Tag Archives: traveler

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, 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

 

 

 

 

Middle East Sunday: Jerusalem, Bethlehem and The Dead Sea

We were indeed an international gathering around our table, eating falafel in pita or chicken shawarma, on the rooftop terrace in old Jerusalem, as Anita have well said. She was the super nice girl, with contagious laugh, chocolate skin of Indian roots and with the perfect English accent of someone living in London. Then there was the guy from Venezuela, now living in Miami, one of the very few religious in the group, also the most funny. The single traveler girl from Germany, the two guys from Australia and the American (I think) man who was sitting next to me in the bus. He was quiet, on the road, he almost never took his eyes off his tablet. He was following online our itinerary from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as we were driving among the yellow hills of the Judean Desert, hundreds of meters below sea level, with unreal views. Well… people.

The Judean Desert, below Sea Level

 

We were now finally enjoying the food, after a well spent long morning at the Dead Sea, speaking about everything: from the mosquitos in Brazil to a subject that we all had a lot to say about: how pricey Israel is. I was a newcomer, in my second day, but had already enough experiences to fully agree on that.

Tel Aviv was, the day before, my first taste of the Middle East, but Jerusalem was promising to be a feast.

All of a sudden, above all our voices, of people coming from everywhere to eat on that terrace, loud sounds of muslim prayers, coming from the high minarets, started filling the hot dry air. In a second, the christian churches bells followed, like in a competition. What a concert is was! It felt exciting and I knew then I was in a place that was promising more than I was expecting. I tried, with little hope, to put some order in my hair. No chance, was too much of a mess, the salt from the Dead Sea earlier that morning was still there.

The Dead Sea and the theory of floating

That day I woke up at 5. For not a morning person this is tough. I did some unwanted fitness while pulling my baggage for 30 minutes on the streets in central Tel Aviv. My not so fun way of saving money. But mornings have this gift of making us happy, including me. The fresh air, sleepy people walking dogs or watering small gardens, that silence before the city wakes up. Love it, every time. Since I was heading Jerusalem for the next couple of days, I thought a guided tour is a good idea to get more information about the place. I ended up in a bus with a driver which was mute to us but constantly speaking with God knows who on the phone.

For me was barely the end of spring in terms of temperature when I left home and I thought Tel Aviv was suffocating when I got there. I’m ok with both strong heat and cold as long as I have a few days to adapt. Not this time. The closer we got to the Dead Sea, the temperature was rising. When we stopped at a gas station and got out of the bus, I was melting. Only the three camels there seem to be fine in that dry heat. But there was hope, in the horison, among the palm trees, I could spot the Dead See.

The Dead Sea

If you think you can imagine the feeling of floating in the Dead Sea, as I proudly did, well, you can’t. I thought it’s like floating in water as usual, but maybe just easier. Nop! Actually your body is way higher, at the very surface of the water and you feel like a pressure keeping you straight and up. I’m glad I didn’t bet I will be able to swim cause any try was just making me laugh. All you can do is flip from belly to back or sitting as if you are in an old armchair, knees up and bum down. And the deeper you go, the more difficult it becomes to touch the bottom with your feet and stand. All you can do is floating and what’s so cool! But keep your mouth shut and most of all, your eyes protected by sunglasses. The smallest drop of water in your eyes will send you immediately in the hell of all pains. Of course I tasted the water on my finger the moment I got there. There’s no word to describe as salty it is, it’s bitter sour salted. Or dead salted.

But where was the mud? Aaa, finally! On the right side of the private beach we went, I found the famous mud from the Dead Sea, the worldwide used ingredient for beauty products, the very one that is said to make your skin so perfect. you’ll love it yourself. All the area was covered with that precios nature gift. I walked outside the protected zone, spoiling my feet as if I was walking in a jar of cream. I soon found out the purpose of the protection line when I got knee deep in the thick mud. That adventure brought me fast to the shore for some other fun episode: covering my body with mud. Others followed the idea. In 5 min the sun was burning my now black skin. I needed a good float. It took me minutes to remove the mud. Now that I tested this, I can tell, indeed: it is the best spa treatment I ever tried since the Blue Lagoon in Iceland. My whole skin was now so slippery, I could make a dolphin jealous. After that, there’s no way to leave the beach without a long shower, if only you don’t plan on turning into a salt sculpture.

I climbed the hill to the bus taking many last glimpses of the Dead Sea. Another bucket list wish accomplished. Great experience! All there looks so quiet. No waves, just dry empty hills around. It’s amazing what nature can create.

