Tag Archives: nature

Croatia – Plitvice Lakes and so much more

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

Split, what a nice surprise!

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

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

Beach in Split, Croatia

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

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

Split, Croatia

Evening by the Adriatic in Split

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

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

OMG, Plitvice Lakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

It started like this:

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

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

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

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

And this:

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

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

Waterfall in Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

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

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

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

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

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

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

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

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

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

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

Next: Dubrovnic and Kotor

Bali: Best one day tour close to Ubud

Rice paddies, temples and waterfalls

First big thing I did that fresh morning was chasing a huge black butterfly through the garden in front of my bungalow. I saw it from the terrace as I was just out of bed and I ran down the stairs in pyjamas. But he was not into photos, apparently, and made my mission an epic fail. After a short hide and seek among the banana trees, he left me for the frangipani flowers up in the trees. The rain shower the night before was a bliss for the lush vegetation around. The scent of frangipani was now spicing the morning. I picked up a white flower and placed it between my fingers, like a ring. I raised my hand up and took a photo with the blue pool in the background, surrounded by the green of the paradisiac Balinese garden. Ahhh… mornings in Bali!

Then, back to life with another spicy breakfast: fried rice, fruits, black tea. The one the  day before, with black rice was the only non spicy exception I had in all my trip to Asia. My bungalow neighbour came along the alley. With his frizzy hair and loose clothes he looked like an artist looking for the meaning of life. He asked something in French, I answered back. Hmm… French people, funny how some presume everybody speaks French in Indonesia. Then a voice interrupted my thought:

– Good morning, your driver is here, waiting for you. For that day I had big plans so I arranged this the day before with my host. I abandoned my hot fried rice and ran to meet him.

He was in his late 20s, maybe, though with Balinese people looking so serene, age is quite a riddle. With beautiful Balinese traits reigned my a happy smile and kind eyes. I immediately complimented the sarong he was wearing and he liked that.

– Well, we are going to the temple, soo…. And so I met Wayan.

I insisted he joined me at my table for breakfast, so we can talk more about the plans that day, he did pleased for only 2 minutes, then excused himself and left to wait for me at the entrance. This was inappropriate for him, as he was not a guest, so I let it like this.

The huge Toyota Land Cruiser outside, with beige leather seats and Wayan opening the door for me as my host was waving to us at the gate made me wander again: why would I spent any more cents on holidays in Europe when I can have this for 30$ the whole day??? Asia is definitely perspective changing…

Wander: Tegalalang Rice Terrace

As the first rays of sun were caressing the rice paddies, Wayan and I were already walking on the tiny alleys built between them. Small terraces filled with water, where the rice was growing, were drawing the landscape in perfect lines in tones of green. All shades of green. In some parts the crops were young, like sparse green lines raising from the muddy water, in others thick as hair, completely covering the surface. It’s no wander Tegalalang Rice Paddies is one of the most iconic places in Bali: photographed, posted, Instagrammable and so liked and shared. Wooden cottages in the front and green rice paddies as far as you can see on each side, delimited by coconut trees where the jungle seemed to have taken back what was hers. We went up following the narrow path, while I was taking tens of photos and constantly stopping to take in all that spellbinding beauty and fill my eyes with it… And so we reached the top, where the views all around were spectacular. Such views deserve… a swing, to make the photos look even more spectacular. Sure, someone with initiative thought to give a hand for more Instagram likes, install the swing and start a business asking for a fee. And, boy, that fee was pricey! Wayan tried to negotiate for me. It didn’t worked out, the owner of the swing kept his price. I also tried, with no success. So I used my last negotiation weapon: the leaving technique. The owner didn’t even glimpse.

– God damn it, I can’t make peace at all with this guy!!! I told Wayan, half amused and half pissed off.

– I thought you really don’t want to pay and you want to leave….

– Sure I don’t want to pay but I want that damn expensive swing! Let’s go back, I’ll pay, whatever! It’s not like I do a swing over the rice paddies every day.

With my deepest philosophy of life when it comes to high prices, we went back. I payed the price but told the owner he’s a stubborn guy and he’d better not drop me down there, tens of meters down, cause for sure I’ll be back and haunt him for the rest of his life. We all laughed, after all, this was Bali, all here is about truly living. I was being prepared to be launched up high in the air, into the rice paddies abyss. Wayan got my phone, he was in charge of the photos. The first swing blocked my breath: it was sooo up high! But the views conquered all fears. The next one was even higher and my hands turned grey as they clenched around the ropes of the swing. From the third, I finally enjoyed it: the wind in my hair, the air above my feet, the speed, the fresh scent and the top views of Tegalalang Rice Paddies. And so, Bali swing was checked out of my to do experiences and the photos Wayan took were fab!

