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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 and hello Bali

 

 

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: Jungle trekking

– Shhh…listen! Abdullah understood me and stood quiet. The music of the jungle was so loud in reality, all the insects, birds and animals had something to say. I couldn’t recognise any but Abdullah, my tracking guide that day in Taman Negara jungle, he could. He understood that wild language and started to whisper their names to me. I was thinking how forests in Europe are so quiet compared to the jungles of Asia.

Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur

I left Singapore shortly, no matter how amazing a city is, for me the real wonders are further, away from the glass and iron and concrete. I landed in Kuala Lumpur an noon, I took a bus and then a taxi to arrive in front of the 57 floors tall building where my accommodation for the next nights was. I was proud of myself, I managed to find my way through the city. KL was not as posh as Singapore but seemed to me more alive. The traffic jam was crazy and il started to look like that Asia I was imagining before. We ran on the large streets and suspended passages, by sky scrapers, among hundreds of bikers wearing jackets with the back side in the front, as a shield, meant to protect them.

The infinity pool in KL

– Wow! I couldn’t help exclaiming when the guy who accompanied me form the reception opened the door to my studio. It feels so good to have a bit of spoil when traveling and, c’mon, a 5 stars accommodation for a few nights never hurt any adventure spirit. The place was huge and the interior design so luxurious. But the view won on me: through the glass walls of the living and bedroom, the sight was breathtaking: ski scrapers, busy roads, a mad city revealing itself down there.

But the actual reason I have chosen this fancy place, besides the fact that in Europe I could no way afford that, was this:

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Who needs Marina Bay Sands, 350$ a night, when you can get this in KL for 50$. The Petronas Towers view was spectacular, seen from the edge of the infinity pool, was a moment to remember. I wished I could live there! My thought, while watching the city turning on its millions of lights as the sunset shades turned the twin towers into golden shapes, like two gods of the city. Amazing KL!

Street food adventure in KL

Was about time to get back to what I love the most: discovering a city by foot. After about 2h wandering the streets in central KL, I arrived in…… I took it personal when fireworks started to set the sky on fire, I felt welcomed. The therms “busy street” here were become too little said. It was an ant nest. Restaurants with opened kitchens and plastic tables and chairs in front, huge hot pans were shaken above tall flames, an effervescence of tourists mixing the uproar of locals, merchandise on stalls, fruits, meat, seafood. Make a choice if you can! I had some coconut water from a stall and found a free chair in the corner of a table. Luck gets sometimes strange shapes, mostly when we are hungry. And I was. I was now part of this crowd, for my wok.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,

The desert was a long expected one: durian. Finally! I got a better price easily at one stall and I found myself in front of two big pieces of the stinkiest of fruits, wrapped in plastic. I knew it’s better to taste it quickly before smelling. But I did’t. And the 1st thought was: At least I did’t buy a bigger piece… But then I taste. And for the first time in my life, was something I couldn’t decide if it was either love or hate. One thing is sure: the reactions I’ve seen on the web are just drama queen type. It is not so bad, even if 1st time is a bit strange. The smell is very strong, it’s why it is forbidden in hotels and airports. But it’s a must try.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, durian

Still pinching myself to make sure I really was in KL, I went back to my Platinum building, on streets flooded with so much light that a butterfly was still up, at midnight.

I was getting high on Asia. I fell asleep staring with eyes wide opened, from by bed, to the city skyline in front. A wall of lights, impossible to resist to.

Taman Negara jungle

In 2h I was up again. Was still dark when I went out of the hotel, the driver was already waiting for me, in a jeep in front. I was the only client that day, so a VIP tour.

Sun was his name, he was an Indian living for 3 generations already in Malaysia. We talked nonstop all the 4h as the ride to the jungle lasted. I was only muted in the end, when the road through the jungle was getting deep into the heart of Taman Negara, the 130 million years old jungle, home to tigers, wild elephants, birds and insects. I was speechless in front of this green wild wonder, with huge trees raising above the mist of the morning. We made a short stop and so I felt for the first time what 80-90% humidity feels like. But I was living a dream: to see the jungle.

Abdullah, my guide, was waiting for us at the tourist information point. We were introduced and minutes after I was following him as we went deeper and deeper in the woods. The further we went, the thicker the vegetation became. And humidity! Soon I was completely drenched, my clothes all wet and I felt as I was walking through water. Only there it was just air.

Abdullah was unbelievably knowledgeable, like a living encyclopaedia of Taman Negara. I saw ants of 2cm big that Abdullah said when they bite, are taking a pice of flesh and it hurts like crazy. He showed me all sorts of plants, used by the old tribes, the indigenous people, as food or poison, to built shelter or made glue and even sand paper. He told me how to figure out which fruits are good and which are not following the monkeys tracks. How to find the North and a few ways to stay safe if you get lost in the jungle. I always knew nature is providing us with everything and still, before Taman Negara, I was so far away of the true magnitude of this. Mother nature truly offers us EVERYTHING.

The sounds of the jungle were incredibly loud and my new friend recognised many of them. I have never imagined the jungle so noisy. Sometimes a bird was flying as we approached or a bush of fern was moving. Abdullah was indeed a man of the jungle and with every step we became more connected, united by this deep love we both shared: love for love.

Taman Negara jungle, Malaysia

– You see this place in the back, on the path? he said at one point

– Many years ago, while guiding a group of English people through the jungle, a tiger came out of the bushes, looked at us for a few seconds and then crossed the trail and disappeared behind the leaves.

– What did you do? came my silly question.

– Nothing. We were all frozen. Now the tigers are far, they have learned to avoid humans and stay deep in the forest. But maybe we get to see one today, he winks at me.

The forest was indeed deep. To reach its top point I hear one needs a whole week. Every end of day you have to arrive in one specific point in order to find the shelter build there and be protected over night. Abdullah shares with me a recent story of one guy who somehow got lost in the woods for 2 weeks. He was a guide there all his life. After missing for a few days, he was believed dead. Miraculously he was found after 2 weeks. In a perfect condition, which was unexplainable. Only one thing was strange about him: he was convinced we was lost in the woods for one night only. No signs of mental problems and no explanation for his story. Abdullah revealed that he was believing in which craft, practices not so unheard in Malaysia and mostly among the Orang Asli tribes. These people, called the original people, that are believed to be the oldest inhabitants of Malaysia, are perfectly adapted to the jungle which is their home, their source of living, their whole life.