We left, driving through a dry vast land, towards a wall of palm trees waiting for us in a perfect line. I was going to get used to this sights for the next 9 days. Most of these areas are like that.

We passed by Jerash, the oldest city in the world. It was close to Jordan river. All I could see was a sight of the city from far away. We were suppose to get closer but the itinerary was changed days before for security reasons. This was one week after the official opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem. I was so pissed off I couldn’t see more.

Jerusalem, a place to understand

We entered old Jerusalem walking through Jaffa Gate, the one close to the new city centre. The entire old city is surrounded by a tall limestone wall and the entrance is possible only through its gates. Old Jerusalem looks like an island from another time of history in the modern world that surrounds it. Once you leave behind the new Jerusalem, with its fancy stores, expensive hotels, coffee shops and crazy traffic, you step into another world. But that’s my kind of place and it doesn’t look like any other I’ve seen so far.

Its small streets, paved with big blocks of stones, from the christian, muslim and jewish quarters, have names written in 3 languages, in this order: Hebrew, Arabic and English. All together are forming a labyrinth like a huge bazar. And inside there, muslims, jews and christians, all together, run their small street shops. All looking the same, just a few meters deep from the street pavement, all stuffed with goods. They sell all you can imagine, from carpets, local sweets, spices, cashmere scarves, clothes, shoes, jewels, perfumes and beauty products to fresh meat or crucifixes and rosaries. By the merchandise you can tell the religion of the owner or you know you’re in the christian, muslim or jewish area. The natural light is poor inside or even replaced by artificial light since sun doesn’t get down there. Most of the streets are covered, like endless corridors of not more than 3m wide, where you immediately feel like wander. It takes 1 min to get lost, forget about the time and space and really enjoy it. But the multitude of scents, that is hallucinating: spices, myrrh smoke, freshly baked pastries, squeezed fruits, all together mixed with arab music, fragments of discussions in all the languages reaching your ears from the sea of people covering every centimetre of these streets.  

Our guide was talking and talking and almost running through this huge mass of people. Of course I got lost the moment we came out of that rooftop terrace where we had lunch. I looked desperately for someone in the group. I had no idea where I was, where they were going and which direction to take from the 4 crowded streets in front of me. It was indeed a miracle when I finally saw two Greek girls I recognised, they were lost too but at least they seem to know where the rest of them were.

We went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the place where Jesus was buried and were now hundreds of christians were waiting in line to enter the holy tomb. Sometimes the wait was exceeding 4 hours. Others were praying on the large red marble stone in front of the entrance, where Jesus body was prepared to be buried, keeping their heads and palms down, on the stone and touching it with different personal objects. At the second floor it was said to be the very croix on which Jesus was crucified, many were waiting here too, to say a pray.

We then walked the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus carried the croix and passed to the muslim quarter to then to the jewish one, heading the Western Wall, the holiest place for jews and, as I found out there, the most guarded place on earth. I could say the entire Jerusalem looks like this, according to the number of Israeli police forces I’ve seen, two on every street corner, men and women, sometimes pointing their rifles straight in front. We passed the security check before descending. In front of the famous wall, made of limestone big square blocks, with grass growing on it in places, on the opposite side, sitting in the shade, there was a group of about 20 military forces, talking and laughing, all wearing big weapons. Men and women could approach the wall on two separated sides, men in the right, women on left. Men’s side was bigger thought it didn’t seem to need more space since the number of men and women looked the same. I was walking towards the wall when a girl wearing a t-shirt was asked the cover her shoulders. Modest clothing, covered arms and legs, is recommended in Jerusalem, mostly for entering the holy places of all religions represented there. Also, since it was the Ramadan, and the muslim population in Jerusalem is around 70%, it is recommended to be more respectful, cover more skin and avoid eating on the streets since most of the muslims are fasting from sun rise to sun set. Even without considering these, the burning sun would have had kept me covered.

As I got close enough to the wall, I saw the thousands of wrapped small pieces of paper carrying the wishes of all the people that came here before and find a little spot in the wall to hide their prayer.

Western Wall

From the top, the view of this place is really impressive and I recommend getting to know more about its history and why it represents all the world for the Israeli. 

