Tag Archives: solo traveler

Dubai – the desert and the city (Day 3)

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


5am

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

– Ohh…you can’t sleep?…

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

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

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

the wait….

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

Dubai, sunrise in the desert

riding the dunes

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

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

oh, not camels again….

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

– Did you ever do this?

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

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

the falcon

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

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

the Old

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

Dubai Old Town, Deira

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

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

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

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

– What phone you have?

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

coconut green, mango and sugar cane juice

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

sunset on Kite Beach

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

Sunset at Kite Beach, Dubai

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

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

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

Dubai Marina, again

Dubai Marina view by night

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

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

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

Next: 24h in Abu Dhabi

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dubai – All that money can buy (Day 2)

In a city that offers all that money can buy, it can be difficult to decide what you want and how to spent the most precious currency that exists: time. But I knew: my first helicopter ride. I will fly above Dubai.


Morning: High in Dubai

Dubai Marina, Dubai, UAE

A breakfast with a view, Dubai Marina view. Not on a terrace, but a bridge. And not a real breakfast actually, but definitely one to remember. The day started like this, with dates milkshake and gazing at the grey curtain of skyscrapers mirroring their shapes in the silver waters where luxury white yachts slid up and down the Marina. Doing this cost me 30 minutes of my second day in Dubai.

12pm

The taxi dropped me in front of Dubai Police Academy, close to Jumeirah beach. A jeep was already for me at the gates, to drive me inside through the security zone. It looked like a highly protected area. I knew by the noise, minutes later, that we’ve reached the starting point: a white helicopter was just landing.

The preparation for the helicopter ride took about an hour, inside the centre, with a session of safety instructions and technical info, including how to get in and off the helicopter when it lands on land or water. After the theoretical part, waiting for my ride and watching other customers coming and going, I observed how the whole thing was happening. I’ve noticed there was also a second helicopter operating, a black one that landed later. That looked so cool, I instantly wished my ride will be with that one. There were 5 seats in a helicopter, so only one seat in front, near the pilot. A kind of VIP seat… No matter the colour of the helicopter, I thought, I just hoped I won’t be sitting on a middle seat…. Seeing people leaving and the expressions of thrilled they had when they were landing back was not just fun to watch, but also increasing my impatience.

Finally my turn came. Me and 3 other girls were forming the group. The white helicopter was on the helipad, waiting for the next group. We were waiting in line and I thought that one it’ll be ours… And then I heard the noise. The trees outside started moving. The black one was landing back and the white helicopter just took off. I heard someone from the security telling us to wait in line inside.

– You’re alone so you’ll be sitting in the front, he told me.

These were the words I wanted to hear after paying almost 200$ for a few minutes ride. I was so happy.

The next minute my hair was blowing all over my face as I approached the black and cool helicopter. I took my seat in the front with a smile reaching from one ear to the other, that got even bigger when I laid my eyes on the so very good looking pilot: dark haired, with a short beard, wearing a pilot uniform and a fab smile.

Dubai, helicopter ride

– Hi, welcome! And there we were, all 5, ready to fly up in the sky.

I got the headset on, receiving the last indications from the security stuff as they closed the door. I heard the noise increasing and felt the moment we took off, leaving the ground, going up and up until the cars got smaller and the highway above became a line beneath us. Seen from the sky, the distances didn’t seem so large and the map of Dubai started imprinting on my mind. The Palm and The Atlantis, Dubai Marina, then we turned right and headed towards downtown, where Burj Khalifa was guarding the city from its heart, the middle of the skyscrapers that look tinny compared to the 160 levels sharp structure. It was a clear day with great visibility for this mind-blowing desert city where this is a rare gift.

Dubai, downtown, Burj Khalifa

The views were spectacular. We were communicating through the headset and I was the one asking questions: how close can you get to the downtown and Burj Al Arab – not very unless you have a permit to land there, where was the famous Kite Beach. Then we turned back, flying along the coast line, Jumeirah beach, Kite Beach and then Burj Al Arab, half a circle around the 7th stars hotel passing a little over the legal limit of distance for helicopters that are not landing on its helipad. We saw again the huge The Palm, the man made complex of islands forming the shape of a palm tree, we saw The World, the artificial archipelago of 300 islands laid out in the Persian Golf in the shape of Earth’s continents.