Taman Negara jungle, Malaysia

The adventure in the jungle continued with a long expected experience: 600m journey through a canopy walk, at 30m high, above the trees. Instead, I hated it. I was so petrified that my whole body was shaking and I thank to all the saints in heavens when finally got my feed back on the ground, in one piece.

Taman Negara jungle, Malaysia, canopy walk

– How was it? Abdullah, who was waiting for me down, close to the river, asked.

– I thought I’ll love it but I hate it.

A wise saying says Be careful what you wish for.

We both jumped in the boat that was waiting for us at the shore. The river was like coffee and milk. We headed straight to the middle of the jungle, where the Orang Asli tribe was living. We were suppose to spent there one hour but when we left we realised we have stayed almost 4. Maybe that guide’s story was after all real: in Taman Negara time stops.

Next: meeting  the Orang Asli tribe in Taman Negara

 

Singapore – views and glam at Marina Bay Sands

All the lights of that part of the world, shaping the irregular and mind blowing skyline of the city that stands as a country. Called by some Sing city, by others Sun city, by me, that evening, simply like this: “Hello, Singapore!” I done it properly, raising one chalice of Stella at the sky-bar on top of Marina Bay Sands. The most expensive Stella I ever had for the best city by night view I ever got. Singapore was as promised: hypnotic.

Trip to South East Asia

Was about time to set my foot in Asia. For too long I have postponed this journey.

Just a  few weeks before that, I was wandering the white streets of Polignano a Mare, in beautiful Puglia of Italy, wondering how could a place so far away and so different make me happier than what I already loved: summer in Europe.

Start of a great journey

Before tasting summer in Asia, I got hit hard by an early fall in Switzerland, during a layover in Zurich. I jumped on a plane in a summer day, with 30C temperatures and landed in a rainy and cold Zurich where late August meant 14C temperatures and people in coats. This October mood, with leaves starting to turn yellow, really took me by surprise. And I was wearing a t-shirt here… 

Zurich, Switzerland

But a bit of luck was there for me though: I got right in the middle of a Swiss fest, in the old town. Swiss street food, loud music, people singing and dancing and lots of beer and… pot smoke clouds. It is legal there and this seem quite ironic since I was flying to a country where you could get 10 years in prison for that.

Zurich, Switzerland

 Zurich was anyway perfect for a long walk before a 12h flight. But was just enough. 

The challenge: 12h flight

I successfully survived it, my very first long haul flight, thanks to Swiss Airlines. They were best.

A bit tired, a bit numb and a bit lost in translation, I landed in Singapore. I’ve learned that an airport tells many about the city and so was Changi Airport: so cool and so… automated. Somehow took me an hour to finally take the MRT, the train, to the city centre.

Hello, Singapore!

I arrived in Little India, an area in Singapore, little after sunset. I easily found the hostel, took a refreshing shower and I was already out on the streets, ready to taste Singapore.

First impression: it’s a jungle of skyscrapers. Second: it is the cleanest city I ever been to.

1st mission: food! So I headed to Chinatown. The more Singapore I saw, the more perfect it looked. Clean, rich, developed, organised. It looked too perfect to be inhabited but still it is, by 5,8M people.

No homeless people, no beggars, no dirty streets or funny smells. Like a utopia that makes cities in old Europe look savage and rough.

I arrived on a street full of restaurants on both sides and what surprised me was the high number of meals offered by each. Some menus were in Chinese only.

A little further, on a few stalls with fruits, I saw the king of fruits: durian. I was waiting for this moment. I live on fruits, all kind of, and the idea that there might be one I won’t like was intriguing. I felt the smell from a few meters distance and knew it must be it. The price: 30S$. So I have postponed the experience.

Singapore, Asia, Chinatown

Pushed by hunger, I finally took a sit on a large terrace. In the kitchen, partly visible from the outside, was a noisy madness. Somehow, plates of food came out every 10 minutes. 

I played it safe and ordered dim sum with shrimp, a beef wok and some Asian beer. As I wait, I’m hoping in the end I will leave full and satisfied. Next to me a family of 4 Americans has a table full of seafood in front of them. 

My dim sum arrives in a nice small basket. It’s hot and steamy, tasty and perfectly done. The sauce is hot as hell and spicy is not my thing at all. I was warned before about how spicy Asian food is. Here comes the second course. I taste and OMG! My mouth is burning. It is so hot and spicy and delicious. I’m melting… The beef is so tender, almost creamy, like from another world. The first bite got me straight to the Heaven of foodies and forgot me there. Was so spicy that half of my body was burning, but I wouldn’t stop. 

My first food experience was perfect. I then wandered the streets downtown Singapore, feeling the size of an ant among the tallest buildings on Cecil Street, Central Blvd and thinking: Gosh, what a city!

Gardens By The Bay

I saw the icon of Singapore, Marina Bay Sands, from the distance, mirroring its three silhouettes in the bay. What a view!

Gardens By The Bay, Singapore, Asia, beautiful places, travel, solo traveling

I headed towards Gardens By The Bay first, which is near by. I saw the blue supertrees getting bigger as I was approaching. Impressive is too little said, it’s spellbinding but still… There’s a still. It looks so man made. Nature does it better than us when it comes to natural landscapes. It’s the master after all, we’re just copying.

The view with the lake and the supertrees changing their color in the night is sublime.

I spent a lot of time just gazing at this wonder. I then found a tree, a real one this timee, with pink flowers and surrounded by a scent that kept me still. The perfume was divine. It was frangipani, the flower that will later become the light motiv of my trip to Asia.

Marina Bay Sands – At last!

If you say Singapore, you say Marina bay Sands. I read so much before this trip about Marina Bay Sands and how to get to its iconic infinity crazy pool that I went nuts. The conclusion: it is impossible if you are not a guest.

I also read about all the scenarios made by people desperately trying to get there, sometimes changing into white bathrobes in elevators and pretending they forgot the key or trying to make friends with guests only to find a way to get there. But the vigilance of personnel has no weak points so I have found no stories of success brought by tricks instead of credit card.  

I also took into consideration to book one room, but hell, we’re talking about 350$ here! All I wanted was a glance to the pool and a photo but from what I read it seemed they won’t even let you enter to take a look for a sec if you’re not a guest at MBS. So here’s what I did:

First of all I got all the info I needed: I found out there is an Observation Deck. To get there you have to pay an entrance fee, about 23S$. But you don’t see the pool, since this is a level under, so not interesting for me.

