Tag Archives: solo traveler

Malaysia, Mabul, the island of sea gypsies

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

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

I was listening to the diving instructor’s advices, given briefly and without any sign of concern, while he was arranging some oxygen tubes on the boat. I had no wish to leave that boat and jump in that water. I was the only one left, all the divers were already in the depths. I couldn’t believe it! After all it took to get there that day, I was just getting such cold feet…

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

Malaysia, Borneo. Living wild 

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

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

Outside the airport, I found, after a few desperate attempts, the driver who was sent for us, the guests of Uncle Chang’s Sipadan Mabul Dive Lodge. It was not easy at all, in the crowd waiting in front, among tens of people holding sheets of paper with all kind of names, most of them Asian. Was funny how many of them were approaching me, asking if I was Chang or Young. In this chaos, without any wifi, completely disoriented, would have been a pain in the… and the wallet to find my way, all alone, to Semporna’s jetty and catch the last boat that day for Mabul island, or, if not that one, rent a boat and pay 10 times the price. Happily all went ok, I found that guy, the driver and we were now 3 people in the van. Other people he had on the list didn’t seem to show up so soon he left only with us, without much bother. And so, in the van, I met Andrew and his cousin, two Malaysians form Penang, going to Sipadan also and staying in Mabul.

On our way to Semporna, about an hour, we talked about Europe, the countries Andrew saw there and how they loved diving. Andrew had got his diving certificate in Mabul, 10 years before. After completing it, he had the one dive permit for Sipadan, which, he assured me, was a paradise. He was excited to be back. They were surprised I wasn’t a diver, but still going to Sipadan, this Mecca for divers all around the world. I told them in Europe is not so much to see underwater, if you ask me, definitely not like in Asia and I can see why in Malaysia this is as natural as riding a bike.

Sabah province, Semporna

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

When the van finally stopped close to the jetty, in Semporna, all I could see were long raws of wooden chalets build on water, housing the offices of many tours agencies. We entered one of them. About other 10-15 chalets were built right behind it, going far into the bay, on the sea surface. I looked down and the water beneath was terribly dirty and polluted with all you can imagine. Very soon I was going to find out it was even more dirty… A lady inside the chalet, wearing a black hijab, sitting in front of an old and messy office desk, full of papers, was yelling to a man in their language. When she finished the show, she welcomed me smiling and I completed the form for my staying in Mabul.

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

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

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

The Bajau Laut people (sea gipsies)

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

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

Mabul island

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

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

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

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

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

Mabul, the dangerous paradise

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

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

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

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

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

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

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

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

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

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

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

It was getting dark and so I went back to my lodge, used my basic toilet and had a bit salty water shower, in a bucket. And I “survived” this and felt great.

Louise was on the pontoon, sitting on the stairs, close to the water, watching the sunset, with a green coconut next to her. Colourful fish were swimming right next to the steps, in the orange-blue crystal water.

– What a paradise! The island, the people… I told her, sitting on a step 2 meters away. She looks back and sends me a smile instead of “now you know it too”.

– Your name is on the board for tomorrow, she said. You can only be sure you will get to Sipadan once you see your name written there.

felt already so blessed, right there, in Mabul. 

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

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

 

 

 

 

Sri Lanka: safari & wildlife in Udawalawe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Shhhh, hear that? I said

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

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

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

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

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

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

– No, this was no dog, true.

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

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

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

6am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The safari 

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

Sri Lanka, safari in Udawalawe, beautiful places

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

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

Sri Lanka, safari in Udawalawe, beautiful places

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

Sri Lanka, safari in Udawalawe, beautiful places

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

Sri Lanka, Mirssa beach, beautiful places

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

Sri Lanka, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

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

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

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

Sri Lanka – the endless green of Ella

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

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

Bye-Bye KL

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

– Are you free?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colombo, Sri Lanka – arriving with scandal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driving Sri Lanka

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

Sri Lanka, beautiful places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ella, Sri Lanka, beautiful places

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

Ella, Sri Lanka, beautiful places

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

Ella, Nine Arches Bridge, Sri Lanka, beautiful places

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

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

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

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

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

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

– I am too black!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: safari in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka

 

Malaysia: meeting the Orang Asli, the tribe

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

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

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

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

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

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

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

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

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

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

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

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

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

– Now you are a true jungle surviver! Abdullah said

– I should move here!

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

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

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Sri Lanka

10 Instagrammable spot in Chefchaouen

Top 10 most Instagrammable sport in Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen, The Blue Pearl of Morocco, was made famous by Instagram. That’s a fact. No other article in any well known magazine or tv show on any mainstream media could even get close to that exposure.

I confess, it’s how I heard about it and also how I got crazy about it. Like for many other beautiful places, a photo on Instagram was the starting point.

It is also said it’s one of the places ruined by Instagram. It’s an opinion I don’t share at all. I was able to walk the blue streets with barely one-two locals around, many times all alone and that in the middle of the day. It was a weekend in March, with perfect weather. The place was not at all packed with tourists, as I expected after reading some info on the internet about how spoilt it is. Except a Chinese store that seem to me out of place there, no offence to anyone 🙂 the Moroccan village in the mountains kept its untouched charm.

Probably the biggest advantage is that tourism is bringing a way of living in a place where aren’t so many other options. And if that place is not at all crowded and still looks pretty much untouched, that’s just perfect to me.

After two days of wandering the streets of Chaouen, here are my favourite spots:

No 10 – For many it’s no 1. For me is the 10th because everyone has photos there and has become too photographed now. You don’t want a copy cut, right? So the famous stairs with flower pots are not my fave but definitely not to miss. Don’t worry, you can’t possibly do that since they are on the main street heading to Ras Elma.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places 

No 9 – It’s also a street with colorful flower pots but not so famous as the iconic one before. You can also have a different angle here and a bit of originality compared to place no 10.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

No 8 – I call it the tunnel, is all blue and it looks like a game of light and blue. Also found on the main street. Impossible to miss. Wait there until someone passes by for a nice shot with a live presence.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

No 7 – This one is for sure the most beautiful entrance in a house I have ever seen. It’s a little hidden, but if you wander long enough, you can’t miss it. Or have some fun and play a game: walk till you find it.  

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

No 6 – The very center of Medina is such a laid back heaven! Locals gather here to talk and I just admire the place and the view to the mountains. The fountain in the middle is a masterpiece. I could stay there for hours, just watching the kids playing.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

No 5 – The mosque of medina, a white bright spot in a blue sea. Even more beautiful under the deep blue sky. A true Moroccan style wonder place. And those blue steps look fabulous. Any local can guide you there.

No 4 – The top view over Chefchaouen at sunset. As the sun says goodbye to another day, another color has its triumphal entry: orange. And trust me, you wanna see how that orange melts on the blue city, among cactus leaves.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

No 3 – The Instagram heaven spot. It will cost you 5 dirhams to enter, it is privately owned and a business opportunity. It’s madly blue and has all the props you need to play as an Instagram whatever you wanna be there. How to find it? By luck 😉

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

No 2 – That’s a little difficult to get to since it is located at the top floor of a private house, one of the oldest in Chaouen. The most beautiful balcony I have ever seen. Just couldn’t help having it on second place here.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

No 1 – the bluest steps in the world. This is not verified but I bet it is so. This is like a mirage. It is famous but it’s still my favourite place in Chefchaouen. It’s very easy to find. As you pass Dar Chefchaouen, not far from the gate entering the medina from the city centre, turn right in a few meters after and continue straight a little. There you are, look left and be amazed.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

P.S. If you pass Dar Chefchaouen, take a look inside to its beautiful building with balconies and interior yard with the beautiful small round fountain right in the middle. And please say hello to Ahmed!