Dubai, The Palm, aerial view

Two more breath takes and we were heading back, getting closer to the helipad, ready to land. I was thrilled! It was worth every scent and choosing Dubai for my first helicopter ride was a great idea for the unique landmarks.

At the end of the ride, as we step out the helicopter, a few cameras jumped in as if we got famous while up there in the air. Then I found out our memories came with a price. I took the cheapest version, 2 photos (only) for 50bucks. It wasn’t allowed to do any photo shooting around the helicopter but of course I got my selfie with the pilot up in the sky 😉 In Dubai, even memories come with a price.

3pm

Afternoon: Man made miracle  

Another taxi dropped me an hour later in front of Miracle Garden. I wandered among structures of all shapes, from a castle to a plane and cartoon characters, all made of flowers. With 28C, the garden smelled like summer, the January summer in the Golf. This place is another superlative of Dubai: the world’s largest natural flower garden, 72K square metres with over 50 million flowers and 250 million plants.

Miracle Garden, Dubai

In the middle of the desert, open for visitors between November and March, before the burning summer temperatures start turning all into dust. My battle here was a classic one for single travellers: obtaining 2-3 decently framed photos that, as an exception, will include myself. An exception because I prefer the photos of beautiful places with no people in the picture, an achievement that in most places takes a lot of patience. But the biggest challenge when traveling alone is people’s natural gift for ruining a photo. Of course, many of my friends are too in this category but at least I can ask nicely for a new try and help with indications. With strangers, that would be rude…. I can talk a whole day about these funny yet annoying fails that happened to me, like for ex. the best panoramic pic of Dubrovnik where my feet were cut off or the one with the RIP Blue Window in Gozo, Malta, (now gone into the see) where the natural monument, the window, the reason of the photo, was cut in half… Still, I never give up and eventually I get the photo I want. And so I did in Miracle Garden, though people were swarming everywhere at that hour.

Miracle Garden, Dubai

 

6pm

Evening: At the top

45 minutes of waiting for a bus that didn’t come change my plans for saving some budget using the public transport. I jumped in a taxi to get right in time in Dubai Mall, for my VIP entrance for At The Top of Burj Khalifa at 7pm. I got the ticket the day before, from an open office I saw in the mall, where people were waiting in line. I thought that must be the place. I almost had a heart attack when I heard the price: almost 100 euro. My credit card was in pain. Only long after I realised IT was a good deal, because most people go to see level 128. My crazy pricey ticket offered priority access and the chance to see Dubai from level no 148.

We were about 5 people in the line: two Russian women, beautiful and very branded, a French couple, both very tall and good looking, him looking more young. And myself, this time dressed for a helicopter ride + a drink in the highest lounge in the world, so nicely. On the other side, for normal tickets line, tens of people were waiting.  We entered through a separate door after they checked our passes, the stuff repeated the check later.  In a hall a long line of people were waiting. We passed by them and went further. It felt nice that VIP status. I very soon realised Burj Khalifa is not just a huge building of 160 floors, there are 160 levels of luxury and the most perfect finishes, the contractor save no penny when it came to materials and designs. It’s spotless from what I’ve seen this entire private property where the only access is through the mall, buying a ticket, or the main entrance if you have a reservation at one of the restaurants inside.

We took two elevators and in seconds we were at level 148. From the moment the doors opened, it is jaw dropping. The lounge is small but cosy, with scattered light, candles and orchid as decorations. The closed balcony that surrounds the place offers views that makes you feel you’re on top of the world.

At The Top, Burj Khalifa, downtown Dubai by night

 

It was getting dark and I think it was the best moment, to see as the blue hour turns into night into millions of lights from the skyscrapers beneath and the multitude of highways and boulevards. What a city, indeed! I had to admit, I was impressed. An ambition made reality but with a good dose of good taste and elegance. I admired the views and I just couldn’t get enough.

At The Top, Burj Khalifa, Dubai city lights

Level 128, crowded and closer to the earth seemed quite ordinary after I finally decided to leave level 148. I didn’t even wanna take many photos. The best part here was that the water fountain, the Dubai Fountain started the show of lights and music and seen from above it looked gorgeous.

