Tag Archives: travel

Dubai – the desert and the city (Day 3)

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


5am

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

– Ohh…you can’t sleep?…

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

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

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

the wait….

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

Dubai, sunrise in the desert

riding the dunes

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

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

oh, not camels again….

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

– Did you ever do this?

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

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

the falcon

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

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

the Old

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

Dubai Old Town, Deira

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

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

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

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

– What phone you have?

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

coconut green, mango and sugar cane juice

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

sunset on Kite Beach

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

Sunset at Kite Beach, Dubai

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

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

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

Dubai Marina, again

Dubai Marina view by night

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

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

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

Next: 24h in Abu Dhabi

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dubai – New Years Eve on the beach

The great journey of 2019 has arrived to its last steps. A year that turned many of my bucket list wishes into great memories: 13 countries, 9 for the first time, 2 visits in my beloved Paris, my first African safari. 32 flights above the clouds. My all time record year as a wanderer was beyond expectations. And the last 45 minutes of 2019 didn’t disappoint as well: in a taxi, running on Sheikh Zayed Road, the 14 lanes highway, leaving behind Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world and heading to Burj Al Arab, known as world’s only 7 stars hotel. I was excited, in Dubai. The very place where I wanted to be. The silhouette of the famous hotel was puncturing the dark horizon like an arrow.

As we got closer, I was too charmed by the white architecture of Burj Al Arab to observe we were driving now in a sea of people, all heading to Jumeirah Beach. The last 20 minutes of 2019: I decided to become a drop in that see of people dressed in white that will finally led me to another dream come true: New Years Eve fireworks in Dubai.

The rush from the hours before, when I landed in Dubai that evening, got me starving and thirsty. A few Indian samosas sold at a stall on the beach saved the night and a mango ice cream added the summer mood in December: it was my hottest NYE: 25C.

00:00 2020

Dubai New Years Eve, fireworks, Burj Al Arab

The fireworks were as promised: opulent, breathtaking and… long. Dubai, baby! A riot of colours surrounded Burj Khalifa, in the back but still visible from that distance, joined by the ones at The Atlantis, in the front, on the sea and in the middle, Burj Al Arab, right in front of me, became an explosion of lights and colours. The fireworks turned the sky into a paint contouring shapes of hearts and planets like Saturn. And down to Earth, for more then 10 minutes, thousands of heads were beating unanimously towards the sky and hands holding phones were turning the moment into memories and posts for family and friends. The last minutes of the show turned the night into day. A day of colours, sang the thousands with a loud whisper: Awww…. And this is how the first 10′ of 2020 had passed, vibrating of light and joy.

As the sky became dark and silent again, that massive crowd instantly broke into pieces that had spread everywhere in just minutes. Indian families with 10-12 members were continuing their NYE picnic on the grass in the park near by. A group of men were now opening bottles of champagne. Others were sending NYE wishes on the phone. Toddlers were suddenly too tired to walk. The party on the beach was over. After the Emirati people, the Indian families were coming second in therms of numbers. The rest, Europeans, Americans just a few of them, many single.

It was too nice to waste the night and just take a taxi and go to sleep at the hotel. I wanted a long walk on the seafront. The beach was hidden by darkness but even though I felt the sea was there, so close, blowing its warm breeze towards the busy road. I checked Google Maps and it looked encouraging, I thought that at the end of one hour walk I will get close to my hotel maybe. Poor me!

An hour later, the cars and the people became more and more rare. It was even better, I thought. Beautiful white villas with large balconies and tall gates covered in Bougainvillea flowers were so quiet. Some tourists at a crossroads were trying to get one of the taxis that now were very rare.

30 minutes later I checked again Google Maps. It wasn’t my poor signal’s fault then: after 1h and a half it looked as if I walked for 10 minutes. I decided to walk towards the closest metro station. Close on the map… In reality, after another 45 minutes I ended up on an empty street where only a few Indian people were heading God knows where. I could see the suspended metro line, which seemed a good sign. But when I reached a complicated passage with no sidewalk I realised Dubai was not a city made for walking. On the contrary, it was made for cars.

I had no idea where I was and it was too far to get back from where I came. I asked a few guys, Indian as well, for directions. One of them explained, very polite and nice. Then he wanted to take a photo with me. Burj Khalifa’s silhouette was contouring in the front, probably very far away considering its height of 800m. At one point I became exhausted, walking like running by some sort of factory, the kind of area where no one walks ever even during midday. And I was thinking at my grandmother’s superstition: “What you do on NYE, you’ll do the whole year.” For me that would mean walk till you drop and get lost.

At one point in the front I saw the first signs that I was somehow getting close to the downtown and walkable areas. And people. And as sent from heavens, I saw a taxi, I raised a desperate hand and he stopped. I was saved! Thank God!