 

Finland: looking for Santa in Rovaniemi

I love Mondays. Those well spent. Like this one, in the end of January. Driving through the heart of cold white Lapland, in the happiest country in the world, Finland. The bus was moving like a red spot on a black line, the road splitting in half the white land, the pine forest. Oh, the orange rays of the light from that long lasting Arctic sunset, I already knew I’ll dream about it back home. I looked outside the window and saw a bright intense sung dog, a vertical rainbow line uniting the sky and the forest somewhere in the far.

It was a brilliant decision not to hurry to catch the early bus to Rovaniemi. Levi was far more beautiful, with its trees more sugar-ish, the cold more crisp and the winter there more wonderland-ish than any other place on Earth. Of that I’m sure. A few more hours spent in Levi were a bless, the small town was looking even more wonderful than it did the 1st day I arrived. Another night of -30C and peaceful snowing with tiny ice crystals made me wonder, that morning, when I opened the door and felt as if a frozen wall of polar air hit me: how much beauty this place can get?

No traces left of any other colors except all white.  

Compared to that, Rovaniemi was a contrast. Instead of the winter wonderland in Levi, I found myself here in rather dull urban place, modern, organized, clean, simple, in one word: scandinavian. No trace of winter sky resort atmosphere, of those epic frozen wooden cabins and snow monster trees. I also missed that dry cold in Levi as Rovaniemi was warmer and I wasn’t turning white anymore, because of the ice particles covering my clothes. Still, it needed less than 15 minutes for the water to start freezing inside the bottle, before I reached the hotel.

In spite of this start, I knew I had wonders waiting for me here too.

My last night in Lapland and my last chance to see the northern lights in this trip. And like any other person that had seen the aurora once, the wish of seeing it one time was replaced by the dream of seeing it again. But… chances were low due to the forecast. I must have checked the weather forecast for hundreds of times in those last days. I was obsessed. Three hours before the tour I had my eyes on was about to start, I knew I’ll rather regret I went and didn’t see anything then to regret I didn’t try. So 100 euros were to be lost or a great experience won. In the 3h I have left until 7 PM I went to Arktikum, the only museum dedicated to life in the Arctic. I don’t need museums when I have the cities streets or markets and their vibe, but this one is a good collection of interesting facts about a fascinating area, the far north. Not to be missed.    

Hunting the northern lights. Second episode

– Where are you from?

One of the guys from the tour agency asked me as I arrived at 7PM in their office, on the main street in Rovaniemi.

– Ok, give them all warm suits, rubber boots. And add 2 pairs of wool socks for each.

I already had 7 layers on, including a down jacket under the main one, thermals, fleece, wool socks, two layers sky pants and two layers gloves. I knew will be a long and extremely cold night with -30C so I received all indications with a smile.

I was having a deja vu, a lot of what was happening seemed a replica of last year’s night in Tromso, when I witnessed the superb 360 display of the northern lights. I met the rest of the group, 2 Brazilians and 2 Japanese. We all put on all the clothing we received and left the city in a minivan. It was taking us to a dark and remote area outside, away from the city light pollution, a perfect spot to see the northern lights, as we were told with much confidence by our guide, a funny Englishman.

The sky was perfectly clear and the night so dark. Was I that lucky? It seemed the beginning of a perfect night. We drove for about 45 min on a narrow icy road, sneaking through the pine forest. We were told we might see some wildlife, reindeers or a fox or even a moose. Our guide assured us he will pay attention and let us know. In the very cold nights, the animals like the reindeers walk all night long, to keep them warm.

At one moment, right in front of our car’s lights, a huge moose on the right of the road. The next second he made a confident jump a disappeared in the woods.

– The moose, look, look, there’s one. I said excited.

– Where, where… the others reply looking in all directions as the animal was already gone.

The guide didn’t even heard us. He was for sure such a sharp observer…

I further trust my own eyes but we got no other wildlife around.

The others must have believed I was hallucinating.

Our guide stopped to check the sky. Nothing, we continued. At the second stop he called us out of the van. Two beautiful straight green lines were defining the horizon in the far, changing their shapes very slowly.

– So folks, these are the northern lights, the guide said. With these you never know, you take what’s offered, this might be all for tonight but we surely hope for a full show. So let’s go further.

I had my camera set by our guide, since I still got no idea how to use it properly and pressed the button. Nothing happened. I waited… still nothing. Damn, it’s too dark, I thought and prepared to close it. And then on the monitor I saw I actually did a photo. My very first photo of the northern lights which considering my skills and the most unpropper conditions, is perfect.

We arrived at the cabin, like a small b&b where other folks were waiting. The hill with our promised perfect spot was near. I entered the cabin checking the sky one more time to make sure all was good and clear. It was black and full of stars.

We didn’t spent more than 15 minutes inside. All I needed to use the toilet having a mountain of clothes on me. An when we went out, the shock: the entire sky was cloudy. I never, but never… saw such a rapid change. Still a single star was visible among the clouds.

– Who ordered clouds for tonight, our guide joked? Please take them back.

We had a short hike to the top of the hill. It was the most perfect spot, a wide area surrounded by tall pines, with a lavvu tent built and a wooden bench near, covered with snow. All white around.

Igor, the very tall and very full of energy guy that joined us from the cabin prepared the fire inside the tent. He was from Slovenia and moved here, in the heart of Lapland because he loved the cold and hated the heat.

Steven, our English guide told us a few info about the northern lights and how they are formed. It was so daks and terribly cold. A frozen flake fell on my nose. The worst of the bad signs that a northern lights hunt night might show. We entered the tent to enjoy the plenty of food we had: sausage on a stick, mini pancakes with cheese, all cooked in front of the bonfire. We were all still hoping and waiting for a miracle.

After a while, many of us kept going out in turns to check for the sky. I watch them all coming back and I saw the optimism was leaving us all in the face of reality. The weather was way too bad to change. I knew it’s like that with natural phenomena, you can never curse the weather. Many think that once they will set foot in the North, the northern lights will immediately light the sky as it gets dark. Well, not quite so.

Or not that night. I wasn’t actually sad. I wanted and hoped to see it again but I knew I will continue the hunt no matter what that night had to offer. But for my new friends, I deeply regret it. Coming from far away places, Brazin, Japan, wishing so deeply to see it and leave without. The following nights the forecast was even worse.

We spent the time inside the tent, laughing at all the stories told by our amazing guide about the northern lights and the people coming from everywhere to fulfill a lifetime dream, to see the wonder. From those with medical conditions that do not allow them to see the aurora lights and, ironically, they find this out as the lights happen in front of them and they see the others reactions while they can’t see anything, to those who don’t care at all about it and come only to please a dear one, ending up being the most vocal and excited member of the group as an unbelievable display of red and purple and yellow and green lights dance frantically upon them.