 I got some hope after reading about the restaurants which were part of Sands SkyPark, at the top floor, no 57, where the pool was. Apparently to get there during the night you also had to be a guest, non guest were not allowed after a certain hour. You could only go during the evening, the early hours, if you made a reservation and payed for a voucher of about 20$. That seemed ok but in the end I didn’t make any reservation in advance.

I decided to just try to get there as I arrive in Singapore, no tricks and no lies.

Marina Bay Sands is a top luxury hotel, worldwide famous. Rule no1 is a common sense one: to dress accordingly. So I did. Of course I was wearing flip flops during my walk in the city but changed those with a pair of nude flat sandals while in Gardens By The Bay. I made sure before I left my hostel in Little India to put on a light summer dress and to change my regular traveling bag with a nice classic one.

I approach the huge entrance of Tower 3 at Marina Bay Sands. A number of luxury cars were parked around, limousines were arriving one after another as if it was the Oscar’s night in Asia. Was the definition of posh, for sure. 

Inside also it looked spotless, very glam. I thank myself I did put some lipstick on before.

I pass by the large doors of glass and enter the immense lobby with concierge offices on both sides. I head to someone there and tell him I would like to have a drink at one of the top floor restaurants and ask if it is possible at that hour. It was passed 11PM. He answers politely: “Yes, please. Welcome!” and directs me straight in the front. This side is as big as a boulevard, with luxury stores on the left and a fancy lounge bar on the right. I find the entrance of Lavu restaurant, which I have read about before. I ask the guy there again for directions for CÉ LA VI Club Lounge. He points it a little more further. A few more steps and I’m in front of a young woman and a men, both tall, good looking, black tie. I’m so glad I wear that Chanel lipstick… After all stories I read online, I was expecting a long look and a “Sorry, but…” type of answer.

I repeat the question about the drink. They are both very welcoming and I get another “Yes, please, welcome!” answer. The woman approached me to mark my wrist with a stamp. I’ve read about this too so I wasn’t surprise. I ask if I have to pay anything, as previously red on a few blogs, and she said was no need to. She accompanies me in front of the elevators.

– It’s floor number 57, she repeats smiling before the doors close.

I am quite surprised. So no reservation, no hour limit, no access fee, no questions about the room key to get to floor number 57, the forbidden one for all outsiders. The spot in Singapore where everyone wants to get to.  

The elevator doors open few seconds later and as I looked a bit disoriented in that dark lavish lobby, a girl approaches right away, smiling. She welcomes me and directs me to the lounge.

There were few people left there. I take a look and I realise it’s not the right side, with that spectacular view from the pool, the one I saw in all the photos. I can’t even see the pool from here and I have no idea where it is. I want to order a beer but they don’t serve anymore at that hour. Damn! No view, no pool and no drink. I want to leave, that’s it! I tried… didn’t work.

As I head back to the elevator, I see the top deck has multiple security points, with stuff personnel present there to ensure exclusivity for its hotel guests. Would be quite silly to try to fool them. And embarrassing, in my opinion.

Before I reach the elevator to leave, I see a door opened on another side. I want to take a look there. It’s another entrance to the terrace. The second I am outside and feel the fresh breeze from level 57th floor, I see it! The most famous pool in the world! A girl smiles as she sees my reaction and approaches. She is one of the three personnel ensuring no non guest will pass through there. I finally turn my heat from the pool and tell her that I am not a guest but I would love to see the pool, I won’t spent there more time and I promise not to jump in the water. We both laughed and surprisingly she says that she would have allowed me to enter the pool area for a look with no problem but, unfortunately, the pool was closed just minutes before. She gives me a confiant look and apologizes again for the inconvenient. As I turn around to leave she stops me and says I can still see the pool from the night lounge, adding I can get a greater view from there. She points the right direction and yes, she was so right!

I enter the lounge club, pass through the interior and arrive again outside, on the terrace. This time I was on the right side. Next to the pool, in front of the best part of Sing city’s skyline. The pool is mind-blowing, covering the entire rooftop. It is much bigger in reality than in photos. Facing the city’s skyline and its millions of lights it looks so blue and so posh, with white sunbeds by the water and high palm trees. Just by being there you were feeling spoilt.

Marina Bay Sands, infinity pool, Singapore, Asia

I find the perfect table right at the edge, where the view is spectacular. I rest my head against my arm and loose any time notions. I made it to Marina bay Sands… And nothing else matters when in front of our eyes is like this: 

Marina Bay Sands, infinity pool, Singapore, Asia

I ordered one chalice of Stella and just stare at this marvelous skyline of Singapore, feeling as if I was on top of the world. Oh, wait, I actually was.

I wished I’ll come back.

Next: Malaysia: Trekking through a 130M years jungle

 

 

 

   

 

Morocco: blue memories of a perfect day

Good morning Chefchaouen!

If I only knew, that day, when I woke up with the sun, what an amazing day will be…

Who couldn’t have guessed, it started just like any other ordinary day… wouldn’t! I open my eyes to a white and blue room, with hand painted blue furniture and wide blue wooden doors, long blue curtains and a small wrought iron window, nicely carved into the white rough wall. I jumped out of bed losing no second of a morning walk on the streets of Chefchaouen, as its blue shades were becoming brighter and its people were waking up to a beautiful sunny Sunday.

Without any trace of tourists in those morning hours, it felt empty and cosy. Had that rare laid back mood that only small towns have the bliss of having.  

I had those streets all for me and I took lots of photos on my way, all the way up to Ras Elma. I was there again but for a different reason than the day before, when I ran to see the best view of the city called the Blue Pearl. This time all I needed was a fresh orange juice, from those oranges kept in buckets filled with cold water. I was the first customer and the owner barely noticed me as he was busy washing oranges by the small wooden table he called his living. A few local Berber women wearing those straw hats with colorful pom poms were arranging the merchandise, the carpets, on a stone wall. They were soon after open for business.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

I found my breakfast too, three delicious hot round donuts bought from a local place where a woman was preparing the dough while her husband was frying each piece in a meter wide hot pan, filled with oil. I loved how she puts all three donuts on a blade of dry grass, making a knot before she handed it to me. That’s what I call bio and plastic free. I trusted the locals waiting in line in front and I’m glad I did and so had a perfect traditional local breakfast. I must have been a sight eating with my mouth full and oily hands, sitting against a blue wall, enjoying my breakfast and watching the people passing, since a Chinese woman wanted to take a photo with me. It took me a few minutes to understand what she actually wanted. Well, people…

I don’t know wether was the orange juice, the donuts, the sunny day or the blue streets, but I got a purple idea: I wanted to have photos of myself in Chefchaouen. Was too beautiful not to, though usually I prefer the photos without people, myself including. There was only one slight detail to fix: the photographer. I was there on a solo trip.

