convinced her that the cats are harmless. It was such a nice morning in the desert and the sun was just perfectly warm.

the Old

The place was deserted. The 30+C temperatures of a hot start of January in Dubai have left the streets empty. The old limestone buildings, the narrow dirty streets in the back, the small shops and the merchants carrying huge bags had nothing in common with the city of Dubai that shone bright from just a few km away, across the river. Two worlds of the same city set apart from the very river that once gave life to a small fishermen village in these desert lands, the foundation of all that it is now.

Dubai Old Town, Deira

The Gold Souk, The Perfume Souk and The Spice Souk are now the pride of Deira, the most mainstream in the old town. Unfortunately most of the stalls were closed, but those still opened offered a clear view of the place. I politely refused all the invitations to get inside the shops filled with sparkling jewelries just because I knew I wasn’t going to buy any. Just because gold’s just not for me.

Naif Souk I found it by chance, looking for a bracelet for my collection gathered from all the countries I go. Two levels filled with shops selling everything from pashmina scarfs to colourful hijabs or cheap jewelries and frequented by locals. The only thing I found came in set with a matched ring. About 5$ each, I decided to take two. but  first.

– I promise you next year at this time they will look just the same! the merchant wearing too much Arab perfume said approaching. I did a step back only to get some air.

– That’s quite a hazardous promise at this price, don’t you think…? I like them even if they won’t last long.

– What phone you have?

And so I got the price I wanted using my good 4 years old iPhone. Never thought it can be helpful in negotiations. But in Dubai the image is everything and the phone is the financial business card.

coconut green, mango and sugar cane juice

….were the treats of my afternoon, enjoyed on a dirty street in front of a small fast food with 3 white plastic table in front. At one a large Indian family with kids, at the second an Arab old man was cleaning the dirt between its toes, leaving too much to see under his thobe.  Before seeing him I was sure that the poor of  Dubai where only Indian, Pakistani, Filipinos. I left the old Dubai live its live in Banyias Square and headed to the beach.

sunset on Kite Beach

A taxi from Mall of The Emirates took me straight to Kite Beach, when the sun was ready to hide behind Burj al Arab and soon enter the sea. I bought snacks and devoured them all on the beach, upset that I missed the chance to take a swim in Dubai and comforting myself that the water was too cold anyway. Indeed it was but I swam colder waters before.

Sunset at Kite Beach, Dubai

I walked all the boardwalk from Kite Beach to Jumeirah Beach and Burj Al Arab. Again Google Maps fooled me about the distances in Dubai that seem small online and you finally walk till you drop.

I couldn’t find a bus to get me to Dubai Marina. Instead I took a taxi and decided to get to Atlantis. The last hot spot on my to do list in Dubai. I just wanted to see the hotel up-close.

We drove from the roots al the way up to the top of The Palm. The taxi left me in the front, on the left side main entrance. What a difference compared to the old Deira I left only a couple of hours before. The beautiful architecture, like a palace from The Arabian Nights, surrounded by lush gardens with palm trees and frangipani is one of the luxury hot spots not just in Dubai but the world. And of course with many taking selfies in the front… I left The Palm and Atlantis like all mortals, by train, the one that crosses the island and I found out about only then, offering great views to all the leaves filled with villas of The Palm.

Dubai Marina, again

Dubai Marina view by night

For the third time I came to one of my favourite places in Dubai, I couldn’t leave without one last boardwalk stroll. After all, where else you get to see parked in line 3 or 5 cars that together worth more then 1M, or 2, or 3, if not here? I like the place for its mood of eternal holiday that few places manage to induce. I found wasabi peas in one market near by and finished the whole pack staring at the skyscrapers curtain of lights surrounding the Marina, thinking about the two handsome men dressed in immaculate thobs I saw before, by the beach.

And that was Dubai: recalibrating my expectations about what money can built, tracing higher limits between luxury and poverty and raising the bar so high when it comes to what entertainment a city can offer. Two sleepless nights and for long days let me discover my Dubai. From the serene desert to the noisy downtown, from the old souks to level 148 in Burj Khalifa, from Jumeirah beach to The Palm and Dubai Maria, it fascinates me.

I will come back for that missed swim in the sea.

Next: 24h in Abu Dhabi

 

 

 

 

 

 

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