Due to the large number of people, the place feels very touristy, compared to the laid back and spoiled mood from the previous level. A souvenir shop covers most of the place, where the price for a box of chocolate gives you ideas that it might be gold, leaving a little room for an interactive floor made of a screen with image of the city above that cracks under people’s feet as they step on it.

I felt overwhelmed enough and I wanted to leave. Hundreds were forming an endless line to the elevators. Oh God, I will sleep here tonight… I thought. But my 100 euro ticket saved me, the VIP guests had priority using another elevator, smaller and faster. Suddenly, adding this too, plus the whole experience, those 100 euro I payed for didn’t hurt any more. I’m glad that just by chance I made the best choice.

9pm

Dubai Fountain was playing the moment I got out the mall. With people filling every single place at the tables around, with waiters from the restaurants running with plates filled with dishes, with crowds gathered around Burj Khalifa lake, the music, the water jets up the sky, the night sky with the moon watching down to us. When the show of water and light stopped, the lake was completely covered with little lights, as a replica of the sky above.

11pm

The day was done, with every minute from morning till night spent so perfectly – Carpe Diem. A summer night mood was filling the city with its warm breeze. In this city of so many worlds where all that money could buy has been build, created and raised from the desert sand, I wished I had more… not money, but time.

Next: Dubai day 3 – sunrise in the desert, Old Town, Jumeirah beach

Dubai – Best of fancy on a budget (Day 1)

Three days in Dubai proved me wrong. All I’ve been hearing about this fancy desert city is true. After three days and 3 nights all I wished for was more time. I considered it artificial, too fake and opulent for my taste. Then I saw the best of Dubai and fell for it.


1.1.2020

Al Fahidi neighborhood, at my first glance that late afternoon, the first one in 2020, didn’t look like the Dubai I imagined. I woke up late after the exhausting NYE “adventure” the night before. It was curious to see Dubai by day. I draw the dark heavy curtains and opened the window to the little garden in front where a few dusty palm-trees were the only green spots on a limestone shade paint. On the wide vacant lot in front, in a cloud of dust, e few barefoot boys were playing football with a worn-out ball. Yalla, yalla (cmon) was all I could hear. A strong smell of frying hit me from what seemed to be the kitchen of the hotel, judging by the noise. I thought this must be a reason for the cheap price I payed for 3 nights in a city where New Years Eve makes hotel prices explode like its famous fireworks. But the room was nice, large, clean and the location was good, a few minutes walk to the metro station.

Behind the dusty palm-trees, the vacant lot and the hotel’s kitchen, the city was already up, ready to start a new year filled with life. The noise of the urban chaos was calling.

Spicy brunch

I love Indian food and I soon discovered I love the prices it has in Dubai too. Bhindi masala (dish made with okra) and chicken masala was the name of my brunch. A spicy brunch. I got totally lost in the tens of meals with names I could hardly pronounce listed in the menu of the first restaurant I saw on the street. The waiter stole me from the competition near by meeting me meters away from the entrance, in the middle of the crosswalk. I let him believe his strategy was a success when in fact my decision was taken the moment I saw the place with people eating on the terrace. At 2pm, 28C and a burning sun, coming from the freezing temperatures back home, I felt I will melt if I don’t eat fast. Though it was a hasty decision picking the restaurant, the food was tasty.

Dubai downtown

It was time to be wowed by my first day in Dubai! I took the metro and headed towards downtown. One thing no one told me about Dubai is that there are so many Indians, it makes you wander if that’s truly Dubai, UAE, Middle East.

When it comes to skyscrapers, modern architecture and infrastructure, Dubai gets all the 5 stars. And the downtown area stands as a prove for this. You could easily end up with a glazed look, mouth opened, eyes looking up the sky, among high structures of steel and glass. I admitted, it’s impressive but I’m not a fan of modern buildings with their cold minimal shapes. Burj Khalifa still is so high it makes you dizzy. It dominates the city like a crowned god of buildings. 163 floors. My apartment back home is at 8.

I hate malls…

“I’ll just take a look, it won’t take long… it’s just a mall.” It started like this. After 5h, dizzy and exhausted I couldn’t solve this mystery: where did all that time vanished?!