So I’ve learned, the hard way, my first lesson about Dubai. It’s not a walkable city. The distances are a killer!

The next episode of my fancy NYE in Dubai was one hour being trapped on the great 14 lanes highway, Sheikh Zayed Road, the road that crosses Dubai from one end to its other, as long as the coast takes you. That was really smth: 14 lines of absolute and stand still traffic jam. “What you do on NYE, you’ll do the whole year….” was the mantra that kept playing in my head, accompanied by the cries of my taxi driver who was cursing the madness of that night, swearing that he won’t ever work for another NYE and concluding:

– People are crazy!

The second miracle that night happened just out of the dark. The car started to move and just minutes after I was getting close to my hotel, in . I felt like home!

At almost 5am I entered one of the restaurants opened, the one with the largest terrace. I had a great welcome. I needed a fish to secure my luck in the new year.

– Is it fresh? I asked inside, where I was invited to choose the fish that was going to become by early dinner.

The long minutes of wait and a confusion (I asked for a salad and I received a bowl of veggies and yoghurt) let to a fabulous meal: the fish was spicy, as asked, fresh, crunchy and it worked perfectly with my mistake salad.

At 6:30am my night was done and my day was beginning with a deep long sleep. I had to get back my forces to see for myself what was all the fuss about Dubai, so far the city that wasn’t made for walking.

Next: best of Dubai

 

 

Bali: swimming with manta rays

What’s marvellous in life is the unexpected, the unplanned that lies behind that magical number 24, the hours defining every day. It can bring the most unbelievable situations and you never know in the morning that by noon it might be the happiest day, or the saddest. I once read this: “Don’t judge a day by a few minutes”. But it’s exactly what we’re doing. And a day to remember can start as crazy as this:

Nusa Penida 

I didn’t wanna look down! Simply the idea made me dizzy. Every muscle was tensed as I was struggling to somehow move forward on that narrow path, a damn combination of steep and sandy, full of roots and stones meant to make it even harder to track. Sharp rocks on the left served as the only support for an endless row of people coming up. On the other side, the ones going down, including myself, had nothing to grab but a very bad line of fence made of thin brunches and separating us from a 200m deep void. This hell’s path destination was… a beach. Not just any beach, Kelingking Beach, one of the most spectacular, instagramable and praised around Bali. Getting there was not a joke and in flip-flops this seemed even more hard core. I was trying to grab anything that looked secure while also staying away of the nasty monkeys. One of them was pulling a woman’s t-shirt and yelling. Sure I like monkeys but I had to much to deal with already. I looked ahead, among the crowd, to search for any hope that the path will eventually get smoother, at one point. Someone coming up dropped the answer to all of us heading down: “You didn’t even started, it gets worse after this part…” Before I even got to process this, I felt my right foot was sliding down, reaching under the fence, the second one followed half way. The sand was moving beneath me and I felt my entire body pulled under the fence, to the edge, with my feet hanging in the air and a sense of terror grabbing my heart like sharp claws…

I instinctively grabbed the fence which was now almost above me and in a fraction I pulled myself out, back on the track. My heart was bumping and my head was starting to process the danger I was in just seconds before. The people around were too busy to observe my ordeal. For me that was more than enough to decide I didn’t care at all about that beach beneath. So adios, Kelinking Beach! Anyway I never understood how some people see Kelingking Beach in a T-Rex shape…

Kelingking Beach, Nusa Penida, Bali

Back on the top, I had to admit the view was truly breathtaking: white waves drawing moving lines, separating the crystal blue of the sea from the sparkling ivory shade of the sand line. A few steps on the left, down there, in one unreachable part, where the waves were violently heating the cliffs, there they were! Black spots swimming around like some ghosts of the seas – the manta rays. 5 or 6 of them, and only a void between us. I was then the kid in front of the closed candy shop. 

Kuta, 7am

After the previous day in Nusa Penida and the 1st unsuccessful attempt to get to Manta Point, I decided to skip Seminyak and sipping cocktails on the beach bars all day long for a second try to see the manta rays. Was the last chance before I headed to Ubud and further inland in Bali.

That early morning no taxi was waiting for me in front, to drive me to the jetty. I had to find one. In a place famous for partying all night long, like Kuta is, 7am is rather a time to turn on the other side and continue sleeping. Still, I saw one guy with a scooter close to the entrance gates of the beach and I ran to him. He looked as if he had just fell out of bed that second. It was about time I try the scooter taxi in Bali. The next second we were running on the large street in Denpasar, among cars and tens of other scooters. It was fun and wild as long as I ignored all the thoughts about falling over with that taxi. He was very talkative and nice and this helped a lot. He was very interested in one specific subject: if in my country sex before marriage was allowed.