With a well prepared Spanish phrase, I went straight to Ahmed, my host.

– Yes, of course, I know the right person. My nephew is a professional photographer and YouTuber…

He smiled and then gave me a complicit look:

– But do you wanna pay?

I got over the initial surprise, since I was rather expecting a “Nop, sorry” answer and assure him I was willing to pay smth… While saying this I was just hoping that Spanish sentence won’t put me now in the situation of having to pay for the services of a professional photographer.  I had no budget for that.

Ahmed passed me the phone, it was his cousin, the father of the photographer, who happily spoke French. All was arranged, we were waiting for the photographer to finish his school.

I felt relief, if he was that young, the cost must be decent.

One hour later I was following Ahmed on the streets on Chaouen. I didn’t understand where we were going. I thought all was canceled and he was going to help me take some shots.

We passed through a beautiful piazza with restaurants and terraces and we stopped in front of a house next to.

– My cousin lives here. Come, come.

I now understood where we were. Ahmed introduced me to his family, his cousin and his wife. A little girl was playing on a tablet, ignoring as, as all kids do.

Ahmed left soon but not before he assured me from the open door I was in perfect safety. I didn’t felt other way.

I started to talk to Saniya about her family, her three kids including Ilias, the one we were waiting for to help me with the photos, her studies at the university and how she learned English so well.

Ilias wasn’t coming…

She took me outside to see the terrace. What a view! The mountains and part of the city with its blue houses and the bluest sky above us. Her house was one of the oldest in Chaouen, she said. She took an orange out of the tree there and offered to me. I was so happy to finally have an orange straight out of the tree. It was so terribly vinegar-ish and seeing my face, Saniya brought me some honey on a plate. It was delicious, a little bitter and very dark, made from some flowers in the mountain area.

Ilias still not coming…

Saniya kept excusing herself for his late and tries to keep me entertained. She also calls people that might know where her son went after school instead of coming home, as usual. No answer…. Of course the conversation was great, she was lovely but it was almost the afternoon, my last day in Chaouen, outside was a perfect sunny day and I was indoor, waiting….

Saniya excuses herself for a few minutes and when she comes back she has her arms full of colorful clothes. I looked at her with surprise, not knowing what was her intention or if that had anything to do with me…

And then I saw there were Moroccan kaftans, the most beautiful I have seen, with handmade embroidery, made of silk or velvet.

I entered her game on the spot. I was dying to try those….

We went in a back room, behind two large curtains: all was red inside, big pillows against the walls, all covered in old wool carpets.

– See these? They are very old, more than 100 years old.

I try all the kaftans, one by one, each one is a piece of art and they fit perfectly. Some of those she wore at special occasions, like weddings in her family.

She even brings me some shoes which are the perfect match. Her daughter looks at us with big eyes as we came back in the first room, laughing. She totally forgets about her tablet and comes to look closer as Saniya is trying to arrange a pink light veil on my head.

– I never done it for someone else except myself, you know…

We were laughing and probably making a lot of noise. Her husband comes from outside and looks at us with the biggest surprise, seeing me wearing a long cream kaftan with golden embroidery from neck to waist and long wide leaves ending also in golden embroidery.  

– You look like a Moroccan girl now, he sais.  

Saniya takes me to see the rest of the house. It is huge, with three levels. Her husband had two moms as his father was married with two women.

– You need a big house for two wives, Saniya jokes about.

We reached the top level and as I entered the room I am stoned: an arch with two columns mark the entrance to the most beautiful room with red pillows and carpets and a broidery ceiling carved in the wall. It can’t be described in words:

I am blown away by this place and I tell her she lives in a palace not a house.

Soon after we hear Ilias arriving home.

He is so surprised to see someone looking so Moroccan.

We took plenty of photos wearing the kaftans and I felt like Sheherezade in a palace.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

After I changed back my clothes and I promise Saniya I will be back to kiss her before leaving, when we finish taking the photos on the blue streets. And so we leave, Ilias and I, ready to have some photo fun time.

I found out that he is quite a YouTuber and Instagrammer too, with a serious number of followers and a lot of knowledge about editing videos and photos and all that’s related to social media. He wants to become a journalist and the more time I spent with him I was more and more convinced he will be a brilliant one. He is smart, well educated and with a beautiful character. And he took the best photos I could have ever dreamed I can have in Chefchaouen and helped me discover the most Instagrammable spots in that wonder blue city.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

After two hours I had a new friend. We walked all the blue streets, through the bazar and among colourful shops, I bought, of course, my Chefchaouen bracelet (I buy bracelets not magnets) and a bottle of precious argan oil, the beauty miracle of Morocco. We stopped taking photos as I felt I had enough of that for three lives from now. We had a late lunch at one of the restaurants in the piazza, close to his house and we talked about religion, politics, extremists, islam and his future plans. He loves Morocco and plans never to leave it.

– Where else can I get food like this except here?

I couldn’t agree more, there’s nothing like the food from places we call home.

As evening was closer, I said goodbye to Ilias and his parents, insisting that he accepts some money from me as a big thanks for that day. I promised to come back one day to Chefchaouen to visit them. And I thank Saniya for that fantastic day.

I had a henna tattoo in the street and left happy for one last walk through Chaouen, still not sure I was really there or I was dreaming. Still not convinced those streets were really that blue. Too blue to be true!

A night delayed bus took me back that night to Tanger, the initial starting point of my Moroccan trip and the next day, an afternoon flight, back to Madrid. Tanger was nice, old, with friendly people and had its charm of city on the shores of The Med. But after that blue mirage… nothing could impress me much.

Tanger, Morocco, beautiful places

Before going back home I had one last stop, long time planned and almost missed because of Ryanair flight delay: Museo del Jamon, in central Madrid, in Sol.