Dubai Mall, Dubai Downtown,

There are two reasons why I enter a mall, in my city, in any city: see a movie or get my coats from the dry cleaning. This was before I stepped in Dubai Mall. It makes The Harrods in London or Galleries Lafayette in Paris seem like two little shops. This place is not a mall, but a wicked city where you enter in the morning and leave at night, wandering where did all that sunny day disappeared. From the butler at the entrance, the welcoming ladies offering sweets, to the 1200 large stores on 502,000 square metres, this place is madness, a shopping industry by itself and above all, it’s a time trap. A very pretty one that has everything inside: a hotel, an ice rink, an aquarium where people can go for a dive among sharks and leopard rays of who’s existence I had no idea before, a VR Park, a lake with a water fountain, access to the highest building in the world from the largest mall in the world. Dubai seems to love superlatives. Shopping there is an true  experience. Benefiting from the large spaces, the brands have built stories out of their shops. In Dubai Mall the stores don’t just sell, they entertain and spoil. The prices seem a bit higher for a few brands I usually buy but it still is a shopper’s paradise on Earth.

Dubai Mall, Dubai Downtown,

From the Earth to the sky: Burj Khalifa 

Seeing the tallest building in the world right outside the biggest mall in the world, moving your eyes from its base and all the way up to its top, it’s really something extraordinary.  A blue huge pool in the middle of the desert, now downtown Dubai, stands for Burj Khalifa Lake. Why knot? If 218 millions where waiting to be spent. You can even take a boat ride in a traditional “abra”, probably the last reminder in that area of what Dubai was in times not that old: a poor fishing village. Right now the city looks like what all that money can built: artificial, as I used to consider it before, but so damn beautiful, as I was starting to see it.

Burj Khalifa, Dubai, downtown

Souk Al Bahar, the drop of tradition

I found it by chance, just wandering around Burj Khalifa, trying to find its best angle for a photo with the entire building. Or almost entire… This modern and luxury Arabian souk on the Old Town island brings back the magic in a place made of steel and glass. I spent long minutes admiring the details of Iranian hand made carpets and testing tens of luxury Arabian perfumes in precious bottles. The prices were just as precious too, up to 600 euro. Ehh…Dubai, places like that make me feel poor. There’s too much you can’t afford right under your nose.

Dubai UAE, Burj Khalifa

The golden hour and the orange sun rays turned the city into gold as the night was coming. I felt overwhelmed by so much I’ve seen.

Dubai Marina by night

In this city with many worlds, Dubai Marina is one of them. A Western corner in a rich city. Skyscrapers, restaurants, shops, the beach and the promenade. I had in mind the image of the tall buildings reflecting in the harbour and I got lost trying to find it. I was exhausted and ready to go back to the metro for the 1h ride to my hotel when, I have no idea how, I found it:

If by day, iron and glass looks modern, by night it looks the best.

Dubai Marina view by night

The Frame of dreams

The two sides of the city, the old and new are framed by The Frame, another architectural landmark of Dubai. The name of this square building, called the biggest picture frame on the planet, reflects its shape, 150m tall and 95m wide. From my seat in the metro, at passed 11 at night, heading to the old (and poor I should add) side of Dubai, this day seemed like a fantasy. All the glitter and gold of Dubai gives a feeling of mixed realities, polishing all in happiness. But The Frame, no mater how big it is, can’t include all the 3.331 million stories lived each day in this city. My story, as a visitor fulfilling another destination dream, the story of the Filipino woman that was selling ice-cream in the mall, waiting for her dream, the stories of the rich and good looking of all races I’ve noticed on Fashion Avenue, living their dream…. and the stories of the Indian workers I saw right next to Dubai Mall, up high on metallic scaffold, working in construction on January the 1st, building their dream.

A dream city that is made of so many different dreams, that is the big picture of Dubai.

Next: Day 2 in Dubai: helicopter ride, at the top of Burj Khalifa and more

 

 

Croatia: Legends and charm of Dubrovnik

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

Dubrovnik under waters

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

– How come a girl like you is not married?

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

– I haven’t met my perfect match.

Classic. But I got support immediately.

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

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

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

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

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

 Old town of Dubrovnik

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

Dubrovnik Olt Town, Croatia, Dalmatia

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

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

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

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

  Walls of Dubrovnik

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

Croatia, Dubrovnik, Old Town

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

City Walls, Dubrovnik, Croatia, Adriatic Sea

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

Dubrovnik, Croatia, sea view

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

Croatia, old town Dubrovnik

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

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

Next: Kotor, Montenegro

 

 

 

 

 

 

Croatia – Plitvice Lakes and so much more

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

Split, what a nice surprise!