In 15 minutes he dropped me to Sanur and promised to wait for me there at 5 o’clock, and go to Uluwatu where I was hoping to see the fire dance, a traditional Balinese show.

Nusa Penida again

Since this was not my 1st day here and I already started to know the prices in Bali, this time I negotiated hard. I was still new into this skill but the more I did it, the more I liked it. It took a while until I finally got a scooter taxi, one of the few left in front of the jetty after everybody have left. He was a bit older then the majority of the other guys and less pushy. He finally accepted my price as a compromise.

I had a pleasant deja-vu while running again, in the back of the scooter, on the narrow dusty streets of Nusa Penida, among villages, Balinese temples, small warung, (local places serving food). The first stop was Kelinking Beach, which I have missed the day before and in spite my fear of height at that moment, it was unbelievable. There is so much more about Nusa Penida and are so many places to see there which I found out about only after I left. All those, including the Kelinking Beach down there, are my so many reasons to go back to Bali.

But the reason I was there again were the manta rays. It was high season for that, so perfect timing. My guy drove me after again to Chrystal Bay, like the day before. I tried again to find a boat and again the only price I got was too high. No groups at that hour. I was disappointed, angry, hungry (I had nothing to eat yet that day) and above all the weather was bad, it was cloudy, looking as if was going to start raining any second. But what was the most annoying was my scooter driver. It seemed to me as if he didn’t give a damn, though he saw how much I was struggling to find a solution and how much I was trying. I presumed his attitude was because of the price I offered him, which was not cheap at all but rather more fair and not one for silly tourists. We finally left Chrystal Bay and on the way back to the jetty, I presumed, I was thinking only about how I missed this opportunity by not even trying. None of us was saying anything. I saw the shore in the front and the boats and my guess was confirmed: he was actually taking me back to the jetty, more then 2h before the scheduled boat back to Bali. Great! What a wasted day! I was so angry with him and the situation. Of course, he wanted to get rid of me to get another customer that day…. I was thinking to a 3rd day in Nusa Penida, the next day, but that meant less time in Ubud and the rest… so not a good idea.

I was surprised when he turned on the left…. I still didn’t say anything to him. We stopped on a beach nearby, with a few wooden cottages in the back where people were selling different stuff.

– Let’s try here too… he said.

When I saw 2-3 of them were selling tours, I saw a ray of light. He took me straight to a lady he knew here. Briefly, the only option to go for an hour to Manta Point was to get a boat by myself. The price, 50$. With a group in the morning was 20$, some told me even 10$. She also mentioned that on that hour and weather the chances are low and that even in the good mornings some people have barely saw one manta ray for a few seconds. I was willing to give it a try anyway. While we were talking, a guy came. He wanted some information for the next days, he was staying in Nusa Penida. I jumped in and told him if he wants, I can share the boat whit him that day too. I was hoping to share the price, of course. He answered without even looking at me that no, he was tired, he planned to do this early, the next morning. He listened after a bit to what I was talking to the lady about the price and I felt there might be a chance he changed his mind. I said, this time without the smile, just looking over my shoulder for a sec:

– It’s 25$ in case you decide to come, I go alone now anyway….shall we go? I turned to the guy with the boat.

And, the grumpy guy finally decides to come too! He really wanted to do it and he decided to try twice, in two days. I was more then happy to hear it, but I stayed cool as ice.

In a few minutes I was in a boat with 6 Spanish guys, the grumpy guy and 5 others we had to drop in Lembongan and the men with the boat. I understood from what they were talking that the grumpy guy almost got arrested for marijuana possession. Laws in Indonesia are very strict when it comes to all sort of drugs and he got away only by paying a huge fine.

After Lembongan all that was left for the 3 of us was to get to Manta Point…. The sky was dark, it was a bit windy and the sea was wavy. The air was salted and I felt cold. I had 0 envy to get into water that day. What was I thinking…. and besides all these, it was 3pm and I was truly hungry. I had all these thoughts in my mind when the boat slowed down close to a golf where I could see another boat. We headed a little further, straight to the shore which was actually a 2m perfectly straight wall, covered in moss, where the lever of the sea was growing and decreasing as the currents were moving. One turquoise spot further signalled a place with sand beneath. All the rest was dark deep blue. But there I was the first black shadow passing by, a few meters away from the wall. Then another one, and another one. The mantas were there!

Nusa Penida, Bali

– Here they are, you are lucky! Go, jump in….! The guy with the boat said.

I looked at the grumpy guy. He, like me, was analysing the place. I was afraid and so was he. The currents seen very strong there and though I am a decent to good swimmer, I didn’t know I could swim there without being smashed to the wall by the current.