I confess, I behaved as a true foodie and bought a plate of three types of jamon that big that I was ashamed with. But I regret nothing.

So this was Morocco and my beginning of March, this year. Actually a slice of Morocco but the yummiest for me. There’s more to see there and I have to go back.  

Next trip: Asia, 2nd time there. Fingers crossed 🙂

 

3 awesome days in The Netherlands

Usually the first day of December finds me in a Christmas market, somewhere in Europe, where the holiday spirit is in the air, with my eyes glowing, my heart melting and my fingers warming up on a too hot cup of mulled wine. Instead, this December meet me in Scheveningen, the most popular stretch of sand in Holland, right between The Hague and the North Sea.

The Hague

The first glimpse of the sea made me whisper: How I’ve missed you!Once I got off the tram, I followed my sea lover instincts to led me to the beach, among seagull cries. It was sunny, cold and windy, all three in the same time. The hard wind blowing made the entire beach look like a small version of the desert during a sandstorm, with sand blown away at my feet from one side to the other of this lange beach. The North Sea was dark blue, with sea foam made by the strong waves moving around on the wet sand at the shore. Tens of colorful kite surfers were riding those big white waves to the shore and than back to the sea. It was a summer feel in winter and a perfect spot for one of the most beautiful beach sunsets of 2018.

Scheveningen, The Hague, The Netherlands, beautiful places

Back to the city streets, I walked those in central Hague for hours that evening, passing by The Binnenhof complex countless times, watching the skyline of the city mirroring its hundreds of colorful lights into Hofvijver’ waters. Old and new mixed together in a rare pleasant city view, the tall blue shaded buildings of glass and steel accompanied by the old brown walls built in bricks. A couple of white swans was completing the image.

I feed my foodie spirit with an amazing beef stew fries at Frites Atelier and a delicious dinner in Chinatown, at Woenk Kee.

My very first day in The Netherlands ended with a fairytale: a brief history of the country projected by a show of lights and sound on the beautiful old facade of The Ridderzaal.

AmsterDamn beautiful

Happiness comes in many forms. Sometimes as a sunny day surprise  when you’ve been bracing yourself for a long forecasted rain.

After a ride among the purest Dutch landscape, with green meadows full of Holstein cattle and white fat gooses, with black huge windmills in the horizon, I finally arrived in Amsterdam in the most beautiful sunny day of December. Warm and calm as an early spring day. If you think you can imagine what a city full of bikes and bikers looks like, well, you can’t. Outside the central station there were thousands of bikes parked. Thousands in rows. A view that brings a smile on the grumpiest of faces. A strong scent of pot was Amsterdam’s welcome.

A pleasant surprise was that my hotel was right in front of one of the most iconic spots of the city: The Damrak, with some gingerbread look like buildings reflecting in the water. The second not so pleasant surprize was that the hotel was in a full process of refurbishing and it was a total mess. An extra reason to leave my super light baggage and run out.

I don’t do history or art museums or any other touristy activities that involve spending time indoors, in crowded places, based on a previous schedule. Instead I decided to leave it all on chance, skip the over photographed places like I Amsterdam sign in Museumplein, removed a few days after that weekend. With a bad connection that kept Google Maps in my pocket and a big walking mood in a sunny day, I decided to discover the city without any help. And just like that, by chance, I found, one by one, my favourite beautiful places in Amsterdam.

De Waag, this 15th-century old building sits on Nieuwmarkt square on one purpose: to charm the passers by. It worked with me. It looks like a fairytale castle with towers in the middle of the vibrant city. And at night, when it rains, with all the lights reflected on the wet pavement it’s too beautiful to forget. If you head to Bushuissluis Bridge, there’s another perfect pic of De Waag.

Amsterdam, beautiful places

After Damrak, with its narrow houses and gingerbread look, you’ll think nothing can be more wow. And then, a few steps away, another very cool Amsterdamish place can be spotted from Armbrug Bridge. In looks a bit Venetian with a touch of the north as the eyes reach further, at Sint Olofssteeg, a narrow canal bordered by straight buildings on each side.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Right across the chic Cafe de Jaen, look for a street who’s name you can’t pronounce. Too long and complicated. But it offers a great spot of Amsterdam also, with the buildings lights beautifully reflecting in the canal waters.

Miss a little bit of more Dutch mood? The Mill Diamonds, which hosts a jewelry store is a must find and The Gooyer, a must go, for the amazing beer tasting in the brewery there. Beer in a Dutch windmill, that was a first for me. I sincerely confess, I skipped Heineken Experience. No judges please. I like beer but I guess Guinness Storehouse in Dublin is just enough of beer manufacturing experience for me.

If there was still any hope, I got in love head over boots with Amsterdam once I arrived in The Nine Streets area and Prinsengracht Prince’s Canal. Turn around on those bridges for a 360 amazing view of Amsterdam canals. So damn beautiful and unforgettable.

You can’t be in Amsterdam and miss the Floating Flower Market Bloemenmarkt. It’s the place for tulips but not only. One day, when I’ll spend my springs peacefully in the garden, I will know there to come for flowers bulbs.

Too much walk and no food is not the sign of a happy city break. I followed the water, walking by the canals, until I reached Albert Cuyp street market. The place was just as alive as any market and place with good food can get. The fries from Pietersma, with their own special dip, were delicious, followed by a super stroopwafel and a nice conversation with the owner of Original Stroopwafels stall about the original recipe from Gouda. As his son promised before I had my first taste of this heavenly desert: it was a life changing experience. It’s so good you’ll have fantasies with after. And in the end I had to find some room for a small portion of poffertjes, mini pancakes with powder sugar and melted butter. It was worth the effort to eat all. And since now I was already round after all that food, I rolled over back to the centre.

Amsterdam, my beautiful places

Finally Red Light District, a place with actually a very rich history and I mean it. A history of sex industry dating back to 1300s, when women carrying red lanterns met sailors in the port, as Amsterdam was a major trading harbour back then. Now the oldest job in the world is still practiced on the little cobbled streets, inside small houses, except is has been legalised since 2000. I wandered the area curious to discover this infamous area, by far the most crowded in Amsterdam. A true carnival of vice, as called by Lonely Planet, with sex shops showing huge dildows in their windows, strip private shows, women sex workers wearing lingerie, seen in small brothel square windows. All was red and smelling like pot. It’s an experience to see it.  