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

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

Beach in Split, Croatia

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

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

Split, Croatia

Evening by the Adriatic in Split

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

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

OMG, Plitvice Lakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

It started like this:

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

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

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

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

And this:

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

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

Waterfall in Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

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

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

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

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

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

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

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

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

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

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

Next: Dubrovnic and Kotor

My fave 10 Instagrammable places in Bali

Bali is so touristy it hurts. But Ohh so beautiful also it makes you wanna go back there. An island of green, with rice paddies, waterfalls, jungle views, beach sunsets with skies set on fire, temples… Endless possibilities to discover beautiful places and shot great photos. The place always does the job. All it’s left is to frame the image and shot the photo.

I searched, I read, I choose. The places that charmed me the most are these, Instagrammable, famous, visited and so photographed.

10. Butterfly Park – Who doesn’t love an up close photo with a huge butterfly?! How about 10 butterflies? The place houses about that many species of Bali butterflies, including some protected ones. Huge, gorgeous and delicate. You’ll witness as they hatch, fly, eat flowers nectar, mate and eventually die falling on the ground. The Atlas moth is the special guest of the park, a nature wonder with its wingspan up to 25cm.

Butterflies in Bali, Butterfly Park

9. Campuhan Ridge Walk – picture perfect jungle on the right, a few cottages perfectly blending in the lush vegetation, high grass fields waving in the wind on the left, a narrow winding paved trail in the middle. A perfect short walk outside Ubud that can easily turn into a few hours long walk among rice fields, small cafes and little villages. Take the time and enjoy the golden hour and sunset here.

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

8. Lotus Caffe Ubud – I can’t get enough of the lotus flowers in bloom in the interior yard of the famous Lotus Cafe in central Ubud. Early in the morning you can enjoy the place in peace. Then cross the street, forget about any notion of time and get lost in the labyrinth of Ubud Traditional Art Market. Don’t hesitate to taste all the fruits you see on the stalls and you’ve never tried before. My favourite: salak, snake fruit. But beware of instantaneous addiction.

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

7. Tirta Empul Temple – One of the most iconic places in Bali. Wear the sarong provided at the entrance and follow the purification ritual inside the temple. Don’t miss the pond full of huge koi fish and enjoy the serenity of the place.

Tirta Empul Temple, Bali, Purification ritual

6. Kelingking Beach in Nusa Penida – a short boat ride to one of the most spectacular beaches, not only in Bali or Asia, but in the world. Crystal clear waves hit the bright gold sand beach. Shades of blue meet shades of yellow at the base of the iconic T-Rex shaped cliff that has become one of the most Instagrammable places in Bali. Mainstream but still gorgeous. Not to be missed.

Kelingking Beach, Nusa Penida, Bali

5. Sunset in Kuta beach – Bali without a sunset? No way! The suns puts on the skies a breathtaking show as it says good night to Kuta beach. I thought people are exaggerating about this. Not they’re not. I’ve never seen before a sunset that conquers the entire horizon and sets it on fire like this. Grab a green coconut, sit on the sand and enjoy the 180′ sunset.

Sunset in Kuta, Bali, Indonesia

4. Besakih Temple – known as Mother Temple, my favourite by far. The oldest, biggest and most sacred temple in Bali. Doesn’t happen every day to see 86 (no kidding) temples in one place. That’s how many form the huge complex surrounded by breathtaking views of Mount Agung, still an active vulcano and scenic rice paddies and hills. This doesn’t mean other iconic temples should be missed, like Uluwatu or Tanah Lot.

Besakih Temple, Mother Temple, Bali

3. Rice paddies, Ubud – prepare yourself a little before you will be charmed by Tegalalang Rice Terraces. Behind Lotus Cafe in Ubud you’ll find a secret path. Don’t be afraid to venture among cottages and backyards. At one point, a see of green will be revealed in front of you. And that’s my favourite place in Ubud, serene, quiet, like a beautiful secret well kept. At the end of the path, surrounded by rice paddies, sits Sweet Orange Warung. Delicious lunch & the best view.