Nusa Penida, Bali

We were asked if we want life jackets and fins. The grumpy guy took fins, I didn’t took anything. I was thinking that maybe I should just watch from the boat….The only thing that made me jump it was the insistence of our guide who assured us it was ok and the water was not cold.

And with my heart beating hard and quite terrified, I started one of the best experiences I was given to live: swimming with the manta rays. Nothing can describe the feeling. After minutes when I couldn’t get by breath to a regular level because of the effort to swim there, I finally got my balance and though it was maybe one of the roughest places to swim, I did it for almost an hour. An hour when the mantas came back and forth, centimetres away from me, approaching with they mouths opened, as they were feeding on the plankton, and right in the last second before the impact, they gracefully turned under me as all I could see then was black. They were huge and impressive and such gorgeous creatures. I knew it is forbidden to touch them but one of them touched me slowly while passing by. I was almost floating, making no moves so they feel safe and swim among us, enjoying their meal. We were lucky to be the only boat around for most of the time. After another one came but still we were about 5 people in the water, swimming with the mantas and practically just waiting for each of them to pass by us.

Swimming with manta rays in Nusa Penida, Bali, Indonesia

At one point the grumpy guy asked for a life jacket and asked me if I need one too.

– huhhh…It’s hard swimming here…. I said I was ok and prefer swim freely. I guess this was the moment when he finally started to see me with different eyes because after that se kept call me “sister” and we became friends. After all, we shared a magic moment together and our eyes were shining.

Swimming with manta rays in Nusa Penida, Bali, Indonesia

Our guide took us photos and was in charge with filming with my camera. I was the last to get back on the boat, after taking one last look to the black beauties in the water. Only this time I needed help, my body was so tired and my muscles ware not responding to my commands, I barely managed to bet on the first step and Jonas pulled me up in the boat.

We left leaving the mantas to continue their feast. We all 3 made a cry of joy as we left. We really did it and according to our guide this was a rare moment where there were no boats around and so many mantas in the same place, swimming around. I already know that nature offers moments like this only when she wants so. But when they happen, magic happen.

Swimming with manta rays in Nusa Penida, Bali, Indonesia

As we arrived back to were we started, the lady and my scooter driver came running toward us to the boat as if they knew we had great news! I jumped on the beach and run to hug the lady and then to my driver to whom I didn’t have words good enough to thank him.

The last to hug was Jonas. He gave me his number, (he had no social media accounts), and a few weeks after I send him the photos and videos with us and the mantas. He asked me how I was doing and ended with “Thank you, sister!”

My day was not over. After water, fire was following. When back in Sanur, my scooter driver in Bali was waiting for me and for about 45 minutes we drove 60/h, on the back of its scooter, to Uluwatu temple. I still thank God I have survived that race but since I am alive I can say I am grateful for that adrenaline dose.

We arrived late in Uluwatu and find our way among the monkeys in the park, these ones were big and more aggressive then the ones in Nusa Penida. Dancers in colourful costumes were lighting the night and sparks were reaching high in the air. The cowed was as hypnotised in front of this dance with fire as the main performer. Far in the horizon, the black shape of the Uluwatu temple was splitting the red sky in two. The sunset was over, the night was gaining.

After another crazy hour drive, among cars and now hundreds of scooters, we arrived back to Kuta. I changed some money, I avoided being scammed at the money exchange with a classic trick in Bali and I finally had some food for that day, in a place recommended by my driver, Bamboo Corner. And so I was introduced to my first chicken satay with peanut sauce and gado-gado. It was so delicious and so spicy and I still dream about going back to that place and order the same thing 3 days in a row. And the price… around 5 euro, two meals + beer.

I soo love Bali!

Next: Ubud, Bali

 

 

 

Most Magical Christmas markets in Europe

How precious are now my memories of past Christmases!

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

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

Paris Christmas Market

Paris in December, Christmas market in Jardin des Tuileries

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

Paris in December, Christmas tree, wonderland, Galeries Lafayette

Reykjavik in December

Reykjavik, Iceland, December mood, Christmas market

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

Germany – Munich winter wonderland 

Christmas Market in Munich, Germany

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

Munich Christmas Market, Germany

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

Munich, Bavaria, Germany, December, Christmas market

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

Austrian cities and the wonderful Christmas markets

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

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

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

Wien, Austria, Christmas Market, December

 

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

Salzburg in Austria, Christmas Market in December

Bratislava winter fairytale

Bratislava, Slovakia, Christmas Market in December

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

Prague – a scent of Christmas

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

December in Prague, Christmas market,

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

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

XOXO

December, Christmas, Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

 

 

 

 

 

Bali: let’s talk Nusa Penida

7:00 am, Kuta, Bali

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

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

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

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

Nusa Penida’s wow mood

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

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

Nusa Penida Bali, beautiful destinations, beautiful places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Then how can we get there?