Now other tourists were starting to wander around and the feeling that the place was ours entirely vanished. The magic left, the beauty stayed. Two women came to the swing, they made a long face hearing the price and started a shy negotiation attempt. No success. I slowly whispered one of them: “I tried too, he’s stubborn as a mule.” And so they payed.

Tegalalang Rice Terrace, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

As we followed the path back, I asked Wayan a few practical questions, like how much rice can you get from a 3m long parcel, how many crops you can have in a year, what processes are needed, what happens when the rice is mature enough to be harvested. An interesting fact: the land belongs to the state and it’s being rented to people so they can use it to grow rice.

Believe: Pura Tirta Empul – the holy springs and the ritual of purification

Besides beauty, the next feeling that is omnipresent in Bali is the spirituality. For a thousand years, Balinese Hindu worshipers and people from all over the world and of all religions have been drawn to Pura Tirta Empul (Holy Water Temple) where the sacred springs, said to be created by The God Indra, are believed to possess healing and magical powers.

The temple from the outside looks as it’s trying to keep the secret of what’s inside. As we passed the entrance, the story unfolds. The beautiful architecture brings back the old times into the present, with Hindu Gods carved into the dark grey stones, the decorations and most of all the silence around impose a deep sense of respect for traditions, history and spirituality. First think was changing my dress with a green sarong surrounded by a red sash. This was provided at the entrance, for 10k, only for those wishing to perform the water purification ritual, which of course I was going to and which includes offerings, meditation, prayers, bathing process, water drinking directly from the springs and in the end taking the time to figure out how all these made you feel. Here’s how it goes melukat, the purification ritual:

Tirta Empul Temple, Bali, Purification ritual

 Purification Ritual at Tirta Empul Temple

  1. To do it properly, meaning do as the locals do. Start with an offering to the gods in the first section of the temple, called Jaba Pura. The small square plate made of dry palm leaves contains rice, leaves, even sweets, colourful flowers, stick of incense and can be bought as it is. Or, you can prepare it yourself and get more involved in the process.
  2. Next, in the section Jaba Tengah, there are 3 pools with 22 water spouts in total. The first and biggest has 13, next 3 and 6. Start with the first, from the left, from the second spout, skip no1 as it is for children under 10 (though many use no1 also) and no 11 and 12, which are destined for rituals performed for the dead, which are cleansed immediately after they pass away, as an essential part of their preparation for the after life. In front of every spout repeat this ritual: join hands, recite 3 times the mantra “Ooom”, rinse your head and face with water 3 times for body and soul cleansing then drink 3 times and spit out that water (eliminate the negative). Then again drink 3 times and this time swallow, it is said to be for healing. It’s all related to no 3: the 3 gods: Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva. In the end put your forehead under the water, for protection. This will be repeated to all the other spouts, 2-10 and 13.
  3. Go to the second pool, which is about karma, repeat from left to right in front of every of the 3 spouts, just as before.
  4. Go to the 3rd pool, which is believed to cleanse the body of any illness. This time start from the end, from right to the left. The last spout, the one in the left here, is believed to be the most powerful, The Tirta Empul, which gave the name to the temple. here some say the ritual should be done 7 times. And that’s it. Relax after.

Truth is, I found so many contradicting information about how the ritual should be done correctly, like weather to drink or not the water or that women should tie the hair or even about which spouts should be used and how….  The best is to ask a local there who seem knowledgeable and willing to help in change for a tip. Even so, probably some parts will be “adapted” on the way.

In conclusion: I did drink the water. More then 2 years have passed since and I’m alive. Thinking about the fish in the pool where the springs come from the ground, not to mention the ritual involving the dead….this might sound crazy. Still, at that moment, I was somehow absorbed into the energy of the place and thought more about karma then the bacteria in the water. I don’t know if the feel I got in the end was due to the water, a bit cold and so refreshing. Or was due to the good night sleep or the vitamins in the breakfast, etc…. but I felt different: lighter, as if my bodyweight had suddenly reduce, my mind was free from all concerns and a positivity had wrapped my spirit. I don’t know what, but there’s something about that place. Although the purification ritual I have performed was far from what’s called right, I left Tirta Empul filling truly and deeply purified, body and spirit.

Indulge: the waterfalls  – Tibumana and Tukad Cepung

The sight of a guy that had just suffered a scooter fall brought me back to reality.  He was literally skinned on a large portion of his hip, his bum and hand. He was with 3 other friends, just parking their scooters, walking in his underwear while with a hand he was holding up the material of his underwear, revealing his completely skinned butt cheek. It was indeed a hard core view that stayed in my mind, related to all past and future scooter rides.

We followed a path through the jungle. Gosh how green it was! The first waterfall we stopped to was smaller but the landscape around made it look as if we were on a deserted island, somewhere in the promised paradise. I have a thing for waterfalls and Bali is the place to go for people with “my obsession”. There’s something in their power and how nature looks untouched in their surroundings as if waterfalls are ancient guardians of its beauty. Besides all the rice paddies, the temples, the beaches… the OMG factor in Bali are its waterfalls. We took a few photos as I was sitting 2m away from that little one and in a few seconds I was soaking wet under that natural shower.