We guessed our future in the old Finnish way, using melted metal on fire which is after dropped in a bucket with cold water. The shapes it gets tell the life and fortune you will have in the future. Well, I can’t reveal mine…

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

After all it was a good night. No aurora on the sky but the lights were in all of us, we made friends, laugh and had a great time. Thanks to our guide’s magic: turning a not so lucky night into a fun one, he was great. We all left with one thought in mind: the hunt continues!  

Santa’s Village

Rovaniemi worldwide fame is based on one thing: it means home for the most beloved old grandpa in the world: Santa Claus. Since I had always a very special feeling about Christmas, special meaning I am totally crazy about all the sparkling and the shining related to it, it was really a duty to come here and meet this guy.

The next morning I took the bus from the city to Santa’s Village, outside Rovaniemi. And here, though it was one month after Christmas, I immediately smell it in the air: the joy, the fun, the happiness, the childhood feel, shortly: the Christmas spirit.

At the entrance I booked a reindeer sled tour. I couldn’t help it. It was a perfect sunny day with the bluest sky that can be and gorgeous white trees all around. A huge snowman was smiling in front of the building with three red towers, where Santa’s Official Office was. Christmas carols were heard all around.

I saw a corral and over its wooden fence a few reindeers by the sleds covered with reindeer skins. I jumped in one of the sleds and so the 15 minutes, the short option journey, started.

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

It was beautiful in that winter scenery but something bothered me. I am well aware of the fact that reindeers are not born to pull the sled I sit in so I wished this to be the second and last experience of this kind.

You don’t have to be necessarily a kid to enjoy this place. It’s easier, once you’re there, you’re a kid again.

I wandered around after in a forest with glass igloos, all covered in ice. At one point a few sleds pulled by reindeers passed by and then disappeared further in the woods.

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

I couldn’t wait more, I had to find him. I had to meet Santa. I figured out he was somewhere in the large building at the entrance since it was written Santa’s Official Office. A few souvenirs stores were inside. I saw some stairs made of wood and went up but I ended in another store. Where was Santa?

I follow some arrows I see on the walls and I arrive in one round room with wooden walls and small chairs with high backrests. It looked like a fairytale house. In the wall there are a few small doors made of wooden planks, on one of them was written Baby Reindeer Daycare. I see another sign Elves Only. I pass then through a dark corridor. A round shaped wooden door rises in front of me and I try to push it. It opens without my help and the happy face of a girl dressed in red and green, with big sharp ears and a tall green hat jumps in front of me. She’s an elf! In the room where she came from there are more elves.

– Come, come, she sais, Santa is waiting for you.

Fortunately it’s just me now there and all I can say when I see the old man with the longest curly beard, red suit with with huge slippers, sitting on a big wooden chair in the middle of the room was:

– Hi, Santa… With a silly smile, I felt intimidated and probably I would have started to tell him a children’s poem if he would have asked me to. Who says we ever grow up… No, we don’t! All we need is something like this to get us back right in the boots of our childhood.

And so I had a more then 10 minutes conversation with Santa in his very house in Rovaniemi and trust me, he looked real. I told him about my trip to Levi and how amazing I find Finland, about the phenomenal sun dogs and the crisp cold, about winters at home and how we love Christmas when children still sing Christmas carols in Christmas Eve, while my mum bakes the best cookies and the house smells like vanilla and cinnamon. We took photos and laughed and in the end he said thank you in my language which melted my heart for good.

It costed me 50 euro to have the photo and video with Santa but this was not the time to save budget.

The sun was almost leaving the sky of Rovaniemi. I took a walk to the Elves Farm Yard, to the huskies court and the snow sculptures village. Walking around I found another resort of glass igloos. I wish one day I can afford the 500 euro per night price to sleep in one of these and dream eyes wide opened while the aurora dances the skies above me.

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

As it was getting dark and very cold and I had an evening plane to catch, I left all that magic behind, leaving Santa’s Village and leaving so this incredible Lapland, that have now become one of my favourite beautiful places.  

I arrived in Helsinki with a 3 hours delay due to a snowstorm there. My baggage was broken and I was struggling to pull it on the streets completely covered in snow. I was all sweaty and somehow keep on getting lost until I finally found my hotel. It was 4am and I was tired and angry.

I said goodbye to amazing Finland in the best finnish way possible. My last day there I spent it in Helsinki, where I met my amazing Finn friend, Christianne, whom I once got to know in London, years ago. We took the ferry and went to Suomelina, sailing among the huge ice blocks covering the entire surface of the Baltic Sea. We wandered there and had the best Finn cuisine lunch: simple and delicious cod fish.

We went back in the city and she got me into the most authentic Finnish experience: sauna + swimming in a sort of warm outdoor pool, with snow around it + the ice dip. Not once but twice. There were pieces of ice in that water and the hand support I used to get in was covered in thick ice. As a guy perfectly said before he got in: it’s a mental thing. You feel you’ll dye as it is so cold it hurts like hell but actually those very seconds make you more alive than ever. After that I felt no cold and walked barefoot in knee deep snow, wearing my swimsuit only and feeling as if it was summer. Instead was windy from the sea, also snowing, and my towel was soon frozen. Two Japanese covered in long black down jackets were filming us.  

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

So this was Finland. This place somehow got me loving the cold, because when it’s too beautiful, it’s not cold at all. An unforgettable winter wonderland I will now dream to come back to.

P.S. I now know the secret of the happiest country in the world.

Next: The blue pearl of Marocco

Finland: How to find Santa’s Secret Cabin

I woke up that day of January in the absolute white winter paradise. After a night of ice crystals falling from the skies at -30C temperatures, I opened the door in the morning to the Finish version of Narnia. The sugar trees from the day before were now even more loaded of snow powder. Not even the tiniest part of everything around have escaped this white beautification. The mountains of snow around the main road were even higher, the streets completely icy and white and the traffic signs just a pale remembrance of any other colors that ever existed before this complete white. So bright was all.  

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places

I had big plans for that day and I needed “fuel” for that. Sandwiches with salami, garlic cheese cream and cherry tomatoes, Skyr yogurt with apples and Runeberg torte, the famous Finnish cake, made my breakfast perfect and cosy since they all were in the fridge from the day before.

First stop: the tourism information office, where I was hoping to get some info about how could I get to one of the most epic and over photographed places in Finland: Santa’s Secret Cabin. It looks just as its name disclosures: a wooden cabin with a high porch with a top view, in the middle of a winter wonderland. The place has once served as a movie set, a movie about Santa Claus, of course.  

There was only one organised snowshoeing tour going there each Monday. The price was about 100 euro and I would have been crazy enough to pay this but… it was Saturday that day. The girl at the office explained me a lot in too many words, showed me directions and maps. I didn’t get anything in the end. I only remembered a phrase I have read on a blog recently, that in was between two slopes, on top of the Levi hill, where you can get by the gondola.

I took the bus, payd 4 euro one way (told you already Levi is a budget killer) and in 15 minutes, after a gorgeous ride, I arrived at that gondola place.

The girl in the coffee shop that sold me the tickets for the gondola gave me tons of confidence when she assured me that Santa’s cabin was at 10 minutes walking from the top.

Next I was in a gondola, on top of the white forest of high pine trees, heading straight to the top of Levi hill. I draw my head nearer the icy glass window so I could see better the amazing shapes of the trees I was passing by, covered in snow and big icicles hanging down their branches. I knew Santa’s cabin roof should have been visible from the gondola, right before reaching the top and I did looked in all directions but I didn’t see any cabin or roof. Was nothing but white everywhere.

The ride ended as the gondola reached the top and when I got off, picture this: coming from -25 to -8 feels like a too fast delivered summer, a bright sun spreading its orange rays on a sparkling cover of snow, people in colorful suits wandering around the top, on skies and snowboards, a wooden cabin with a Carlsberg sign above its door was almost completely covered in white….The air around was sparkling and shining as millions of ice crystals were filling the atmosphere. A great view but I was there for a higher mission so I immediately started looking for the famous Santa’s Secret Cabin. I asked a woman holding a map, she never heard about it. I asked another one, this time with a professional camera hanging on her neck, so a sign. I presume she was a photographer and might know or even planning to get there. I got nothing again but two badly framed photos of myself and that Carlsberg cabin. This is THE CHALLENGE when traveling alone: getting a decent framed photo of myself in a beautiful place, considering I hate selfie sticks and never used them.

I went right then turned left. Nothing. Looked up and down. Only slopes. I remembered about what was said on that blog: it was somewhere “between slopes 10 and 11”. It was also saying you can’t get there without snowshoes or sky cause you’ll be literally swimming in very deep snow which means risking an injury… But was not the time and place for pessimistic thoughts.

I walked a little bit down to get a little closer to one of the slopes. I look down in the valley. It was a 180’ view down there to Sirkka, to forests the and roads below. Right in the middle there it was, at about 500m, in a perfect winter dream scenery, Santa’s Secret Cabin’s surrounded by trees covered in snow and right next to another cabin, this time smaller. It looked dreamy and I got so very excited and hurried to get there.     

I tried to go straight down but it was so steep it made me dizzy to even look in that direction. Then I tried to follow some old traces left by someone in the snow before. I was swimming in snow like knee deep for a few meters and then the traces disappeared suddenly. It seemed they couldn’t go further either. Then I tried a different strategy, walking in parallel, like in sky, to make it less steep and easier to descend. It seemed longer but easier for a few more minutes. I was stepping carefully, as the snow was breaking under my feet in wide portions of ice. Sometimes I managed to stay at the surface, but for too many times I went deeper in the snow with one foot or both. Was like walking on a frozen lake where ice was too thin and it kept cracking under my weight. I was holding my breath with every step wishing I wasn’t born such a gourmand. I actually had no idea how deep that snow was, sometimes I went down 30-40cm. But it got deeper every time. At one point one of my feet was buried completely, hip high, and I had to grab the frozen snow around the hole with both hands to pull myself out. This crater was formed close to a big rock and it hurt my feet a bit when falling. That was it! The last drop:

F—k it, I can’t do this and it’s not worth the risk.

I looked back at the starting point in the top. I had barely walked down a few metres. The sun disappeared under a few puffy clouds and the valley was now almost hidden in a foggy vail. It was just me trying this madness, no one else. I stopped on top of a rock to avoid getting deep in the snow once again, I found my balance, got the camera out of my bag and snapped a very pissed off photo of that Santa’s Secret Cabin down there and impossible to reach. It looked wow even from that distance, like a winter wonderland.  The photo I took was bad and I was going to delete it for sure soon after. I turned around and started climbing back to the top.

I got back to where I came from easier then the descent. I took another photo of the previous wooden cabin with the Carlsberg logo hanged above the door, the one right in front of the gondola exit. I was trying to convince myself that was a nice cabin too. I remembered what the girl at the coffee shop said: 10 minutes only…  Maybe she knew a secret easier path or she had snowshoes…

I abandoned the mission and started walking around. The snow was so frozen and was making such a noise. At 10m away I saw a group of three small cabins and I decided to get there. I took a lot of photos, at least I will have something…

A couple, both on snowboards, were sliding down the slope at the left, he fell and she started laughing. A few minutes later I saw them down there, at Santa’s Cabin. It seemed this was the only way to get there, sky, snowboard or snowshoes. I had none, only a last drop of hope left. I was now right under the gondola cables and some people in the cabins were looking at me with a “what the hell is she doing there alone” expression on their faces.

I still had the itch. I thought I should just look again down there, one more time, to check how far was the cabin from that point…. A few steps further, on the snow that didn’t crack this time and I got to the point where I could see straight down there. It was a little closer now but still too far away. But what do I see now? There were two people there, playing in the snow. Not the couple I saw earlier. It was a man and a boy, they seemed to have such a great time. They too probably got there on skies, I thought. Lucky them! They were two little black spots moving, on the white snow. The boy was making snow angels and throwing snowballs. They must have been there for some time. Soon, they seemed to be preparing to leave, and this made me curious to see how they were going to do it. I was expecting to see them grabbing their skies or snowboards or snowshoes and head down the slope. But no sight of those. They were actually on foot! That totally gave me hope! Could I get there too???

When I saw they started climbing the hill back to the top, I knew I could. This was how they got there, avoiding the deep snow and the steep parts using that side of the slope be. I couldn’t get there from the point I first try but now it looked easier. Oh my, I was so excited.

If I could manage to walk straight and fast enough a distance of about 30m, in front of me, I could intersect them right at half way. I could from there follow their traces down to the cabin. That might work for me too if it did for them. But those 30m were the problem as it was a portion where rocks could be seen raising above the snow. So I couldn’t tell how deep snow was or how frozen. Adrenaline was kicking in. I started with small but rapid steps. A few times I got deep in the snow but got out again fast. I was in such a hurry to meet them at half way. The piste machine have passed by their side and left long straight parallel lines which I could see now in the snow. I was getting closer to them and I heard their voices. The cabin was growing in front of me as I was getting closer. They were walking fast too and I realised was going to miss them. So I shout at them from the few meters left between us:

– How did you got down there, is it difficult?

Of course I could see all that, but I needed some moral support I guess.

Happily the man heard me and they stopped to catch their breath. He answered with a smile. Sure it was so damn difficult. Their red but happy faces proved it.

I had more courage now that someone was there, closer. From the point I was it seemed piece of cake to get down there, following the traces left by those two in the snow. And so I did and I made it to the cabin. The sun came out from the clouds in a small window, tracing a perfect vertical orange line of light. What a view, of the two cabins in front of me and the “snow monsters” around, those small pine trees completely covered in snow. The admiration stood me still. Few minutes later I started taking photos. Lots of them.

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places

I saw a group of 6 girls climbing on snowshoes. They arrived there too and asked me to take some photos of them together and then they paid back the favor the same way.

I went inside Santa’s Cabin and they took some photos with me on the porch. Good photos this time. Perfect ones.

– Is it easier to descend on the way you came? I asked them.

– Oh, no, no, no way, it was very difficult for us to climb all the way up here, it is easier from the top.

They left as they came from. I was happy I also had photos of myself in that beautiful place.

Levi, Lapland, Finland, beautiful places

I was again alone. The closest people were at about 50m, on the slope on the left, far enough to preserve the silence around me. I was preparing to leave as I already had plenty of photos with that amazing winter sunset when I saw a strange colored light on the sky. It was a vertical line of light, similar with the one still traced by the sun, only this one was colored. I looked better. It was a rainbow! It can’t be a rainbow on the sky with no drop of rain, at 20 negative, on a clear sunny winter day, I thought. I remembered a fragment of conversation I heard the day before, during the snowshoeing tour, when the guide was talking about a rare phenomenon that occurs in crisp cold sunny days in the Arctic areas, when the sunlight interacts with the ice particles floating in the atmosphere, producing two rainbows.

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places

It was called sun dogs or sun phantoms. The name doesn’t do any justice to that fabulous view. The sunset sun was now framed by two intense colored rainbows, placed at equal distances. First I saw the one in the right, then, soon after, the one in the left. I was stoned. How could it be, I barely understood what the guide was talking the day before, and a day after I was witnessing this magic? It was mind blowingly stunning, no words can describe it. For a sudden a thought crossed my mind: am I still alive, is this earth, is this real? It so was! It was nature at its best game: doing masterpieces of natural beauty to leave us speechless. The white snow all around was now turned into an orange see in the sunset light and sparkling particles of ice crystals in the air were shining like millions of diamonds that surrounded me. If something can be too beautiful, this was the place!

I took countless photos. The lens of my camera soon froze, three beautiful ice flowers covered it and it was too cold to manage to wipe them off. My fingers were hurting me because of the cold. I used my phone. Soon it’s battery died of the cold but happily I had a power bank. This was not an event to miss. It brought tears in my eyes as I was feeling grateful to live it. I wiped them off so they won’t stop me from seeing what surrounded me.

The two rainbows were now so intense, coming down from a curtain of clouds. Time stood still for a long and spellbinding Arctic sunset. I saw the reactions of people on the slope. The all stopped wherever they were when they saw it and didn’t move.  

Levi, Finland, my beautiful places         

This was by far the most sublime winter view I ever saw in my life. I saw many white winters with sparkling snow and sugar trees, true, not as “sweet” as the Finnish ones in Lapland, deep puffy snow, icy streets, blizzards and frost, frozen lakes and white mountains but I never saw a winter sunset like this, so long and so orange, with two rainbows in the skyes.  

Thank you Finland! Like this, you blew my mind totally, that day of January.

 

Finland: A frozen wonder called Levi

My heart was beating so fast I could hear it. I was holding by breath with every step, hoping my feet won’t go, this time, too deep in the snow. It was frozen at the surface but I had no idea how deep that snow was. I was mumbling to myself, angry and anxious, hoping I won’t break a leg, or hand or even my neck at the next step. I felt nervous, hot and sweaty, though there were 10 negative outside. There, on top of Levi hill, was that “hot” compared to the temperatures in the valley, where all was white and frozen at -25C.  

And there I was, walking down on the steepest portion of the hill top, right between two slopes and under the gondola cables. The frozen snow was creaking loudly under my feet. I knew it was just a matter of time until I will fall. One of my feet or maybe both will fall deeper again in the snow and each time this happened, the snow was deeper than the previous times. Santa’s Secret Cabin was in front of me, but it was still so far away, in the valley. It seem impossible to get there this way. I stopped.

Helsinki

At last in Finland! I was so incredibly excited as I landed and the first think I laid my eyes on in the airport was Smash, the salted snacks covered in chocolate I discovered last year in Norway and made a passion for. And Skyr, the fruit yogurt I had a crush on in Iceland two years ago, that can be found in Scandinavia only. It has proteins, of course, like almost every food in the North.

I found Helsinki under a blanket of snow, white and cold and welcoming. At negative 8 I remembered how strong cold is felt when you’re not used to it anymore and I was hoping this will just help me acclimate faster for what was to come next, the real cold, in Lapland.  

My hostel was very close to the central station so I wandered around the centre that evening.

I went to see the famous Oody Central Library launched in December. It’s a wow modern architecture building made of glass and wood. With trees inside, wooden amphitheatres where you can lay down and read and countless white shelves with all the books you can imagine. It makes you feel like reading a good book inside.

Oodi Library, Helsinki Finland

The streets of Helsinki were quiet and empty as I left the library, around 22 o’clock. I had a delicious salmon soup with a great top view in the last restaurant I found open late that evening.

Levi

Next day I woke up early, put on as many layers as I could and left for the airport.

At one moment, in the waiting area, I was about to ask an asian girl, dressed very lightly, if she really knows where she’s going…

In the last weeks I was constantly checking the weather forecast. There were -30 there! I panicked and started shopping immediately: new thermals, new sky pants, a down jacket for under, two layers gloves and two layers scarf, wool socks and so on. I was prepared. I thought.

A few minutes before landing the captain shared with us some useful info: welcome to Kittila, the temperature outside now is -30C.

“Yeah, let’s do this!”

My courageous smile froze out a few seconds later, when I saw the air traffic control tower of the small airport in Kittila. It was completely covered with ice and the scene looked like something I saw only in movies shot in Antarctica.

It got even crazier when I finally went outside the airport. The first breath was so cold it made me cough. Next ones too. I felt my whole body contracting as that deep cold was cutting my face like thousands of needles.  

Inside the bus for Levi I got back to my senses and thought:

“Damn, how am I going to be able to walk outside in this cold for more than 2 minutes?”

I remember what my Finnish friend wrote me the night before: Don’t worry, in the meanland it is cold but also dry and you don’t feel it so bad. I thought that’s just a Finish theory about cold, made up by people who love cold anyway.

For sure it didn’t work so far with me.

Waiting for the others to take their sits in the bus I took a look around, at the trees nearby. My fear that there will not be enough snow and I won’t be able to see those winter wonderland landscapes that made me so crazy desperate to come to Levi, has vanished. It was more than I could have dreamt of: Lapland was welcoming me in its best: white sugar trees everywhere. This is the most sublime view that winter offers to nature, when even the smallest leave or grass gets completely covered in white ice crystals and all that exists after is white.

The 16km to Levi were a drive through a white fairytale. The road was sneaking through a forest of perfectly white pine trees, tall and majestic.

We very soon arrived in a white town, surrounded by high slopes and white woods and crossed by streets with white sugar trees.

I was quite afraid to get out again in that cold but I had to leave the bus at this point.

Damn it was so terribly cold! The skin on my face hurts me and the air is so dry and cold that I keep coughing with every breath. It’s freezing me on the inside. I cover all my face with the scarf that’s knitted on the outside and fluffy fleece in the inside. It works, it is bearable now. I can’t use the phone more than 5 seconds cause my fingers freeze and I’m afraid my battery will die suddenly, leaving me completely disoriented. I can’t read the names of the streets because all the marks are covered in white icey crystals. I saw from the bus some buildings that seem to be the place I had to get to, but the check in was in a building in the centre.

Using Google Maps as little as I could without having the battery dead or my fingers frozen, I find the office. Thank God this is a small town.

I try to open the door and my hand freeze on the doorknob.

Wow, this will be fun! I say to myself.

The two ladies inside welcome me with a big smile. I was for sure in a hilarious state, all frozen.

– Such a beautiful summer you have here, I say, laughing.

– Yess, it’s really cold these days.

I get the key and in 10 minutes, after facing the frost once again, I reach the door of my studio. I would have been happy with a room only and even with a shared bathroom but this was the cheapest I found. And Levi is for sure hell expensive. Anyway it was perfect, warm, cosy, super central, with all you possibly need inside including a sauna and close to a market store.