– We will, I show you.

Broken Beach

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

Broken Beach, nusa Penida, Bali, Indonesia

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

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

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

Crystal Bay

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

Crystal Bay, Nusa Penida, Bali, Indonesia

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset in Kuta, Bali, Indonesia

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

Next: obsessively searching the manta rays in Nusa Penida

 

Malaysia: Too hard to leave Paradise

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

Back to Mabul

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

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

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

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

– Ok, ok, ok….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– What did you got? A-ba….?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asia, Malaysia, Borneo, Mabul Island, Sipadan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving Mabul

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

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

– You know, I envy you…

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

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

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

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

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

What a rich trip Malaysia was!

Next: Bali

Malaysia: Swimming with turtles in Sipadan

6am

Mornings on Mabul island are a definition for calm. No waves on the sea, no human made sounds in the chalets, just a light breeze slowly teasing the palm trees. On the opposite, I was anything but calm. This was The Day, when all my efforts, my 30+ emails seasoned with a good dose of persuasion skills will bring me to one of the world’s top diving sites: Sipadan. “An untouched piece of art”, as once called by Jacques Cousteau, the famous explorer and pioneer of sea conservation, now a Mecca for experienced divers all around the world. One slight detail worth mentioning: I’m not a diver, yet. I snorkel.

How did I find out about Sipadan? Googling. For the best places in the world to do diving. Sipadan was no 1 in many worth considering tops. Since I was going to Malaysia, I thought I could also fly to Sabah province, in Borneo, from Tawau drive to Semporna, take a boat for 45 min to Mabul…. which is 30 minutes away from the famous Sipadan. Simple, right? All I was missing was one diving permit for Sipadan, one of the 120 offered daily for divers only. It’s a highly protected area and this is due to help preserve it. And I got that one too. Dangers to be considered? Some nasty trigger fish that might bite a piece of you, literally,  and the pirates from Abu Sayyaf, the terrorists group form southwestern Philippines, that pledged loyalty to ISIS and have kidnapped some tourists a few years ago around Sahah. Details… All I had in mind was that Sipadan was one of the few left places left on Earth right now with a very high bio diversity. While the Red Sea, which for me is a paradise, has around 1000 species of fish, around Sipadan are 3000…

Heading Sipadan

At 7 o’clock everybody was out, getting ready. I left the room feeling quite proud of my gear: a new UV protection t-shirt, snorkelling glasses and tube, my new water sports camera, recently bought in Singapore and… that was all. I felt like running and hiding under the bed when I meet the other people in the group for that day, all Malaysians, all certificated divers: great wetsuits, professional masks, fins and dive boots, gloves, watches, dive lights, they had Everything… I don’t even know stores back home where I can find all that. That’s the difference between what Europe has to offer in the underwater world compared to SE Asia. Incomparable.

I stuff it down and had rice noodles with soy sauce and tofu for breakfast, which seemed the best option out of a very limited offer. The abundance of breakfast was my last concern at that point anyway. The diving instructors checked one more time the air tanks. Andrew and his cousin, my new Malaysian friends from the day before, and I were waiting now on the pontoon. Two kids came paddling in what seemed to be a small boat carved in a single piece of wood.

Bajau Laut people in Mabul island, Sabah, Malaysia, Borneo, sea gypsies, bajau laut, Asia

– I wanna take a photo, Andrew says. The youngest must have been 3 years old, the oldest maybe 5. I couldn’t stop thinking how any parent in Europe would freak out only thinking of letting a 3 years old in a boat, on a see. Here, for the Bajau Laut, the sea gypsies that live more on water then on land, is natural. They were begging for money. Then a woman came, in a boat so small it could barely hold her and her 1 year old son. Naked, with eyes like the sea and sun kissed skin, he already was belonging to the sea. She was selling clams and payed so little attention to the boy sitting in front of her in that very small boat. What a way of living…

We were heading to Sipadan, two diving instructors, (I presume one for me), about 8 divers, myself and the boat captain. Everybody was curious how come I wasn’t a diver and still going to Sipadan. I used the excuse that back home there is not much to see underwater. They understand but still I was still like the only kid in the yard who couldn’t ride the bike. Later in the day, as we became friends and they realised I can take a good joke, we even made fun on my situation…and my tones of bad luck that followed.

A bad day in paradise

After a short ride, the boat stopped. We’ve already reached the 1st diving site. Everybody was ready and in a few minutes they were all gone in the depths of the sea as if they were never there. So no dive instructor for me that day… I like being alone in the water, maybe not so much in a place with such a high biodiversity. I remembered I had signed at arrival a paper where all responsibility for the trip to Sipadan was on me only.