Ubud, Bali, rice paddies

2. Tegalalang Rice Terraces – the image you have in mind about Bali is probably this. Wild jungle and high palm trees surround the hills transformed in rice paddies, large terraces where white clouds mirror their shapes in the so many sunny days. A magnet for tourists, so wake up early to be there soon after the run rises and the light is perfect for photos, and you’ll have the place only for yourself.

Tegalalang Rice Terrace, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

1. Waterfalls of Bali – All of them For nature aficionados, adventure seekers, trekking fans or simply beauty admirers, Bali is a piece of heaven where some of the most spectacular waterfalls found their ways through the lush vegetation of the jungle. A true paradise, Tukad Cepung Waterfall is a breathtaking beauty and represents my favourite place in Bali from what I’ve seen so far. Not just the waterfall itself, hidden in a cave, where the sun rays reach only in the mornings, but the wild surroundings and the feel on untouched nature beauty. Take a step close to the waterfall and watch the sky as the water drops cover you in seconds. Tibumana Waterfall is another beautiful one.

Tukad Cepung, top best waterfalls in Bali

Private tours are an excellent way of seeing what you really want to see in Bali, with the help of a local driver. For about 30$ a day, you’ll have an amazing time. Or rent a scooter, cheaper and more adventurous. But beware of accidents, one unfortunate event like this can let you quite skinned, in pain and with a ruined holiday.

Tip – For night street photography + a great foodie spoil, head after dark to Gianyar Street Night Market.

Street food Bali, Ginyar, chicken satay

For my second trip to Bali, I’ve already saved a few places too see, like Lembongan island, (closed after the earthquake when I was there), Gates of Heaven in Lampuyang, Ulan Danu Temple, Thousands Island Viewpoint and Rumah Pohon Treehouse in Nusa Penida.

Next: Croatia and Montenegro

 

 

 

 

Most Magical Christmas markets in Europe

How precious are now my memories of past Christmases!

Those old times when I needed a ladder to fix the golden star on top of the big natural Christmas tree, decorated with the same decorations every year, always on Christmas Eve, never sooner. Puffy bright white snowdrifts, taller then us, red frozen cheeks, that crisp cold and the huge snowflakes falling, my old wooden sled running down the hill, the delicious scent of baked cookies coming from my mom’s kitchen, the carolers’ bells outside, all my best friends from the small street that served as the scene for my amazing childhood… And I can not forget the Christmas carols my friends and I sang from door to door, in our neighbourhood, in the most expected evening of the year, the Christmas Eve. The presents under the tree come second to all these joys thanks to which I am now among those that love Christmas truly madly deeply.

And this Christmas joy takes me every year to the amazing Christmas markets throughout Europe. I love them all, some maybe a little more:

Paris Christmas Market

Paris in December, Christmas market in Jardin des Tuileries

This year Avenue des Champs-Élysées was no longer the scene of the main Christmas Market in Paris. Instead, the joy was placed in Jardin des Tuileries, a perfect location if you ask me. Close to Place Vendôme and its stylish jewellery stores, where a handsome butler dressed in red invites you to see the mind-blowing diamond necklaces at Cartier, close to Louvre, under the ray of light sent to the sky from the far Eiffel Tower, with the big white wheel and white wooden stalls serving French délicatesses from oisters and all sorts of cheese, to soup a l’onion or raclettes. Paris is always a good idea, I use to say. And a great one in December, even during the big strike. And if you get there by January the 5th, don’t miss out the fabulous Christmas tree in Galeries Lafayette, where this year’s Christmas decorations theme is inspired by the amazing bees.

Paris in December, Christmas tree, wonderland, Galeries Lafayette

Reykjavik in December

Reykjavik, Iceland, December mood, Christmas market

December in the North is special. I tested it a few years ago in Iceland. Trolls legends, myths about the elves and a land of fire and ice like I have never elsewhere. Sure it has also its dose of Christmas spirit market: an ice rink, animated with kids skating around, surrounded by a few stalls serving hot drinks and hod-dogs (I love Islandic hod-dogs) in central Reykjavik. It is very different from the Christmas mood in Germany, Bavaria for ex, for sure not so colourful and joyful but it’s magical in its own Nordic way.