There were not so many organised activities during the weekend in Levi and I had in mind a snowshoeing tour on top of the hill that was starting soon that day. It was on a Friday. It’s worth mentioning a slight detail: the  name of the town is Sirkka and the name of the hill is actually Levi, but now everybody calls the place Levi.

I had 30 minutes to add more layers on and to leave the house and try to catch that tour.

Sirkka, Finland, Levi, Lapland

The cold outside hit me like a wall again. The town was the visual definition of frozen. I have once experienced -20 for like 2 nights but was nothing compared to this because it didn’t last that long. Here in Levi it was around -25-30 for the last two weeks and so. The streets, the traffic signs, the houses, all you could see was white. It looked unreal, unbelievably beautiful. Few people and cars on the streets, mountains of snow, wide sky slopes with plenty of space for everyone, sugar trees completely white. The snow was making a loud noise under my feet. I walked by a lady who was literally frozen. Her coat, her hat and the scarf she had over her face were all white, covered with ice crystals. I have seen this before only on National Geographic covers or BBC Earth documentaries, never with my own eyes. I always thought those people, looking so frozen, must have been close to death. I meet others looking the same. I was walking for 10 minutes when I looked at my gloves. I thought was some sort of dust, but no. It was ice. Then I took my phone out to check my face. My black scarf covering my face was all white, also the faux fur of my coat started to turn white. I was literally freezing and I wasn’t cold at all. I wasn’t coughing anymore when breathing. It was happening what I was praying for. My body was adapting very fast to this new environment. Nature works miraculously!

I got to the Tourist Information Centre right in time and I managed to book the tour 10 minutes before it started. I was so happy they have agreed to take me so last minute.

I wanted to wait outside. I had this strange feeling that I was starting to like that cold. I loved seeing everybody covered in ice, it looked so extreme and exciting.

One guy was preparing hot tea and coffee in front, on an improvised stall on big car wheels. He had made a big fire, boiling water on top of it.   

 The mini van arrived and I, since I was the last one to come, I was invited to take the middle sit in the cabin. I couldn’t be happier, it was uncomfortable but the conversation with the lady driver and the views were all that mattered. We drove through the white woods covered of snow, until we reached the top of the hill, a wide plateau where only small pines could be seen rising out of the snow in surprising shapes, like fantastic beasts. It was sunny and cold but not that type of white bright sunny day. In January, in Levi, at 170 km North of the Arctic Circle, the sunrise was turning soon into sunset during the 4 hours when the sun rose above the hill. A pale orange light shines over the endless white. A small wooden cabin in the valley was completely frozen and looked magical but was too far to get there. The air was so strong.

We put on our snowshoes and start our way down, stopping from time to time for information. It wasn’t cold anymore but I prefered walking constantly. Sitting still for more than 5 minutes wasn’t fun at all. My phone had reached from 100% battery to 35% in just 20 minutes, without even using it. The perspective of not being able to take a photo there was not good. Fortunately I had my camera too and its battery was handling cold way better than my iPhone. Taking many photos was no option anyway, all it needed were 10 seconds for my fingers to freeze. I tried to push it longer but the pain of frozen fingers was really bad.

Walking on snowshoes was new to me and so fun. It does a great job keeping you at the surface, otherwise we would have been swimming in 1m or deeper snow.

Sirkka, Finland, Levi, Lapland

As we started descending from the top, the pine trees got bigger and the views even more spectacular. There they were, the famous winter postcard views of Levi I was dreaming about since I saw the first photos about this wonderful place.  

White sparkling snow, orange-pink sun light from a perfect long lasting sunset, pine trees so covered in snow that they stopped looking like trees and rather like creatures from other worlds. Each tree became a masterpiece, as each part of it was covered with ice crystals, like small translucent leaves.

Sirkka, Finland, Levi, Lapland

I was walking behind with one of the guides and we talked about Finland, winter in Finland and how amazing nature is.

  • You surely are taking advantage of your time here, he said when I told him I have arrived in Levi about 2h before.
  • Is it always this cold here?
  • Not always that cold. I can take it ok when it’s like that, but when it goes below 30, then you really feel the cold and it gets difficult to stay outside longer.
  • You know I’m surprised I don’t feel the cold as I did when I arrived.
  • Sure, you are starting to adapt. And here in Levi, because it’s dry, the cold is bearable.

So, again this theory I first heard from my friend.

– How cold does it get here.

– The coldest I remember is -44C

– Oh, wow!

His eyelashes were white at the top and his blonde beard had small icicles. I was just as frozen. We both laugh about this. The others were also and everybody was taking frozen selfies. All men had their beards covered in ice. On my coat I noticed small crystals of ice were forming.  This is something too amazing not to be lived at least once. I know I will need to repeat this not just once.

We stopped by a wooden cabin, completely white and frozen, with its small windows all covered in white ice. A red snowcat was wandering around, pushing the snow and forming 3m high mountains of snow around. It was getting dark, it was the blue hour. In winter, in these moments all becomes blue. The snow was shining like billions of white diamonds, the tall pine trees were looking like white ghosts and the sky was a pale blue. Ice flurries were falling down. It was indescribably beautiful. We had blueberry hot tea and delicious fresh cold cakes. I realised then this was all I ate that day. Such a blessing are the days too exciting to remember about details such as food.

Sirkka, Finland, Levi, Lapland

We crossed the forest among trees, snowshoeing in puffy fresh snow, shaking the most loaded branches, allowing the snow to cover us completely. We were all in that group, for sure and with no exception, winter addicts for life. All grown ups were kids again, back in childhood now, laughing and falling in the snow, sliding on their bums. This is how we got back in the town, loudly and full of joy. The same as I used to during those long white winters of my childhood, with my friends, on my street, in the woods behind our house. With our clothes wet, faces red and hands frozen, ignoring our parents threatening us and demanding to immediately enter the house or else… Who cared, we had the snow!

I missed the cracking snow under my feet and the mountains of white snow taller than me, as I used to see when I was 10. That dreamy winter I  found again in Levi, together with all the joy I had in those years being a child.

No northern lights dancing that night. But who cared… I felt like I was 10.  

 

 

      

Egypt: sleepless Cairo and the Pyramids

“Don’t be afraid of life! Don’t be, because then you will not live at all” These words are worth repeating.

This was the answer of the Egyptian Bedouin when I asked where was the location of the latest bomb attack that killed 4 people, 3 days before my arrival in Egypt, right there, in Gyza, close to the pyramids.

The whole scene was quite funny and we laugh loud about it on our way back to Cairo: we were a group of 5, a few people from Ecuador were joining us and I didn’t wanna pronounce this question, using the word bomb, in the middle of the street, up high on a camel, and maybe risk to ruin like this other people’s great mood. So I was calling repeatedly Ehab, my guide, asking him to please come closer to me, as he was riding his horse few meters in the front. He couldn’t hear me. Mustafa, who was closer, heard me repeatedly calling Ehab and he kept insisting what my question was. So I tried to be discreet and almost whisper it. He suddenly stopped, turned his horse to me and with a large gesture of his hands and head, together with the most convincing smile, he shout it loud: No, No, No, Nooo bomb, Noo boooms here, Nooo, don’t worry, don’t, it’s safe, look… very safe!

He definitely made us all laugh and he laughed with us.

Mustafa continued his wise thoughts: “If you want to do something, do it, don’t postpone, because you never know.” This “never know” means so much everywhere not just in Egypt because “Never Knows” are happening anytime, anywhere. It took me most of my life so far to feel the truth in these words. This remembered me about the text tattoo of a women I once met in Lagos, Portugal. She was a dive instructor.

“I know when I was born,

I know what’s my name,

I know where I’m from and who I am

And I know that one day I will die

But as long as I’m alive, I shall live”  

“I shall live” was what I told myself in the early morning of January 1st 2019, struggling to wake up after that crazy Egyptian New Years Eve feast.

I miraculously managed to have all arranged in Cairo: hotel, driver and guide, so I could take 100% advantage of my short stay in the city, see more and hear more than I could my myself. They were waiting for me in the airport as I arrived. This was one of the only 2 times when I afforded such a spoil: to find my name written on a piece of paper, in the hands of someone waiting for me with a friendly smile, in a far away country, on a far continent.

My first very view of Cairo was from the plane’s window. The dark limestone city was drowning in a cloud of mist, trying hard to breathe on top of it.

Cairo, Egypt, The Great Pyramids, beautiful places

But the view that will stay tattooed in my mind is the one from its highest point, from the Citadel’s garden: an 180’ view of this mega city, home to more that 23M people, the most dense city in the world. And right there, looking far and near in the same time, the sharp silhouettes of two pyramids like two arrowheads penetrating that milky mist in the horizon. It’s impossible to project this out of imagination and I can’t possibly describe it as it deserves. It’s impressive and only seeing it can bring the real feel of this wild, intense urban vibe, like a living creature breathing down there, under a loud, constant rumor of car horns. The craziest traffic I ever witnessed rules the streets of Cairo. Ehab, my guide with the most amazing green eyes and the fastest walking person I ever met, was telling me tales of this wonder city. One hold me still, when I asked about his siblings.

It’s a long story, he said. I like long stories, I encouraged him.

And then he told me his family misses one member: his elder brother, who was killed in the revolution, during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. I could sense in his tone how this wound is still deep.

We left the Citadel heading to the city centre by car, and very soon we got stuck in that impossible traffic, becoming part of it. We arrived in the old part of the town, on a small street with ruined buildings on each side. All streets there looked like this. I had the feeling anything could happen there but it did felt safe. A small place to live on a street like this in Cairo costs around 5000 dollars, I was told. For sure life is not “en rose” on the streets where homes cost that much, but wandering there, if you have the guts and don’t mind locals looking and a bit of dust, is something. Ehab probably felt me ready to jump out of the car. He didn’t got the time to articulate his idea, to go for a walk, cause I was already in the middle of the street, taking a deep breath as if I was high in the Alps in Austria. Finally outside, on the old streets of old Cairo!

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Ehab buys baked sweet potatoes for me from a young man’s with a stall covered in fire red burning coals that was filling with smoke half of the street. We talk a little, where I’m from? is it my first time in Egypt? as he takes in his hands a hot potato from the fire, splits it in half in his palm using a big machete and encourages me to taste while is still hot. I loved it! We cross a small street market where people were selling fruits or vegetables right there, at the side of the road, on the ground or on improvised tables. I take a photo of a woman from the distance. She was like a black veil fluttering around. Ehab then tells me I should pay attention, some women don’t like to be taken photos and she was protesting too but I didn’t noticed.

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places

A young man leaves an old traditional bakery from a building that looked deserted, with walls once painted in light blue. He carries on his head an improvised 2m long and 2 levels high wood rack full of bread. Arabic bread, puffed up, looking like balloons. He leaves me speechless with his skills. And that’s not all. Next he jumps on a bike and carries on like this, with that on his head, among the cars and people in the street, leaving me stoned. I had to have a pitta bread like that, after seeing this. Ehab again buys one for me with white and black sesame seeds on top, from a stall of three women. They were also dressed in black robes and wear a hijab, but with their faces uncovered. I share the bread with Ehab, it’s crunchy and delicious and unsalty.

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

I realise later this was all I ate that day until dinner, but who cared about food when I had so much more. We eat pieces of bread while walking, I look around and sometimes take photos. I must have answered at hellos and where I was from countless times. People were looking with curiosity first, smiling to us. I realise I am the only non Egyptian person there.

– Tourists don’t come here, they think it’s dangerous, Ehab says.

– But look around. Since we walked, did you feel unsafe?

– No, not at all…

– People look when they see tourists and sometimes try to sell things to them cause they know tourists have money.

And as they need money desperately and you can see this easily everywhere in Egypt, they get pushy and so the tourists get scared.

– If you find yourself in need or in trouble here anytime, just ask for help and everyone will treat you as if you were their sister.

I believe his words, spoken right there, in the middle of the real Cairo.

Not taking a walk on these streets, the ones outside the centre, means missing the whole thing here.

It’s a spectacle of reality. Stalls with huge pieces of meat, like half a cow, hanging outside a shop, as the owner was sweeping the dust from the stairs in front. Long rows of something looking like fried sausages hanging down in front of so many stalls placed in almost every corner. I am curious and I want to taste but Ehab says I shouldn’t. I must have felt too Egyptian already, I wanted to try all.

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

He hesitates at giving the answer why I shouldn’t eat that: because it’s dirty, he said in the end.

– For us, for me, I can even drink water from the Nile, it’s ok, but for you, you will get sick. Your body is not used to it.

I was happy I didn’t follow my crazy foodie adventurous itch after I read on the internet that in Egypt infectious diarrhea is a common disease.

We arrived in Tahrir Square and I wanted to hear more about the revolution here. It is said and Ehab confirms that 30M people took the streets of the city in that time. The Arab Spring hit Egypt hard. Thousands were killed, as his brother. A new regime came in power but after a while people were again in the streets, protesting against it. Now the military controls the state but people are again disappointed.

– It will happen again, you think?

– I think so, he have to, it’s the only way to change things and we will keep trying, says Ehab.

One of the craziest things to do in Cairo is crossing the street. The Egyptian way as Ehab calls it. There are only a few crossings or traffic signs even in the centre and tens of people are crossing the streets any moment in each point they please, among the cars.

The first times we did it I felt I had to close my eyes, at least I won’t see as I get hit by a car.

There’s even a technique: you don’t run, cause then you will panic the drivers, you’re crossing calm, looking into their eyes to make sure they see you and let you cross. They always do but doing this feels extreme.

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

Right there, in Tahrir Square, in a gorgeous building that was once a palace, it’s now the Egyptian Museum. I don’t do museums but this one is not a museum, is rather a fairytale of pharaohs, queens and gods, with spicy stories of love and death and treason, mummies, tombs, hieroglyphs, golden sarcophagus, secrets and myths. From old papyrus scripts to sandals of the pharaohs, to jewelry and fans made of ostrich feathers and sculpted ivory, to pieces of furniture that blow your mind. All the treasures discovered in the pharaohs and queens tombs from the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens are there, including old photos showing the tombs as they were discovered, how everything there was put in place. I found out that so many tombs are still buried in the ground together with the mysteries of this unbelievable civilization.  

The mummies rooms were for an extra charge but totally worth it and Tutankhamun golden death mask, one of the star pieces of the museum, is beyond any words.

I ended this fabulous first day in Cairo with a cruise on the Nile with dinner, with belly dances and Sufi dances performances and the most amazing Egyptian music. I never saw Sufi dances before and since I was the only tourist there, the others were all Egyptian, I was for sure the most excited about. It’s basically whirling around for more then 30 minutes in a form of physically active meditation while performing moves symbolising praying or expressing different types of feelings. The costumes are some sort of heavy fabric dresses that start lifting as the performer swirls, reaching up to three different layers. In this moment it becomes unbelievable there’s a person there. Really incredible!

I went to sleep that night feeling exhausted, hoping I will rest like a baby. But nop, the mosquitos had big plans.

Day 2

The next morning we left for Gyza, where the pyramids are. We drove for about 30 minutes through parts outside Cairo, with small dusty villages. It was one of those times that made me remember again that there’s more out there, not just a comfortable but ordinary way of living in a big city where people wait for the green light to cross the street. This same people say Egypt is not safe, is dirty and poor. I would now say it’s different and for that amazing, it’s friendly and for that so warm, it’s generous and therefore so impressive and most of all is richer in experiences and knowledge than most of the places I’ve been so for. And for that is unforgettable.  

As we were approaching Gyza, at one point, 3 or 4 men jumped in front of the car forcing us to slow down. They were saying something in Arabic, looking agitated. They started hit the car with their hands. Ehab made them a sign, told them something in Arabic without opening the windows and we continued. I was perfectly relaxed but couldn’t help myself thinking how this could have been more serious without having those guys with me, Husain, the driver and Ehab.

Unforgettable is for sure the first sight of Cheops Pyramid, the great one. I know it since I was a child. I wouldn’t even dare then to wish seeing it in real life one day.

We went to the camel stable where we met Ibrahim, the owner. I knew I wasn’t going to get up on a camel again because I hate this from all my heart.

He started telling me a long story about how I really needed a camel for two main reasons: to avoid the people inside the plateau that are trying to sell stuff to tourists and sometimes become very disturbing and hard to get rid off and second to better walk there, since is’t desert, so lot of sand. For the long tour he wanted 100 euro.

At this point, I exclaimed: Yalla, habibi (Cmon, my darling)

He started laughing, we all laugh and start talking about my trip to Egypt, about my family back home, about my country, about how I am not from one of those rich countries and finally I got 35 euro the price. Probably I could get it lower, dunno.

We went out to take the camels and then I saw one of them had a very bad wound on her face from that stupid piece of metal attached to the rope she had around her head, the one used by the owners to hold them or, as I saw after, to force them knee down so that the tourist on top can get up or down as he pleases, as many times as he pleases. In this case I was that stupid tourist and I still feel terrible for supporting this. Those camels weren’t well treated. The Pyramids can be seen perfectly and in perfect safety even without riding a camel, the distance is not big at all and the sand is perfectly walkable. Now I know it and I also know the camels hate to knee down. They are tall and massive animals so this must be painful to them since they have to be forced to do it.  

With this thought troubling my mind, we left to the plateau together with a group of 5 people from Ecuador and accompanied by one of the employes from the stable, Mustafa, my Bedouin friend with smart philosophies. Since I took the first camel, the one that looked in very good health and without any injuries, I was behind him all the way so we got the chance to talk a lot.

He called me queen and each time he was saying it I was protesting I am not one so shouldn’t be called so.

Mustafa has 3 big wishes: to finish school, which he also added is impossible.

– I’m old and I’m a Bedouin, I never went to school.

The other 2 are to go to Mecca once in his life and the last one, to finish the house for his family.

– Then I will be happy, Queen, he said.

On our way, he was constantly tipping some people we met. I presume he didn’t had so many debts to give back that very day and the reason was another, to let us pass through.

The view from the top of the plateau is absolutely fabulous. The group of pyramids all together, camels, horses, carriages wandering around and in the right there’s Cairo, like a sea of limestone buildings. Ancient and present, silenced and noisy, all together.

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations 

And to really feel the true Egypt, nature added a crazy wind blowing the sand and forming a mist of sand as if we were in the middle of a sand storm. It came from nowhere, out of the blue sky. I must have had sand in the depths of my soul too.

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

I must have been too excited about the pyramids to notice a detail like this but at one point I felt my feet a little heavier. Of course, I had camel poop on my shoes, allover. Somehow, with some sort of high precision skill, I managed to step in with both my feet. Probably it happened while Mustafa kept insisting I should take a photo kissing a camel, on the lips… those huge lips, and I kept refusing since that camel male was acting rather like biting me instead of kissing. And I saw in Israel how camels bite look. 

Before leaving Ehab took me to a friend of his, a lady that first showed me a rock where to stay and in less than one minute took 10 photos with all sorts of positions of me and the Sphinx. I’m not a fan of this type of pics but was fun and she is the best for that.

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

On our way to Memphis it started to rain. In Egypt is rains 3cm a year. I probably got 1 out of those 3 and Ehab has joking saying I got to see all seasons in Egypt in one day. I checked my phone for the weather forecast. The forecast was one I never heard before: Dust.

After one more short stop in Saqqara, where other group of pyramids is and where I saw the best hieroglyphs, but where the wind was unbearable and the sand was hitting my face as thousands of needles, we went back to Cairo. Was almost sunset. Time flies in this city. I said goodbye to Ehab who assured me that now not only I have a brother in Cairo, him, as we used to joke about, but an entire family, his family. Yes, this is true Egypt.

I was so protected during those two days and never left alone which was a huge spoil. But it was about time to have a stroll all alone in this city. It was getting dark now but the streets were full of people. Again, as in Hurghada, mostly men. At one point I had to cross the street, a large street full of cars. The Egyptian way of crossing. And I did it. It felt like a success getting on the other side. Did I felt safe all alone in Cairo, in the evening, crossing the street through that crazy traffic. Yes, absolutely. My only regret was I didn’t have more days here but my big wish became to come back for more.

I ended my unforgettable trip to Egypt with an evening greatly spent in El Fishawi, the oldest cafe in Cairo, right inside Khan el-Khalili famous bazar. To draw an idea of the place, this was the most crowded place in the most dense city. This place is profoundly crazy. It’s small and crowded beyond imagination, you almost step over people and tables with shisha pipes and fried and salted sunflower seeds to pass the entrance and finding a place there is a mission impossible. It’s grim with lots of sumptuous pieces of old black furniture. Books, lamps, old photos of famous people who have been there in the past, huge mirrors with their ruined glass and a fat cat sleeping on a very tall piece of furniture looking like a throne. It’s a 200 years old cafe, it has not just seen history, it has lived it, having famous guests as King Farouk of Egypt in the 1930’s. After I hate it, I started to love it. It’s a must see.

Cairo, Egypt, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

This is Egypt, the country where I arrived feeling scared and I left thrilled and more rich. I know more now about history, civilisation, about Muslim culture and traditions, about life’s most valuable aspects and I definitely know more words in Arabic.

I knew from that very first evening when I was walking alone in the night bazar in Hurghada that Egypt was really getting to me and I will miss it every day now, until the day I will get back.

And the answer to the most famous question about Egypt I was repeatedly asked: Is it safe? It’s not just safe, it’s perspectives changing.

Next: Lapland, Finland