– Do you know how to swim? The captain teases me, seeing I was looking so indecisive, staring to that deep blue around the boat. I was still processing the information offered in a hurry by one of the dive instructors: some trigger fish nests there, some very strong currents over there. I couldn’t read the map he was seeing around, it all looked… just sea.

Minutes were passing. I realised what I was feeling was fear. After all it took to get there, the emails, the bookings, the flights, the money, I was now afraid to jump off the boat. I started to get angry for feeling so silly. I grabbed my snorkelling kit and the camera, checked if the water was deep enough and I wasn’t risking to hit some sharp coral and hearing the fast beats of my heart, I jumped in. Was probably the worst jump of my life, I took so much water.

– Are you ok, I heard the captain. I was still coughing, trying to get back my breath. I looked around calming my breath, prepared my mask and then I froze. My tube was nowhere. This was the last level of being stupid, I must have jumped without having it attached to the mask and it has sinked. I just imagined how my next hours will be, sitting in the boat, without a tube or holding my breath until I get dizzy. I approached the boat hopeless and ashamed for littering the place.

– I’m soo stupid, I think I lost my tube. I litter the place…. I’m so sorry, don’t know how it happened. The captain smiles and hands me a new tube saying not to worry so much.

And finally, I was underwater, enjoying what was left of the 30 minutes we had in that place. I was so stressed and kept looking for any tail of triggerfish. I did the stupid think of watching before some YouTube videos about attacks of this fish that looks as if he was born to bite, with a big funny head and big teeth. I knew from one of the instructors that if you see one, the one that attacks you is actually its partner, who’s already behind you. They only do this to protect their nest from human invasion. Having all these crossing your mind while in the water is no fun. About the promised paradise around, I was disappointed. E few small corals, very few fish, nothing spectacular or even getting closer to the Red Sea I was so impressed by in Eilat, Israel, the only place I saw it by that moment.

I was happy when I saw the sign to swim back to the boat. The others didn’t seem to be so impressed either so far. We had 3 more spots. Next was the world famous Barracuda Point, where, if lucky, you can find yourself in a tornado of Barracudas, thousands of them swimming in one immense vortex, like a whole living creatures that splits into pieces and then forms back again and again.

In the boat I had a huge surprise: one of the guys have found my tube. It was at the bottom of the sea, at 10m deep. I was incredibly happy. My day was getting better, too bad my bad luck was still with me and I was soon going to find out.

The Barracuda Point started to show what Sipadan was promising. We didn’t got to see the barracudas, unfortunately, but we were swimming in a sea of jacks. I have never seen in my life so many fish, of this seize, swimming all together. They act differently, they don’t move in circles as the barracudas, instead they form a massive silver structure that moves all together, in round shapes, constantly changing. It was amazing to just stay still and have them getting very close to me, then move and have that immense living structure change its shape in fantastic forms, different each time. I thought I saw for a moment a reef shark at the bottom but was just too much fish around to se well. Unbelievable!

This time I got back to the boat happy. I had my mask and tube, my camera, even took a few photos, very bad though.

Sipadan island, diving, scuba, Asia, Malaysia, Borneo, beautiful places, adventure

We then headed straight to the island, on the only point you can access Sipadan. Walking on the island, though very small or using another point to stop the boat is strictly forbidden. A few species of turtles, among them the green turtle, now listed as endangered, lay eggs here so the whole place is like a sanctuary for them. As we approached, a deep green circle of trees surrounded by a white sand line broke the blue horizon. It was such a small island, formed on the top of a volcano by the corals grown there in millions and millions of years. Closer to the shore, it looks truly like a pristine paradise: white sand, huge trees, turquoise waters and a few meters away, the deep blue. It’s where the edge is and from that point below it goes deep 600m. I could also confirm what it is said about the currents around Sipadan, indeed they are so strong, you can’t stay still and every time I saw something and went out for a breath, the next second I was underwater again I was already moved by the currents in another place. When you try to swim is when you actually feel the force of the currents, holding you still.

We had photos on the island and lunch (once again rice noodles with soy sauce and tofu but I was too starved to care) and change impressions. Other groups were there too, on the small terrace made of wood where divers were allowed to stay on the island between 6am-4pm only. Outside these hours I was told you can get shut, the army boats only are patrolling to make sure the pirates don’t come closer again. Two women were sitting on two wooden sun beds, under a palm tree, didn’t seem too interested in what Sipadan had to offer.