Amsterdam, Red Light District, beautiful places  

I said at the beginning of this I don’t do museums. Well, this was before Amsterdam. I couldn’t resist the sex museum, I was also tempted by the prostitution museum and that of illusions. Cannabis museum is worth seeing too but I totally loved the cheese museum where I tasted about 20 types of Dutch cheese. Right next to this is the tulip museum. Yes, Amstredam has plenty of canals but also museums.

I left the city in the evening, after 2 full days, heading to Eindhoven for my flight back home. I was in love!

Next Prague and Egypt

Jordan: Bedouins, Traditions & Wonders

First day in Jordan

I had to stop to catch my breath. We did it! We climbed all the 800 steps carved into the rainbow colored rocks of the canyon, all the way up to the Monastery. I wasn’t dreaming. I was in Petra. “You can’t say you saw Petra if you don’t see the Monastery”. I heard this too many times the night before, in the restaurant, from the Jordanian guy who was trying to convince me and a couple of Americans to pay more to a Bedouin guide who could get us there. And now, Christine and her husband, they had made it too. Instead of a guide they opted for two donkeys to carry them for most of the way up. I waved my hand towards them, from the top of the rock facing the Monastery, as they were resting in the shade of one of the two large stone walls guarding the ancient monument. And I got back two thumbs up as an answer.

The view was unbelievable. I must have turned in circle a few times. The canyon where we came from in the front, hidden behind the rocks, the vast plateau with the Monastery facade in the left, where a donkey was trying in vain to get a few centimetres of shade from a pillar, a few kids were following a herd of goats with long years and two Asian girls were taking selfies. In the entire side in the back and the right were deep valleys with rocky mountains and sharp cliffs of dark green, contrasting the reddish shades of the so dry canyon. And they were reaching as far as you could see.

At 5am the day before I left Jerusalem. I was even more grumpy than the hostel host that was already awake and come barefoot to open the large entrance door for me, wearing only his shirt and looking like a cricket with his naked skinny legs. Who cared after a night when I couldn’t shout an eye… Maybe it was the too sweet black tea’s fault, the one offered by my Palestinian new friend or the stories about his life, which triggered a storm of thoughts in my head. The morning sky in Jerusalem was divine. The sun was coming out from a huge puffy cloud, spreading orange-pink shades and a multitude of rays of light so amazingly well defined, like in those old paintings depicting God. If you don’t believe in anything, Jerusalem will raise some questions to you and if you believe, probably some answers.

I was in no mood of socialising with the rest of the group. We drove by a wire gate with surveillance cameras for many km before finally reaching the border with Jordan.

Hello Jordan

The first impression of Jordan, right after crossing the border, was of that of a country facing strong economic difficulties, to say it gently. I’m not coming from a rich country myself, poverty and hardship is not something never seen before for me, but life there seemed tougher. It was the middle of the Ramadan month. Small towns with dusty streets, tiny shops with little to offer, mini eateries with almost no food and barely one two clients, simple buildings with 2-3 floors and old commercials in Arabic, small square houses with small windows. Only one color: limestone. From buildings to the streets, people’s clothes and the dust all around, all was matching that same color – limestone. I thought Israel landscapes were arid, but Jordan looked like a desert and the towns we drove by looked almost deserted. Rarely I could spot silhouettes of men wearing grey or beige thobe, touching the ground, or women covered in black niqab. All were moving slowly. A group of kids started running towards our bus, waving their hands. As kids everywhere, they were full of joy. Days after I realised I had no photo taken with the places I first saw in Jordan. I was completely absorbed.

As we were leaving little towns behind, an open plateau was stretching far away in that burning sun. Because of the heat, the distant areas seemed covered in mist. The road was just a line between two identical sides. And right there, where almost nothing grew and water exists only when brought by rain, a large black tent was rising sometimes out of nowhere. More like a large blanket suspended on a few wooden posts, with nothing else around on sides, just a few carpets covering the soil. A few goats around, surrounded by a fence or usually free. Always a blue water storage tank near. Never many people around. Sometimes only a woman in black niqab with a child following a herd of goats, other times two young men doing something around the tent, often 3-4 people sitting under the tent. All men wearing shemagh to cover their heads. Those were the Bedouins, the so called pure blooded people of Jordan, the first to live on these dry lands. For the next days their simple lifestyle in the middle of the digital age and comfort will not cease to amaze me. These people are the first to see the sun in the morning and the last to watch it in the evening. They don’t live in the wild cause they are often close to the cities and what we call civilisation, turning heads away from the comfort as we know it and living a different way, their own way. Closer to nature, in harmony with nature. For the Bedouins outside means home. These people of the desert, nomadic populations living in regions of North Africa and the Arabian peninsula, are free people.

Jerash, Jordan

We stopped in Jerash. The Pompeii of the Middle East. Except here, sand was preserving the ancient treasure of the city built by the Romans. Majestuous gates, colonnaded avenues, temples and theatres, all speak of times of fame and glory of the ancient city, once an important imperial centre. It was so beautiful and so terribly hot, I was using a scarf to cover my hands. My head was burning and the hat I forgot home was now becoming a basic need.  

We passed through a small bazar. I talked to a vendor about my country and his. He sold me a pomegranate juice. I felt I was alive again. And we left.

The places and people I saw when we first entered Jordan had nothing in common with the capital Amman. Beautiful buildings, large streets, residential areas, nice stores, parks and a crazy traffic. Basically the description that could suit any other capital. Only one thing in common: the limestone color. The city was proudly wearing an all limestone shade.AmmanThe cooler breeze and the panoramic view of the Promised Land on top of Mount Nebo were another treat to be spoiled with by Jordan. The place where Moses looked down in the past to what we call now the Dead Sea, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. And where now, Steve, an american born and raised in US, with old Jew origins, whom I’ve talked a little before about accents in US, asked rhetorically how come the Muslims admit the existence of Moses but without accepting the legitimate right of Jews to live in those lands.   Mount Nebo  It was passed afternoon and my last meal was more than 20h before. Others in our group of about 15 people were in the same boat. First we started joking about it and teasing Wael, our Jordanian guide who was really trying to find a place selling food. But in Jordan they take the Ramadan very seriously. Most of the people fast until sunset. This means almost no one sels food, as this is considered a temptation for those who fast. All the small restaurants he knew were closed. Every time we stopped and Wael went out of the bus in search of food, coming back empty hands there was a general  AAAA to be heard. First we joked about it and so we started talking to one another. As only a few places in the bus were occupied, since we were a small group, everyone had empty seats around. Now hunger crossed these barriers. Finally Wael came back successfully with two bags of some pastries. I wasn’t so happy when I got mine. But one first bite and I was the happiest. It was delicious, still warm and all filled with dates cream and some sort of spices. I still have gourmand fantasies with that.

The sun was burning less strong when we arrived in Madaba. In that place I got the chance to watch the making of two of the most amazing handcrafts: the handmade natural stone mosaics inspired by centuries of mosaic making tradition in Jordan and sand drawing inside bottles. The last one is something you can’t believe if you don’t see it: in a bottle with many layers of colored sand, a woman using only a stick was moving rapidly the sand inside and the results were camels, palm trees, mountains and whatever the client wanted. All in a few minutes. Here masterpieces are created every day. We tried local products in a store, delicious dates, walk a few streets and finally, after a long search, found my hat for the next days, with a nice discount offered by the owner of the shop: a beautiful white and red shemagh.

It was dark when we arrived in Petra. After the AirBnb in Tel Aviv and the poor hostel in Jerusalem, a four stars hotel felt soo good. The view was unreal, as the hotel was on a cliff above the canyon. We had an amazing dinner, I talked a lot with my new friend from Australia, Illa and finally went to sleep exhausted but happy to be in a country that was slowly revealing its wonders. And ready to add something new to those I called my beautiful places.

Next: Petra and Wadi Rum  

Love, hate and friendship in Jerusalem

One Day and One Night in Jerusalem

It was late. Don’t know how late but the full moon was up the clear sky. I was sitting on the very top of the ancient limestone wall that surrounds the Old Jerusalem, facing the muslim quarter. In front of my eyes, as far as I could see, was an entire hill, all covered with houses and thousands of lights blinking. So this is where that 70% muslim population of Jerusalem lived, I thought.

– What are all those lights? I asked as soon as we got to the wall, high enough to see above it.

– It’s the lights of the Ramadan, he answered.

None of us took our eyes from it.

I come from a country with more than 95% christians, but I remembered then I’ve heard this before. Muslims use lights in their houses, during the Ramadan, similar as we, at home, use for Christmas. It was an unbelievable view.

Earlier that day I woke up soon after 5am. This is when the muslim prayers start. You’ll hear it even if you’re deaf. I tried to ignore it and sleep again but in seconds the christian bells started too. I thought what a great idea it was to get a room in the old Jerusalem, meters away from all the holy places … Since I had no chances of sleep anyway in that noise, I decided I should try to see if I can enter one more time the holly tomb, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This was 250m away and I wanted to be able to finally say the entire Lord’s Pray, since the evening before we were so rushed by the Greek monk who wanted to close the church gates, so I couldn’t even finish it.

The streets were empty, except a very few early merchants who were opening their stores. One I talked to, the day before, insisted I will be his first customer that day, to bring him luck. He wanted to offer me a cashmere scarf for a good price. The price was good only after a short negotiation, and so I got myself with a beautiful purple cashmere scarf.

The church was almost empty, for my big surprise. Inside, about 8 priests of different religions were performing a mass in Latin, in front of the now closed holy tomb. Around them, on four wooden benches on each side, a few catholic sisters were listening, joined by 3-4 tourists and one guy dressed like Jesus. In Jerusalem nothing seems too religious. I joined this small gathering and for about an hour I assisted to the most enchanting mass I ever saw. And in the end, I was happy to be among the first people to enter the holy tomb and left so pleased this time I could finally say the entire Lord’s Pray.

I spent the rest of the morning and afternoon wandering the streets, among the stalls, merchants, tourists, christian monks, muslims and ultra orthodox jews. I had delicious foods like warm arabic pancakes or freshly baked baklava filled with vanilla cream, and of course, humus. Lots of it. I headed to the Mount of Olives, then the Gethsemane garden, with the oldest olive trees I ever saw and lost of bougainvillea flowers, shortly entered a muslim cemetery, went again and again on Via Dolorosa, entered the Church of St Anne: the birthplace of Virgin Mary, then Damascus, Dung, Zion and Lion’s gates of the city, The Garden Tomb. I couldn’t stop walking! The heat took all my energy but in the afternoon I started again my marathon through Jerusalem, this time tasting the new city. I walked from Jaffa Gate to Mahane Yehuda Market. This new part of the city is different but you can still feel the special atmosphere. I never saw so many types of halva as in this market and I heard a jewish saying I liked: If it’s for free, in means two. There’s no other people to have such a deep relation with money and business and no other people who could have said this better. Jews are born to make money.

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As I got back to the old city I decided, what else, but to walk its streets one more time. It was the last evening there, in the morning I was heading Jordan. It was getting dark but you don’t realise this while being inside the covered labyrinth of Jerusalem streets. The stalls were closing one by one, leaving the streets with more space as the majority of the tourists were gone now. I had no idea where I was going. At one point I realised the street I was walking was getting more and more crowded again. But the people were not tourists, they were all muslims. In a few minutes it was a river of people, women, men and children, rushing on that street. I’ve noticed that children were all having one toy: different types of guns. Well, toys of the Middle East…

No one was looking at me in any way, as if they didn’t even noticed the only blonde there looking lost. But I wasn’t lost, I was curious where all those crowds were going. For a few minutes I continue in the same direction, trying to see if I meet any other tourists, like me. None. I thought maybe I was, accidently, on a street I wasn’t allowed to be if not a muslim. It happened that morning to be stopped by two army officers to enter one street. Only muslims were allowed that area for the entire week. It was impossible to get back in the opposite direction, too much people.

Men were carrying small carpets on their shoulders, they were either alone or in group of men, women were usually with children. Only a few families with both parents. I saw in front two Israeli police officers. The sound of what was now already the familiar muslim prayers was hearing loud. I knew where they all were going. To the mosque. To Temple Mount, one of the sacred place for muslims, where is believed that Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.  

I thought, probably, at one point, I would be stopped to join them and so I stopped myself and sit on some stairs, trying to look busy with my phone but I was actually watching the hurried passers by. One guy approached me through the crowd, trying to get as close as I could hear him saying: – – – Don’t stay here, come over there, I have a chair and tea.

I was happy I could finally ask someone about what was going on.

He told me, as I suspected, it was the evening prayer during the Ramadan and thousands were going to the mosque. And of course, non muslims are not allowed but I could see the mosque during the day. I regretted I missed that place during the day, I got no idea how I forgot about it.

He told me soon the street will be empty again as everyone will have reached the mosque. And so it happened in a few minutes. Now we could finally hear each other speaking. He had a table outside, in front of a small house with two windows at about 1m high from the pavement of the street and an old wooden door, and he was selling hot tea. One type only, menthe, already sweetened. He offered me a cup. It was a hot evening and that was the sweetest tea I ever had, my blood must have been sweet too after. He still had some tea left and hopped to sell it to the people as they were leaving the mosque, very soon.

He asked me where I was from, how long did I spent in Jerusalem, how I liked it, if I got the chance to see the mosque and the muslim quarter. I told him what I saw during the day and than he said, if I want, he’ll show me the muslim quarter. I wasn’t sure what to answer, he saw my hesitation and he addressed what I thought to be a strange question: are you friendly with muslims? I said, surprised, I’m friendly with everybody and as I was saying it I realised this might sound silly. But his English was not perfect and I understood what he meant. He wanted to say if discrimination was the reason of my hesitation.

I was sitting on the chair, drinking my tea. He was a few meters away, in front of me, on the other side of the street. I felt he prefered this distance. I was thinking I didn’t wanna wait to much since it was getting late, I wanted to leave. As if he heard my thought, he started to close the stall sooner, putting everything inside the house, before the people were coming back from the mosque. He mentioned he’s not a believer cause he likes too much to smoke and so he doesn’t fast, as he was taking the table and all the other stuff inside. He rushed out the door soon after, head to the street in front, making a sign with his hand: come, I’ll show you.

He was a Palestinian born and raised in Jerusalem, he was working in constructions in Tel Aviv cause there he could earn more money. He had an elder brother married with two wives. He has two children with each of them and was working “as a slave” to support them all.

– Isn’t enough trouble already with one woman, why two? I joked

– True!  

We were heading to the Western Wall and when we got there I stopped for a few minutes to take a look. The lights there were so strong as if it was daylight. He continued and stopped a little further, waiting for me.

One of the two policemen there invited me to enter, I said I’ve already been there the day before, joked a little and followed my new friend.

He looked as if he was constantly running. I decided to test his speed, walk even faster and kept walking in front of him. We started almost running

– Why are you walking that fast?

– I only try to keep up with you, I replied. If you’re walking fast, I can walk faster, I told him as if I were launching an invitation to compete. He seemed to enjoy it but he was definitely not used to it, so it seemed.

We entered almost running and laughing in the square where the Great Synagogue was.

– See, this is the Great Synagogue. But except the mosque, where you are allowed to enter during the day, the jews don’t allow anyone to enter.

– Really? But I din entered in synagogues in other places…

– Not here. Not in Jerusalem. Here you can’t.

We started walking on some narrow streets where there was no one else. I stopped, searching for other people, to make me feel safe. He realised it and said I don’t have to worry, I was safe. He took me then in a place that looked like an old abandoned garden. From there we could see a part of the old city. We sit on what it was a part of a demolished wall, in front of us children were playing.

– See, they are palestinians and jews, they play together. This is how we live here, in Jerusalem, all together.

We talked about the neverending war, about the little chances to ever make peace there, about what he thought about the jews and I told him what the jews I talked to were saying about the palestinians. We talked about terrorism, about Syria and the violence that generates violence.

As we left, we met another guy, he was wearing the Israeli police uniform. They saluted each other, shook hands happily and said a few words in Hebrew.

– You see, he is my friend, he’s a jew. He works for the Police but he is my friend.

Next he wanted to take me somewhere. We walked a little and got to the wall. A part of the huge wall surrounding the old Jerusalem. In a few steps we were on top of it. The view there was astonishing. As far as I could see, in front of me, there was the muslim quarter, an entire hill covered with houses, and in every house, a light was blinking. I think there can’t be a better image of that time of the year for muslims, the Ramadan. It was quiet.

We sit on a bench, looking at the lights, and there he told me the story of his life. About his childhood, his work, how difficult it was to live there as a palestinian, about his father who died recently of cancer, after months of suffering in hospital, how close they were and how every single evening he spent with his father before, offering him a cigar and a drink, talking about all in the world.

He saw my knowledge about the arab culture was poor and he told me about the Ramadan, their traditions and beliefs, how weddings took place and are arranged in traditional families.

And eventually, we got to the sensitive part: the personal life.

– Have you ever loved someone? I asked. At first he said now and then, word by word, he started talking.

He grew up together with a cousin of his, attending the family events and holidays, playing and seeing each other becoming adults. All their lives they were talking about how they will get marry and start a family. This is common in some cultures, marrying a cousin. He started building the house without saying anything to the family, as he needed to support his future family. He was working as a crazy to finish it faster. And one day, he finds out she is getting married. And this was the point where his life stopped and all his dreams ended. I tried to tell him that it was an episode in his life, that lots of other good things will happen and he has to stay oped. He didn’t care. He only asked me how I got over someone I loved. He listened as if this was impossible to happen to him. The recent death of his father added even more sorrow. I don’t think I ever meet someone more discouraged by life. He didn’t care not even if he was to die that second. I so hope what I told him will make him even think about forgetting and moving on.

When we said goodbye, later that night, he told me he once was a guide for someone who thought he is an Israeli, cause he was speaking Hebrew. And that someone didn’t like muslims at all. This finally explained his question from when we met, if I was friendly with muslims.

At the end of the day, this palestinian friend of mine took his palm opened in his. Now he was doing the same with my hand, and started closing a finger for every sentence below:

I am born and raised in Jerusalem

I speak Hebrew

I also speak Arabic

I’m a Palestinian and now you know me

And today, my friend, I was your friend

Too many thoughts kept me awake that night. Maybe also that tea with too much sugar. I realised I didn’t remember the name of my Palestinian friend. I wish I did. I will though remember him like this: the one who showed me the other part of Jerusalem and shared his personal story with me. One name means nothing to this.

At the end he told me that when we were in front of the Western Wall he got a few meters away to wait for me because he was not allowed to enter that area. Because he was a muslim.

– What! I sad. I didn’t know that!

And there it was, finally, the difference between us. Not a real or natural one, but one imposed by the others.

After all, I met him on Chain Street.