It was late afternoon when we left Jerusalem and passed through the Palestinian territories in the West Bank, heading to Bethlehem to see the Church of the Nativity. I wish I could have seen more of this area, of Palestine, maybe go to Ramallah, talk to more people there. The difference was visible instantly, both economically and culturally but I didn’t seem, not even for a second, that I would have felt unsafe if I were alone on the streets there. One thing we have in common for sure: it was full of graffities against Donald Trump.

When leaving Bethlehem, we were told the short way we came in from was blocked so we had to drive more through the city to reach another exit. This was just perfect for me since I could see more, even a wall. That wall. The big tall concrete wall, all covered with graffiti and messages for peace and against discrimination, that separates the two countries. But this time, no one was praying in front of it. It’s quite difficult not to get into politics at all when talking about Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

It was 6pm when the bus dropped me back in Jerusalem, close to the old city. All the others, including the very nice people I got the chance to meet, were going back to Tel Aviv. I felt so blessed for finally having more time on my own now and the chance to see on my own more of this place that got me already hypnotized. And I was exhausted, hungry, thirsty, dirty and a bit smelly after walking and sweating all day long in the sun, at 35’C. I was praying to all saints that my hostel in the old city will be close and easy to find. I knew it was close to a main gate of the city. But which one? And yes, it was that one, Jaffa Gate, the best possible location, 250m away from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the christian quarter. In 5 minutes I was in front of the stairs, feeling so relief.

The owner was an old muslim guy, really grumpy. I was too exhausted to care and I thought it might be because of the fasting. It was the middle of the Ramadan month. I would be biting people at the end of a day of starvation, so I had empathy for him. A boy showed me my room. It was terrible but was no surprise since I read the reviews before, still I took it for the location and price. What I didn’t expect were the very dirty sheets. The good part was that both the room and the bed were large enough and the private bathroom was a welcomed surprise. The improvised shower inside brought me back my self esteem. After, I used the big pink beach towel I found on the bed, which was clean, to lay on it on so I won’t touch the dirty bed sheets. It was so hot I didn’t needed more. All I needed was what I had. I felt perfect and happy I was in Jerusalem.

I went out before the sun set, wandered the streets alone, talked to a few merchants and had the best humus. I found out that the way to say hello In Jerusalem was: Hello, where are you from? I entered the holy tomb, I whispered a prayer and watched the Greek monks closing the big gates of the church, the holiest place for the christianity, while a group of catholic sisters were singing religious songs outside, on the big stairs of limestone. It was a peaceful night, I went to bed only after I watched for a while the full moon shining above one of the oldest cities in our history, with its Mount of Olives and its Temple Mount, in the best panorama of the city that my modest hostel was so lucky to offer. I already knew now Jerusalem is not a place to see, it’s a place to understand and feel.  

 

Weekend in Paris: My kind of Saturday

There are two types of people: those who like Paris and those who don’t. I’m in the 3rd category: I adore Paris! The French capital was the first city I wanted to see abroad and it was love at first sight. And so I came back, again and again, enjoying mon amour during New Years Eve, then in summer, in autumn, winter, but never in spring….

Three years have flown away since my last trip to Paris and I was missing it terribly. So I new it was about time to go back.

It was Saturday, 6am and I was flying to my favourite city for the 5th time, this time, in spring, which is said to be the best time to see Paris. I already knew how to get from Beauvais airport to Porte Maillot and from there, by metro, directly to Les Marais, where my hotel was. It was almost 10 am when I got in Place de la Bastille, coming up from the dark underground in the most beautiful sunny day of spring, with perfect blue sky and trees in leaf and blooming. Imagine the record level of my excitement since earlier that morning I was leaving my town, all covered with 20 cm of March snow-surprise…

Since check-in at the hotel was at 2pm, I left the luggage there and start my weekend in Paris. Wandering the streets in Les Marais I realised it was Saturday morning, so many markets should have been opened. I love those places, markets have recently became one of my must do’s when I’m away. I try see at least one every time I visit a new city, to get a glimpse of how people really live there, to feel the atmosphere, the rush, see the colours, the merchants and of course… taste the foods. Speaking of food, I was already starving when I got to Les Enfants Rouges market (The Red Children), the closest and best reviewed market I found in that area. It was already packed with people, locals, tourists, some very dressed up since it was in the chic Marais, all looking to buy something, either fresh products from the stalls or a lunch from the restaurants around. I saw a few vegetables and fruits I have never tasted. I like this, when a market keeps surprising me like that. It was nice wandering around but I was actually on a mission: eating something, the sooner the better, since hunger is not something I can manage with too much elegance.

But nothing seemed to call for me… and than I saw it. Right there, in the middle, it was a French gentlemen making sandwiches. Huge sandwiches, with tons of ingredients from different sorts of ham and cheese to avocado, tomatoes, lettuce, fried onion, olive oil, fresh basil, champignons… you name it. The way he was preparing each sandwich kept me in place: it was a real cooking show and the dream of any foodie. While speaking to each client, joking and repeating “Miam-Miam”, he was taking with his hands big quantities from each ingredient, one after another, from the many bowls in front of him, building a tower of them, than holding all together between the two slices of fresh bread and fixing the masterpiece with two wooden machete on a big hot plate where the cheese started melting and all the flavours were becoming the best sandwich in the world. Cause, lucky me, that’s what it was according to TripAdvisor. This was Chez Alain Miam Miam. With 5 people in front of me and other 10 behind me in just 10 minutes after, I waited there for an hour, watching Alain doing what people were praising him for so much on the internet. His black t-shirt was all covered with flour and all the other ingredients as he kept wiping his hands on it. I don’t know how the hour passed, I finally got my own best sandwich in the world, with everything you can imagine, and left the market looking for a quiet place to devour it. I found it in Square du Temple, a little park just down the Rue de Bretagne. And so it was by breakfast, lunch and dinner that Saturday, since after that all I could wish for was a big bottle of fresh orange juice and french strawberries, a spoiling moment on a bench in Place des Vosges. That place is so… Parisian and I was glad it was 2 minutes away from my hotel.

Place des Vorges

In the afternoon I had once again my favourite stroll route in Paris. Leaving from my hotel on Rue Saint Antoine, which changes its name after in Rue de Rivoli, among thousands of passers by carrying shopping bags on one of the most famous shopping streets in the world, passing by the beautiful Paris city hall, Hotel de Ville, walking along the banks of the Seine where people were enjoying a sunny afternoon sitting on the grass, close to the water, where a girl was singing and another was dancing, cause nothing is out of place in this city. Artists on the bridges were earning the bread of that day and I was heading Notre Dame Cathedral just to admire it from the bridges around. I continued walking by the Seine till I reached Pont Neuf and then Pont des Arts, now freed from the weight of all the thousands of lockers put there by lovers coming from everywhere, lockers that were still shining there three years ago.

IMG_2234I entered Louvre interior square. Just as beautiful as I first saw it on January 1st, 10 years ago, when my dream of visiting Paris was coming true and when I wasn’t yet bitten by the travel bug. I love sitting there in front of the large pyramid of glass, on one of the stone benches at the margin, watching people of all nations taking millions of photos. I took one, with the sun in the best position possible.

Louvre, Paris
The sun at Louvre, Paris

Spring was at its place in Jardin des Tuileries, right before really starting its colourful and alive show, strong enough though to have the magnolias covered with white or pink flowers and the daffodils looking pretty in contrast with the green grass. Sunset time was closer when I reached Place de la Concorde, with its always busy traffic, The Grande Roue de Paris and the Eiffel Tower rising in the orange horizon. No better place to live a perfect sunset than Pont Alexandre III. Three brides with their grooms were having photo shootings, each having around their teem of advisors for the best shot and the professional photographer.

As the dark was covering the city of love, I was heading to Champs Elysees. Each time I come to Paris this most famous boulevard has something new to show me, like the shop with Arabian perfumes in precious bottles, this time. But also many I already know, that are bringing back old memories. L’Arc de Triomphe was now without the huge French flag dancing in the wind beneath it. This didn’t seem to affect the number of people taking photos here. I crossed half of the boulevard that looked as spectacular as I remembered with all the red and white lights from the cars driving down to Concorde. After a 20 minutes walk on the fancy and empty Avenue Kleber, which stole my last forces, I got to Trocadero. A few years ago, on another Saturday evening, I danced Tango for the first time here, among other couples. The Eiffel Tower was just as bright and I watched it turning its lights off for the Earth Hour.

Eiffel Tower

I did not called it a day, not yet… You just don’t do that when in Paris, on a perfect Saturday night. Went back to the hotel, this time by metro, to save the last drops of energy I had after 20 hours of being awake. Got my red lipstick on and head to Montmartre for another magical midnight in Paris, admiring the top view of my favourite city from the stairs of Sacre Coeur, packed with people at that late hour, strolling on Place du Tertre while all the artist are gone, having a glass of Bordeaux at the old Moulin de la Galette and of course, a French kiss. Or more 😉