Sipadan island, Borneo, Malaysia, Sabah province, diving, top diving places, scuba, snorkeling

After an hour on the island, we left for the Turtle Tomb Cave spot, where the divers were going inside a dark cave, to see nothing but rocks, sand and a few turtles skeletons, that if you ask me. They were excited but caves and mostly underwater caves are not my thing. So I enjoyed the surface around the island, the corals, the small colourful fish that live in the reefs and finally… the turtles. I did saw one which was huge, a green one, maybe larger then 1m, eating algae. Then another one… I saw parrotfish, porcupine fish, needlefish, angelfish, butterflyfish. I was literally in a tank of fish. It was perfect. At one point, being so fascinated by the fish and corals, I realised I was getting too close to the island, in very shallow water, probably dragged there by the currents. I panicked and tried to get out as quick as possible. The worst you can do when surrounded by sharp corals, I am sorry I had to lear this by myself. I started to swim fast and I felt a sharp pain at one foot. I must have touched a coral and got myself with a nice scratch, painful but not so bad. My concern was actually the coral and that it was ok, I don’t think I did any damage to it by the seise of my wound. These beauties of the oceans and seas grow 1cm in a year. So breaking one can be as ruining a few years of its growing.

I was now in deeper waters, safe when I looked around for the boat. It was no where around. I started having all those creepy scenarios where they forgot me there and I will be stranded on the island, surrounded by terrorists pirates, fighting strange insects and God knows what else. For sure my imagination didn’t helped me much that day. I was all alone, no boat closer then maybe 200m. Then, looking for solutions, I thought I might ask some other boat to take me to Mabul, if they don’t come back for me. I was so relief when I finally saw our captain. He saw me acting so worried and thought something happened.   The whole group was in the boat and I started to swim very fast to them. And somehow this is how it happened again. I lost the tube for the second time. I had it for a few years and it has never fall off the mask belt. Well that day it did twice. I felt so miserable when I realised, in the boat, I lost it again. I was littering that beautiful pristine place with another piece of our plastic.

The last time we went on the island for a stop I was too upset to eat anything or to talk. My food has bleeding and hurting, I had a sore throat from the cold I brought with me from Sri Lanka, that got even worse after using the tube to breathe for so long, I wasn’t used with my new camera, bought especially for this trip, and I barely managed to take any videos, my phone battery was off and the photos I got so far were very bad… Could I get more bad luck in one day, a very long awaited day, with so high expectations?

We went back on the boat and left for one last dive. The captain gave me again his tube, one of the instructors fixed it on the mask belt with a piece of plastic to make sure I won’t lose this one too. I decided to fight my bad luck that day so I used my teeth to untangle the white rope I had around my wrist, the one that Deesa gave me in Sri Lanka. He got it from a monk in a Buddhist temple, during a special ceremony performed for him. That was the only thing I could use. I managed to take it off my wrist and used it to tie all together the mask and the tube. I then hold by breath, jumped in the water, swim around without all the nonsense fears before, observe all the breathtaking beauty that Sipadan had to offer. I followed a green turtle until the edge of the reef and further, as the steep wall was ending, leaving nothing but dark deep blue above me. I had no camera with me and I just lived the moment, without thinking about triggerfish, pirates or taking a good shot. And maybe this is what was meant to happen. I had to get through all those episodes of bad luck, have my food injured, for one lesson: some moments we meet in life are meant to be just lived and then kept in the heart.

When I got back again to the boat, I saw the tube was floating around me, hold only by the white piece of rope I had from Sri Lanka. I would have lost that one too…

How was Sipadan?

In the end, in spite of a crazy day, Sipadan stays unique among my beautiful places. Maybe I expected more at first because I didn’t know then what to expect, my only previous underwater experience was in Eilat, in Israel. I didn’t know what to look for or what amazing looks like in this fabulous new world for me, that is is hidden in the seas and oceans. Sipadan happened last year on September the 1st, after that I had a few more episodes, in Indonesia, in the Red Sea again, in Egypt, then Thailand and last month in Kenya. So now I have just a little more to compare with and I can say my first impression didn’t do much justice to Sipadan. I never saw in any other places after so many fish and so different in a small area as I saw in Sipadan, never met again a school that big of jackfish, nor huge green turtles. Maybe it was meant to bring back the memories of Sipadan now, a year later, after living more and seeing more. And maybe, as Andrew did, I will go back one day to the island for a dive and see what I couldn’t see from the surface. Maybe I’ll get in the middle of a barracuda vortex, thinking I must be dreaming.

PS I hope someone found my lost tube and got it out of the sea. This guilt still hurts

Next: Good bye Malaysia

 

 

Malaysia, Mabul, the island of sea gypsies

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

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

I was listening to the diving instructor’s advices, given briefly and without any sign of concern, while he was in the same time arranging some oxygen tubes on the boat. He had that air that people living by the water gain in time, that confidence. On the opposite, I had no wish to leave that boat and jump in that water. I was the only one left on the boat, all the divers in the group were already down there, in the depths of the sea.