Germany – Munich winter wonderland 

Christmas Market in Munich, Germany

And speaking of the German Christmas mood… if you wanna be amazed, just head straight to Bavaria! Because Germans take Christmas very seriously, probably the most serious in Europe! You will feel like a child again wandering among the wonderful stalls, every one of them looking like a winter fairytale. There was even a traditional contest held every year to honour the best decorated stalls.

Munich Christmas Market, Germany

The food is the best, the roasted almonds with caramel and cinnamon are something to dye for, the sweet hot glühwein will get you dizzy and wanting for more and the stores windows will make you wanna stare in front of each one forever.

Munich, Bavaria, Germany, December, Christmas market

Plus, there are so many Christmas Markets in Munich, I only got to see about 5 of them. The Medieval Christmas Market was fantastic, looking as if I was back in 1600.

Austrian cities and the wonderful Christmas markets

Close to Munich, there is another Christmas markets hot spot, in the very heart of Tirol region, in Austria. The white snowy Alps surrounding Innsbruck, with its gingerbread like colourful houses by the river that splits the city in half, the stalls selling baked maroons, glühwein, apfelstrudel or yummy wursts seasoned with sauerkraut, it all looks and tastes as in a mix between the Sound of Music and The Snow Queen movies put all together. A place where meeting Santa on the street comes naturally.

Innsbruck, Austria, Tirol, Christmas Market, December, winter in Austria

This is no way all that Austria has to say when it comes to Christmas Markets. For sure its capital, Wien, is among the most popular destinations in December and its Christmas Markets, found everywhere around the city, look just so Christmasy with their pretty stalls that make you crave you could buy everything.

Wien, Austria, Christmas Market, December

 

But my favourite place in Austria, in December, is actually the city of music, the birthplace of Mozart: Salzburg. This city looks as if it was made especially for the Christmas spirit. Add a bright full moon shining above its main square Christmas Market, surrounded by snowy mountains, with a choir of carol singers interpreting “The Firs Noel” Christmas carol in front of an old church and there it is, the perfect December post card.

Salzburg in Austria, Christmas Market in December

Bratislava winter fairytale

Bratislava, Slovakia, Christmas Market in December

Blackcurrant mulled wine, traditional bread and goose fat with red onion and even delicious Asian food were among the treats I choose in Bratislava Christmas Market. This city holds the Christmas mood with pride, tempting visitors from its richer and fancier neighbour, Wien, with great prices and a beautiful old town. Bratislava offers a great place to enjoy December in a great European style.

Prague – a scent of Christmas

I still remember the scent of freshly baked gingerbread in Prague. With traditional Czech music, plenty of treats and a variety of hot drinks, in a city old square that looks sublime and ideal for a Christmas Market, with the huge Christmas tree placed in the middle, Prague is also among my beautiful places and favourite destinations in December.

December in Prague, Christmas market,

There would also be a few words to say about London and Milan in December, but those are a bit older memories and for sure Christmas Markets there have changed a lot since when I was there during December.

Wherever you may be, at home or away, with family, friends, loved ones, pets or even alone, just do that: let the Christmas joy tickle your soul and enjoy it. It really is the most wonderful time of the year. And let’s not forget there is one place where Christmas lasts 360 days a year and that is Rovaniemi in Finland, where Santa’s official home is.

XOXO

December, Christmas, Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

 

 

 

 

 

Bali: let’s talk Nusa Penida

7:00 am, Kuta, Bali

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

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

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

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

Nusa Penida’s wow mood

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

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

Nusa Penida Bali, beautiful destinations, beautiful places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Then how can we get there?

– We will, I show you.

Broken Beach

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

Broken Beach, nusa Penida, Bali, Indonesia

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

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

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

Crystal Bay

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

Crystal Bay, Nusa Penida, Bali, Indonesia

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset in Kuta, Bali, Indonesia

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

Next: obsessively searching the manta rays in Nusa Penida

 

Indonesia, Bali: take me to Kuta beach

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

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

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

Hello Bali

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

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

– How much? I needed to get to Kuta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Finished? the lady asked me?

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

Malaysia: Too hard to leave Paradise

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

Back to Mabul

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

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

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

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

– Ok, ok, ok….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– What did you got? A-ba….?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asia, Malaysia, Borneo, Mabul Island, Sipadan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving Mabul

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

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

– You know, I envy you…

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

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

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

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

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

What a rich trip Malaysia was!

Next: Bali