Waterfall, Bali, Ubud

Next was Tibumana waterfall. We walked deeper into the jungle, passing by durian trees with thorny fruits hanging down the branches,  banana trees carrying their huge red flowers and cocoa trees. We followed the stairs and the curtain of vegetation soon revealed a nature’s wonder: the Tibumana waterfall. Words are powerless. It was an irresistible invitation for a memorable swim.

Extotic waterfall in Bali, Tibumana waterfall

As I was completely charmed by the place, Wayan left me and went a bit further to talk to a friend of his he met there. I later joined them. The place by the river was fill with zen  stones, I noticed them immediately and approached a few which needed a closer look.

– Hi does all these, you see, Wayan told me.

– You mean all those zen stones sticked together with I don’t know what king of glue? It’s impossible otherwise, I joked.

It seemed indeed impossible but yet those zen stones by the Tibumana waterfall in Bali that day of September were mocking all Physics lows we know. I checked them one by one from each angle. My conclusion:

Zen stones in Bali, Ubud

– I got not idea how you do it! We all laugh.

– You know except a few, they resisted even the earthquake two weeks ago.

He meant the earthquake that killed nearly 500 people in Lombok that year, the island close to Bali, and was seriously felt in Bali too.

We left, him with me convinced he’s some sort of Hindu magician 🙂

The wonder: Tukad Cepung

If I only knew what was next….The photos that led me to this waterfall showed maybe 1% of it’s true beauty. That 1% made me really wanting to see it, so I was prepared to see another beautiful place in Bali, but not the best waterfall I ever saw. I few minutes of not so easy trekking through the jungle… The vegetation got wilder and thicker, the path steeper, in some parts very slippery. It seemed this one was hidden well, deep into the jungle. High trees carrying large lianas pouring down the walls. It was like a corridor left once by a large powerful river that in time got smaller, a long narrow passage with straight walls meters high, on top of which the lush vegetation was exploding, sending bits of it down to us through the lianas.

Tukad Cepung waterfall, jungle trekking, Bali, Indonesia

It got darker, the sky was now just a small blue line above our heads, sending little light down there. It was unbelievable, nature couldn’t get more exotic then this, I told Wayan. Water was pouring down those walls like curtains of small, almost invisible waterfalls. It was extremely humid, which very well explains the vegetation so dense inside the passage. I climbed a huge rock for a photo. Got a few scratches, totally worth the sight from the top. We arrived to a cave, passed through it and got out in the light again when I felt small particles of water touching my face like a wind. We followed the river and entered another cave, bigger, and behind its walls, we heard the echo of some voices. A few steps further the waterfall revealed its wonder.

Tukad Cepung, top best waterfalls in Bali

A straight curtain of water was pouring down, from the green of the jungle and the blue of the sky to the dark of the cave. One more problem: it was packed with people, Instagrammers like, turning the place into a never-ending photoshoot. But as patience is always rewarded, I somehow felt the right moment might come. And it did. As by magic, at one point everybody left, one by one. I quickly went back again, inside the cave, walked closer, paying attention to the slippery rocks in the water. I got drenched even at many meters away from the fall. It was now all mine… No other sound but the water falling. I raised my hands to the sky, closed my eyes and let thousands of water drops fall on my face, covering me like I was part of it. It left like I was flying in another world. A few seconds later I opened my eyes again, preparing to leave and I saw Wayan was not the only one saving my moment into a photo for later. A few guys with real cameras were taking a few shots too. One said to me to wait a bit more there as he did a few more. I didn’t mind, it wasn’t me the subject, I just addend a touch of yellow to an already perfect place.

Feel: my first Balinesse massage

After such a day of wonders Wayan and I went back to Ubud, planning the next day and talking about his family, about the famous healers and the Balinese food. I was too happy to be tired. I had one more thing to try: a Balinese massage. I picked one place randomly on a street in Ubud. Light music, candles, petals… A lady came and offered me a tea while she prepared the place. So after a day where every cell of my soul was moved, it was time for my body to feel the same process. Fists, fingers, elbows, she took care of every muscle and bone. That pain was good. Made me feel I was alive and happy in Ubud.

“Was just another day for only me in Paradise”… if I can reinterpret Phil Collins song.

Next: last 2 days in Ubud

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.

Malaysia: meeting the tribe – Orang Asli

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

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

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

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

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

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

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

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

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

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

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

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

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

– Now you are a true jungle surviver! Abdullah said

– I should move here!

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

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

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Sri Lanka

Malaysia: Jungle trekking in Taman Negara

– 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

 

Jordan: The desert wonder of Wadi Rum

Have you ever slept in the desert? This is a question I wished one day to answer Yes.

From all the movies, stories, documentaries, the Geography classes, the desktop wallpapers, the desert seemed a place of wonders. And as we left Petra in the afternoon, blown away by this place, taking a one last glance from the top, to the immense canyon, I was finally living that very day.

We drove through arid places, where rocks were more often seen than any kind of vegetation. Close by a railway that seemed it was coming from nowhere and going everywhere, shaping its way through the dust. I was sleepy after that intense hike in the heat, in Petra, but I refused to close my eyes.

We got to the desert bedouin camp right in time. 30 minutes before the sunset, just perfect for a sunset chaser like me. In that orange light, the small white tents lined up among palm trees look so wild and cosy in the same time. It was an oasis in the middle of the desert. A green spot on a light tan and brick red colored paint.

Wadi Rum, Jordan

In a few minutes, my Australian friend and I got our key. We were offered to share a tent together. We weren’t strangers anymore so this was just fine for both. Ten minutes later we were climbing the narrow path of the big cliff next to the camp, going up to the view point. I dropped a few short glances as we were climbing in a hurry. The view was getting better and better to the point of whoaaa when we finally got on top. “The Valley of the Moon”, as Wadi Rum is often called, was right there, beneath our eyes, changing its tones as the sun was preparing to leave us, hiding behind a mountain far away. This looked as any other planet except Earth. The winds were blowing sands among the sharp cliffs raising in the far. It was a 360 view of wonder that had then became one of my favourite beautiful places. We sit there and admire what nature so masterfully created in one of the most breathtaking sunsets I ever lived. Was one of those moments you wish you were stuck forever, beautiful and peaceful, as daylight was turning dark.

IMG_1026

We followed the path once again, all the way down, among the small lamps now lighted. Our bedouin hosts, in black thobes, were finishing dinner for us. Goat meat cooked for many hours in a hole in the ground, covered with wood fire. They called us to assist as the feast was brought out, spreading flavours and making us feel starved. It was delicious, accompanied with many other traditional dishers, humus, of course and the dinner ended with many slices of sweet and cold watermelon. We all ate until no other move was possible except talking. We gather all together, the portuguese couple, the American professor, my friend and I, and under a sky full of stars and a shining full mood we talked about everything, from technology, to Jewish history, to religion, to Vietnam war, climate change, English accents around the world, politics and bad leaders and the beautiful country we were in, Jordan. It couldn’t have been better than it already was.

I fell asleep in the tent, feeling a light fresh air breeze blowing over my nose from outside, listening to all that music of the desert, from birds or other creatures I did not know. Sleeping in the desert is pretty cool, I thought, smiling.

I woke up early in the morning, went out the tent in the freshest morning air. The sun was up and a red air balloon was floating on the blue sky. The big parrots in the cage were up too. It seemed as all the birds in the world were up there, still invisible.

A lazy breakfast with freshly baked pita and amazing meze was there to spoil my senses. Soon after, we were up in the jeeps, driving through the sand dunes and cliffs. Were we on Mars? It looked so. At one point we stopped, the entire ground, as far as I could see, was cracked because of the drought in small shapes almost identical. No trace of sand, only limestone shade ground, trodden by heavy rains and dried by too many days in the burning sun. We drove further until we met a herd of camels. I thought how come they were free there, in the middle of the desert but I noticed they had their feet tight close so they could only move on a small distance. They were moving in a perfect row, one following the other, about 10 or more.

The rocks we drove by had all sort of shapes created by the winds. From a wall perfectly straight, used by the bedouins in the old times to communicate through echo, to a huge mushroom shape, columns and great arches. Through these wonders we arrived to the sand dunes. I never thought before that two different shades of sand can stay so close to one another without mixing each other. But I do believe my eyes and that was in front of me. Our guide even joked about how people are coming during the night to put back every small piece of sand back to where it belongs. He gave a funny look to someone asking in surprise “Really?”

My aussie friend and I were now busy climbing the dunes barefoot, up and down our bums, again and again. I felt both pity and pleasure every time my feet were touching the symmetric winding traces in the sand, leaving foot marks behind.

IMG_1130

We drove further and I wished this day would never stop. An open space covered with brick red rocks in different shapes was stretching far as if the entire world was Wadi Rum and nothing but. My friend and I we understand each other in a look. In a short distance, behind a rock, there was the most perfect, high and big sand dune. I saw it the second we got there and I was craving to be on top of it. We felt the rest of the group. My friend started running up, putting a hell of an effort into it. I was only walking fast but it felt as if I was on a treadmill, moving in the same spot. “You gotta run fast, like this” I heard. I ran as fast as I could, now it was working, and when I almost lost my breath, I was up. I lay down on top of the dune, next to the long traces let in the sand by maybe a scorpio and listened. First my heart, still beating fast from the effort, then nothing. Perfect silence. We sit there quiet, nothing was there to be said, but so much to admire. And this was my moment in Wadi Rum. I wanted to save this with all my pores and cells, to keep it as a memory and maybe relieve it with eyes shut when at home, while telling my family and friends about how amazing Jordan is.

We left the desert charmed and head to Aqaba, on the shore of the Read Sea and then passed back to Israel. In Eilat I said goodbye to my now new friends from all over the world and took a group photo together. They were going back to Jerusalem and I was staying by the sea for the next 5 days, (since my Egypt visa had been denied), doing snorkeling among colorful corals, making friends of exotic fish and a huge octopus, sunburning my back really bad and eating dates and humus all day long. Well, I did make human friends though, among them an ex trader of ancient jewels from the Tuareg people in Africa who was risking his life to get there and sell the pieces after to rich collectors in Switzerland.  

But right there, in Eilat I discovered another world of wonders, the underwater world. New and fascinating. An experience that led me to other ones three months later, in Malaysia and Indonesia.   

P.S. My French teacher died today. To him I owe the pleasure of speaking this language that I love and the delight of so many wonderful conversations in France, Austria, Spain, Israel and even the far Indonesia.

Bon voyage, Monsieur.  

Petra: lost, found and too fascinating

A few days ago, a friend who’s planning a trip to Jordan soon, asked me: Petra, is it truly worth it or it’s more like photoshop?

Years ago I saw for the first time, in some newspaper, an image of the Treasury, the most iconic facade in Petra, with its columns carved into the high cliff. I thought seeing this place is a dream too big for me. Expensive, far away, arab country, not safe and difficult to get to… But I never thought it might be photoshop. Instead I instinctively hoped I could get there one day. Maybe…

Five months ago, one morning in June. I was probably the most excited tourist at the Petra Visitor Centre, the starting point for the visits to the lost city. From our hotel restaurant, in that early morning, I could see the panoramic top view of the sandstone canyon which has been hiding the city of Petra for more than 2000 years. Rounded cliffs of different heights, all gathered together, as far as you can see. No clue of what’s inside.

We followed a dusty large path in a valley, among other groups of tourists, carriages and horses carrying those who didn’t wanna walk. I wanted to step on every centimetre. My brand new walking sandals, bought especially for my first journey in the Middle East, were made for this trip. We started seeing cave tombs carved into the wall stones, perfectly round shaped, what was left of once imposing statues of gods and two huge columns marking the majestic entrance of the city. We followed the path guiding us deeper and deeper inside the canyon. This 1,2 km long gorge is called the Siq.

 

Its walls of sandstone, high and straight, looked as if they were all polished with sandpaper. A true nature masterpiece, shaped by the floods that sometimes, in spring or winter, are covering this place. In the old times as well as in the present ones, the water continues to take the lives of those accidently caught inside the canyon in a bad time. People are describing these events as torrents of water coming suddenly and silently from the top, pouring down like rivers, out of nowhere, giving no chance to anything that’s breathing down. Besides these, are the earthquakes. In 693 A.D. Petra was hit by a devastating earthquake that destroyed most of its amazing water management system and deep canals built to control the floods, left the city in ruin, forcing large numbers of its inhabitants to flee. And so the city was forgotten for more than 1000 years, until 1812.

 

The more we walk inside, the more stories I heard about the Nabataeans, the ancient Arab tribe that founded this wonder rock-cut city, once a flourishing caravan centre for the scents of Arabia, the silks of China and the spices of India, at the very crossroads of Arabia, Egypt and Phoenicia. Their commercial skills, knowledge and beliefs, together with the courage they stand up against the brave Greeks and the conqueror Roman Empire are now amazing stories to listen or read about. This enigmatic city, half built, half carved into the mountains, among passages and gorges, continues to amaze the modern world. Not only they were fighting the drought to survive, but recent discoveries brought to light proofs of existing gardens, crops and even a large swimming pull. All these 2000 years ago, in the middle of the desert. Our imagination can’t even reconstruct now the greatness that this place once had.  

 The deeper we went inside the canyon, the narrow the path was becoming. Looking far up, all what was left to see of the sky was a tight blue line. The sunlight has now found its way down to us. It was midday. Two bedouins were resting in the shade, on a few rocks, listening to a Rihanna song played on a phone. Dressed in jeans and t-shirts, with their head covered with turbans and smokey eyes from kohl makeup, a technique they still use to protect the eyes from the sun light.    

As sun rays were now coming down the sandstone walls, the entire place was transforming, changing its color. The light brown walls from before were now turning reddish, with the curved lines in different colors becoming more visible. The reason for the other name of Petra, The Rose City, was now revealing.

It was spectacular. As most of the tourists were already ahead, also my group, I was lucky to catch a few moments when I was all alone, among the walls of the canyon. And it was almost silence. And like that, was perfect.  

This natural beauty was only preparing me for the best to come. I entered an area of the path so narrow that the sunlight couldn’t get to. In front it appeared unexpectedly the shape of the iconic image I once saw in a newspaper. Half of the immense facade of the Treasury, while the rest of it was still hidden behind the corner. In a few other steps the narrow path of the canyon ended into an open large space, surrounded by rocks and flooded by sunlight. In the middle, the Treasury was sitting like a king. Was bigger than I expected. The facade with huge columns is impressive, in the middle of what was once the centre of Petra.

 

Bedouins with dark eyes and colored turbans, riding camels covered with colorful rugs, chariots pulled by beautiful horses, donkeys, marchands selling souvenirs or bedouins style jouleries, tourists posing for photos that will make their friends back home so jealous, others climbing a cliff for an even better photo. I couldn’t decide in which direction to look first. It was another world and with an effort of imagination, if I could exclude the tourists and keep only Petra and the bedouins and camels, I wasn’t in 2018 but hundreds years in the past. This was the best feeling that Petra gave me: of time traveling.

My new Aussie friend and a guy from the group, Australian too, we were on a mission called the Monastery. We turned left, leaving the Treasury behind and we continue straight, following the way in an open valley. This must have once been like a main boulevard. The high straight cliffs around were housing round shaped caves with 2-3 rooms inside, that served as houses for the rich people of Petra, in front was the Amphitheatre, with all 15000 seats carved into stone, a little further the columns of the ancient temple, with pink oleander growing next to. We were asked many times if we want a ride by bedouins with donkeys or camels, but a polite: no thank you very much, convinced even the most insisting ones. We were advised by our guide not to make promises in vain. If you want a ride, take the ride, if not, say it as you too believe it. The bedouins are making a living out of this, they might seem pushy to the more sensitive tourists, but we had no problem.

 

I couldn’t resist not petting a camel in a group of 5, resting in the shade. I asked someone there for directions. We were on the right way and soon we reached the first steps. They were “only” 800 more. And so it started. It was so hot and dry now, no shade. I had my new red and white keffiyeh tied on my head, by our guide, Wael, in a very Jordanian style. It didn’t seem impossible to replicate, but I would need a few tries for a pretty close result. This people definitely know best how to deal with extreme heat and wearing it felt so good and so local.

On our way we met a few merchants with stalls improvised among the rocks, in tents, with colorful rugs on the ground, selling handmade bedouin jewelry or just water. I bought a regular stone from a little girl with the most beautiful eyes.

Petra, Beautiful places, destinations

The large steps were carved into the stone, going up as a large spiral. Rainbow steps, I called them, because of the many coloured lines in the sandstone. As we were going up following these never ending stairs, the views were fantastic, changing constantly as we could see the canyon beneath from different angles. The more I saw, the more I understood why this place is one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world, but also a nature work of art.  

I felt my heart beating like crazy and the sweat running down my face. The people we met, total strangers, were encouraging us now with: you’re close, almost there, totally worth it. Probably we looked like in need of that. We passed by an improvised bar selling cold lemonade, where our guy abandoned us for a cold drink. All I needed was to finally see the Monastery. A few steps more ended in an open plateau and in the right, there it was! Even bigger than the Treasury, or at least it seemed so then, the beautiful Monastery, with huge columns carved into the mountain that make your eyes reach the sky when you try to follow their structure from bottom all the way up to the top, is just astonishing. Now I believed those saying you won’t see Petra unless you see the Monastery and you climb the 800 stairs to get there. Only a few people were around.

 

As if 800 steps were not enough, we followed Wael advise and climbed the rock in front of the Monastery. It was one of the best 360 views I was ever blessed to see. The canyon, the Monastery, the deep valleys, the mountains with sharp cliffs, covered in green, contrasting the rose shade of the canyon.

Petra, who’s name comes from the word stone in Greek, truly let me “stoned”.

The lost city, the found city, the rose city, for me the dream city, Petra is now one of my favourite beautiful places. A historic treasure for us all, this place it’s indescribable. I felt like I haven’t seen anything before coming here. It is not so expensive as I once thought, not that far, not at all difficult to get to, people are amazing and I got closer to a culture that is beyond fascination. In Petra, time traveling is possible.

 

   next: My first trip in the desert – Wadi rum

My best friends in Tromso: 200 reindeers

I was a passer by in Tromso, Northern Norway, for a few days. People like me come and go, hoping to come back, but never knowing if that place that got so deep into their heart will ever be seen again. We, tourists, travellers or those wanderlust infected, try to see in a blink all we’ve read about on TripAdvisor; we taste the food, try to spell the language, talk to locals, take lots of photos, post them and then talk about how it was with family and friends. But this land actually belongs to them ever since before we existed, before Tromso was a tourist hot spot and a popular hashtag on Instagram, from old times, when no borders were drawn in the North between the regions of Lapland, from Norway to Sweden, Finland and Russia. Back in the days when winters were harsh and snow could reach more than 2m high, the reindeers were already there.

They still live free on the hills of Troms, many of them in herds which are taking care of by the Saami people, the indigenous population in the North. This union lasts for hundreds of years, in perfect harmony with nature, both parts helping each other survive the rough conditions in the Arctic. And a family just like this, with a herd just like that, of 200 reindeers, I was visiting in my last day in Tromso.

For someone like me, coming from a place where reindeers are the fantastic flying creatures in Santa Claus stories, actually seeing them for real is a true excitement. The moment I got off the car and saw a few reindeers behind the fence, on the white vast field covered with snow, among big snowflakes, all I wanted to do was run there and hug every single one of them. But, I hold my breath a bit cause we met our guest first: Lune, a beautiful tall woman, with long red hair, blue eyes like ice, snow white skin and the kindest of smiles. Do you know that type of person that you like instinctively and immediately? That was her. There can’t be a more friendly host. We were invited in the lavvu tent, a very high one made of wood piles and some sort of beige material, with a whole in the top where I could see the big snowflakes coming down to us and disappearing before reaching the fire above. This is specific to Lapland and the people living here for centuries.

We all gathered around the big fire in the middle of the lavvu tent, sitting on wood benches covered with reindeer hides. It was warm and a light scent of wood and smoke made me feel so comfortable. We were told that our mail job for that day was to feed the reindeers, all of the 200 hungry souls outside the door. And since we were going to have a bucket full of food, they will be make an exception and be friendly. In the wild, it’s not gonna happen, they usually run when they meet people but now, during the cold months, the Saami family was protecting them from predators like the links or the sea eagle. The last one usually attacks the small ones by injuring them and than waits patiently a few days until they die. Since during the last years the eagles were protected by the law in Norway, their number has increased and they now represent a main danger for the reindeers. But the worst is climate change. Maybe the most affected areas are those where cold is a vital condition. If we can cope with a few hot days, with an unusual rain fall or with The beast from the East (the recent cold wave that affected most of Europe last week), warm temperatures in the Arctic are fatal for many species. Rain for example was not seen before in those regions, during the winter months. A few days with positive temperatures and rain are followed by icy temperatures and so the ground gets covered by a thick layer of ice that the reindeers in the wild can’t break so they can reach food. So they starve or get too weak to survive the predators.

Maybe one of the most amazing example of how perfect everything is organised in nature is that related to the reindeer’s horns. They grow and fall as a natural process but those belonging to the males, if found in the wild, are picked by the Saamy people while those from females are never taken. They are very easily decomposed and high in calcium. So the female will get back to that place to eat it after she has her calf, this will help her produce milk. Also, other animals like foxes enjoy a good dose of calcium in the harsh conditions in the Arctic, where every source of nutrients is valuable.

And so, with a very good reality check about life in the North I took my bucket full of food and entered the paddock. I couldn’t make more than one step cause 5 reindeers surrounded me, each of them trying to get his head first in the bucket and keep it as long as he could there, enjoying his meal. While one was eating another one was coming from his side and using his horns was telling him that he had enough and was time to leave the bucket for the next one. I wanted to get in the middle of the heard, 20m away so I hold the bucket up and walked as fast as I could. Once there, I was surrounded by reindeers, some big, some smaller, some brown, others almost white, some with small horns, other with big large horns and some even with only one horn, looking quite funny. It’s true, in the first minutes, seeing some of the males with large horns coming towards me fast or starting to hit others with the horns I was a bit afraid. But they are the cutest and harmless creatures. While they were eating I got the chance to touch them and feel how thick and soft in the same time is their fur, the horns that look just like bones and their fluffy noses, breathing with noise every time I got close to them. I think I spent around two hours with them. Since we were told to try to feed the shy ones too, I accepted the challenge to get the bucket to the shyest reindeer of the heard, the one that ran every time someone was getting 3 m close. I moved slowly, closer and closer, stood still when he looked ready to run again and let him come. Finally I won his trust and he came to eat.

It was a beautiful place, a large field surrounded by the forest, mountains and hills, nearby a fiord, all was white and it was still snowing. The sky was turning pink as 1pm o’clock was announcing sunset. I tried the lasso and the 5th try was a success. I took a short reindeer sled ride and I was happy I choose the short option so I could spend more time feeding 4 buckets to the reindeers.

I could have stayed there another 2 hours when lunch was served: freshly reindeer stew, a traditional meal served at weddings by the Saami. Was very good but it didn’t felt right that after playing with the reindeers I was now eating one of them.

We gathered once again around the fire, in the lavvu tent. Now it was snowing so heavily  outside that I couldn’t see a thing. Lone, our host, told us stories about the history and culture of its people, about their traditional clothes full of motifs, each of them having a specific signification like weather the man or woman were married, a signal for others to keep the hands off. She showed us the traditional Saami shoes, made of reindeer or seal skin, with fur on the bottom used in order to prevent slippage. We’ve learned craftsmen secrets like how to remove the hair from the reindeer skin with the help of the water from a river. It was a wonderful lesson about the Saami culture, no better place for that. We ended the day singing yoiks, traditional songs of the population in the North. Those sounds are so out of this world that during the middle age people who were heard singing them were accused of witchcraft and burned alive.

I left the farm happy. It was the heaviest snow I ever saw falling in my entire life, in 1 minute outside the tent I was all white, covered in snow. But that’s how it should be there in the Arctic and that’s what make the reindeers happy.

 

 

Husky sledding in Tromso: becoming a musher

If you have never tried husky sledding before, you might think it’s either a piece of cake or some risk of breaking a few bones. Still, doing something new, for the first time, feels damn good and getting new skills is even better. You never know what kind of rides life might be offering you. So here’s how I added a new “talent” to my CV: being a musher (driver of a dog sled):

It was 10am. My second day in Tromso, Northern Norway, right there in the Arctic. I was already confronting the dark icy morning, rushing to the next new amazing experience in the North: husky sledding. Yeiii! In spite of the freezing temperatures, I was so very sleepy. Traveling for me is equal with sleep deprivation. This is never my intention but somehow I’m really good at doing and seeing a lot but terrible at getting enough sleep. The night before, after 7 hours of northern lights hunting, I came back to my room at 2am. I was too exited to sleep after gazing the breathtaking aurora and having such a unique experience. Somehow, zombie as I was, I got just in time for the tour that was suppose to take us away from the city, to meet the 200 huskies and have a ride as seen in movies!

After a 30 minutes ride through winter wonderland, white landscapes and fiords, there we were at our destination! I could immediately hear the huskies barking the moment we got off the bus. We were offered warm suits, which benefits I was lucky to test already the night before, so a got myself into a red one, picked really fast since I didn’t wanna end up with a blue one. We were told that the training will start outside and we will be taught how to handle the sleigh, the dogs, the speed and the breaks. Wait! What? I was suppose to share the sleigh with 6 dogs with someone who was doing this also for the first time, just like me? Oh, boy! I was presuming experienced mushers will guide us… I got even more worried after seeing how this is done, the do’s and don’ts: How to always use the breaks, one of the 2 types (stronger and weaker) while standing in the back of the sleigh, or, if you are the person that seats down, the anchor, the strongest break available, which was quite heavy and had to be carefully hold in your lap. Otherwise the dogs just run as if this was their biggest purpose in life and you’ll loose them and the sleigh, or you might even fall of. What to do if the dogs will start fighting each other or they get their feet tied up in the ropes, changing places in the wrong way. How to help them pushing the sleigh when needed, how to keep enough distance from the sleigh in front of you to avoid having the dogs injured. And how to pay attention to your phone since the day before someone just lost his in the snow, during the ride. What a ride poor thing must have had!

And so we went to the place where the sleighs and huskies were waiting for us while I was thinking “Why have’t I read more about this before paying the 170 euro?” It was a huge noise, every single husky was barking, looking really excited to start the run. I was welcomed by two white bleu eyed young females, one of them jumped straight on me, with her pows on my chest, hugging me for a few minutes and making my heart melt.

We played with the huskies for minutes and then my ride partner and I found our sleigh and our 5 beautiful and big mouth huskies. And there we were, starting our ride through the forest, one sleigh after another, in line.

Our start was a little slower since one of our two beautiful leading alpha dogs kept stopping to take…well… a piss. We was having a huge dog dilemma: to run or to pee? So he decided to do both in the same time: running on 3 legs with one raised up in biological purposes. It was hilarious to watch him and the other dogs quite angry with him for stopping them too. But when a dog has to go, the dog has to go! Happily the 3 stops were enough for him to solve the problem and he finally started running like a champ. What you don’t see in movies with husky sledding is that they even poop while running. This just adds more fun to the whole experience.

We crossed small wooden bridges build on frozen rivers, valleys with mountains, got close enough so I could see the lake there, then through the forest covered with snow. All was white! And all was beautiful!

If the first minutes I spent them all on efforts to avoid falling off, at our first stop I wanted to change positions with my partner on the sleigh, so I could be the one leading it and the dogs, to be for the first time in my life a musher. And I did it perfectly. I used the breaks when needed, used my body weight in curves, push the sleigh to help the dogs sometimes. It was fantastic, feeling the cold wind on my face while standing on a sleigh covered with reindeer hides. I definitely prefer this instead of sitting. We were laughing, joking, admiring the views and fully enjoying a new experience together with to the cutest huskies, right there, in the Arctic.