I couldn’t believe it! After all it took me to get there that day, in the most awaited moment I was just getting such cold feet…

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

Malaysia, Borneo. Living wild 

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

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

Outside the airport, I finally found, after a few desperate attempts, the driver who was sent for the new guests of Uncle Chang’s Sipadan Mabul Dive Lodge, myself included. I first searched the crowd waiting in front, among tens of people holding sheets of paper with all kind of names, most of them Asian. All except mine. A few people came closer, asking if I was Chang or Young. I was only Desperate. In this chaos, with my phone dead since I had no wifi, completely disoriented, would have been a pain in the… and the wallet to find my way, all alone, to Semporna’s jetty and catch, at 2PM, the last boat that day for Mabul island. Second option was to rent a boat and pay 10 times the price. Happily miracles happen: I saw at last a guy with my name, spelled wrong. The driver was making one last attempt to find me among the few left in front of the airport. He had 2 other people in the van already and two more on the list to pick up. He looked behind again, mumbled something and then he makes us a sign we leave, without much bother. And so, in the van, I met Andrew and his cousin, two Malaysians form Penang, going to Sipadan also and staying, like me, in Mabul.

On our way to Semporna, about an hour drive, we talked about Europe, the countries Andrew visited and how they loved diving. He first got his diving certificate in Mabul, 10 years before. After completing it, he had the one dive permit for Sipadan. He assured me the place is a paradise. He was so excited to be back and fulfil an old promise now that his young cousin has obtain her PADI. They were, of course, surprised I wasn’t a diver, but still going to Sipadan, this Mecca for experienced divers all around the world. As in Europe is not so much to see underwater, definitely not like in Asia, I didn’t had a certificate. But I could see why in Malaysia diving is as natural as riding a bike.

Sabah province, Semporna

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

When the van finally stopped close to the jetty, in Semporna, all I could see were long lines of wooden chalets build on pillars, above the water, housing the offices of too many tours agencies. We entered inside one, built just like the others, with a small porch in the front. About other 10 chalets were built right behind it, going far into the bay, on the sea. I looked down as I walked the bridge and the water beneath was terribly dirty and polluted with all you can imagine made of plastic. Very soon I was going to find out it was even more dirty… A lady inside the chalet, wearing a black hijab, sitting in front of an old and messy desk, full of papers, was yelling to a man, in their language. When she finished that show, she welcomed me smiling and helped me complete the form for my staying in Mabul.

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

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

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

The Bajau Laut people (sea gypsies)

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

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

Mabul island

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

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

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

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

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

Mabul, the dangerous paradise

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

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

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

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

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

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

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

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

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

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

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

As the sun was going to reach soon the horizon line, I went back to my chalet, enjoyed my basic toilet and had a bit of a salty water shower, in a bucket. I “survived” this and felt great leaving somewhere far behind what we call comfort zone.

Louise was on the long pontoon, sitting on the stairs very close to the water, watching the sunset next to a huge green coconut. Plenty of colourful fish were wandering chaotically  right next to the steps, chewing on the algae grown on the wooden pillars. The last drops of sunset were spreading an orange-blue shade over that flawless crystal Celebes Sea.

– What a paradise! I exclaimed from a few meters distance, as I came close to her.  I took a sit on a step 2 meters away. She looks back to me and sends that kind of smile that says “now you know it too”.

– Your name is on the board for tomorrow, she said. You can only be sure you will get to Sipadan once you see your name written there. Some people had the permit but changes were made and they were postponed.

1 million pinches could not have made me realised this was true. But it was. In a few hours I was going to Sipadan, one of the top diving sites in the world, for many, the best. All I could feel was that I was blessed, right there, in the pontoon in Mabul island.

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

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

 

 

 

 

Sri Lanka: safari & wildlife in Udawalawe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Shhhh, hear that? I said

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

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

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

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

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

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

– No, this was no dog, true.

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

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

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

6am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The safari 

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

Sri Lanka, safari in Udawalawe, beautiful places

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

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

Sri Lanka, safari in Udawalawe, beautiful places

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

Sri Lanka, safari in Udawalawe, beautiful places

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

Sri Lanka, Mirssa beach, beautiful places

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

Sri Lanka, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

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

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

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

Sri Lanka – the endless green of Ella

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

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

Bye-Bye KL

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

– Are you free?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colombo, Sri Lanka – arriving with scandal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driving Sri Lanka

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

Sri Lanka, beautiful places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ella, Sri Lanka, beautiful places

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

Ella, Sri Lanka, beautiful places

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

Ella, Nine Arches Bridge, Sri Lanka, beautiful places

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

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

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

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

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

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

– I am too black!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: safari in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka