Tag Archives: traveling

Montenegro – views of Kotor and Perast

Where else can you wake up in one country, have breakfast in another and dine in a third one, without having to hop in a plane?! My beloved Europe…

We set off at daybreak, while Dubrovnik was still sleepy. Rain heavy clouds were delaying the morning, announcing what vacationers fear the most during summer holidays: a rainy day. 

We were a large group of people from everywhere with a too talkative guide for that early hour. And it was raining, having me wander how this birthday will develop. In spite of the wether forecast and the sky confirmations I had a 10 years old tradition to keep: every birthday spent in a new place.  

Perast – the town by the lake

Rain must have taken a breakfast break by the time we reached Perast.

view of Perast, Montenegro

The small town appeared like a beautiful surprise, surrounded by mountains partially hidden behind low misty clouds, mirroring its old facades and high tower in the calm lake. Small drops were still playing naughty as I first step on the sidewalk, by the lake. My first impression, as I walked away from the people to take a look, was that, there, in Perast, the melancholy of old times meets gracefully the peace of small villages built by a lake, where the freshness of mornings lasts till dusk. Perast was in that morning, at the end of July, a quiet retreat from the mad crowds of tourists. We were the first to cross the lake in small boats, towards the small island in the middle of the lake, called Our Lady of the Rocks, known by locals as Gospa od Skrpjela. A placed build by bulwark of rocks and sinked old ships loaded with rocks and raised from the waters of the lake by a legend. More then 5 centuries ago, in 1452, when two brothers, both fishermen, were coming back home and found an icon of the Virgin with Christ on the sea-cliff in the middle of the lake. They took it from the water and bought it home. Next morning, the icon was no where to be found. By wonder, it appeared again, on the same sea-cliff, so the brothers took it home this time too. The same unexplainable happened – the icon disappeared and reappeared on the sea-cliff. And so people of Perast understood this was s sign from above and started throwing rocks in the water until a small islet was formed where they built a small church dedicated to the found icon of the Virgin, the patron saint of seafarers and fishermen. And what can be better then a beautiful legend in a beautiful place…

Perast, Montenegro, Our Lady of the Rocks (Gospa od Skrpjela)

The views from the island were idilic, with the small Perast and the mountains now cleared by a few rays of sun. The rain was gone for now.

Kotor – the OMG views

The road to Kotor offered amazing views. Montenegro was so gifted! The bay started contouring its shape, among mountains and small towns where tinny beaches were hidden like secrets known by locals only. It was raining again cats and dogs and everything you don’t wish in a day with plans like I did: seeing one of the most photographed places in Europe.

The first think I saw once I arrived in Kotor was… a cruise ship, a floating town that seemed as tall as the mountains around. Anyone knows that this means crowds occupying all the tinny streets of a small town. Even though the access of these ships is been highly restricted by authorities in Kotor, the tsunami of tourists descending from such an enormous ship at once is a huge challenge. I was so relieved I wasn’t a drop of that tsunami. I will never be, my idea of sailing and seeing beautiful places is the opposite of all that a cruise ship can offer.

In a day where every 30 minutes we had a pouring shower, I was already doing exercises opening and closing my umbrella. Such a useless object during the heavy rains.

We got a break from the rain in front of the Sea Gate, one of the 3 entrances in the old town of Kotor. The other two are River Gate and South Gate. The visit started with a nice to have tour of the main attractions inside Stari Grad (Old City) of Kotor and a local guide shared a few informations about the town that dates back to the Roman times, being first mentioned in 168 BC.  The Main Square (Trg od Oružja) of Stari Grad was the first we found, the moment we entered the gate. With an impressive Clock Tower guarding the place since 1602, this was the beginning of a trip back in time. If you’ll close your eyes for a sec, open them again after and try to ignore the way people are dressed, you’ll be right there, hundreds of years ago, wandering the already old streets of the town by the bay.

The tour with the guide was over so I was free to wander the town. A charming maze of cobbled streets opens from many points inside the Main Square and takes the wanderer to the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon (Kotor Cathedral), to the Bazaar, passing by old little churches, houses, shops. You’ll smile when you’ll get totally lost inside this labyrinth, cause for sure you will, and you’ll find, just by chance, the Cats Museum. Or a small passage that looks so picture perfect.

Kotor, Montenegro

The rain started again, right the moment when I was leaving the cathedral. So I stopped on its stairs for a well enjoyed episode of people watching. Minutes were passing and the rain has turned into a serious storm: wind gusts, heavy drops, curtains or rain, thunders and dark clouds. I wouldn’t mind it so much down there, but I had plans: the best view of Kotor can only be seen from the top, on the mountain behind the city, climbing the way up to Kotor Fortress. I was checking the time every 3 minutes, and the sky every 2 minutes, looking for a bright spot that could signal that the rain will soon stop. Nothing… and the minutes were pouring like rain drops. One hour was left before we had to leave Kotor, for good. I needed about one hour to go all the way up and then down and find the Sea Gate. The square in front of the cathedral was deserted, all the people have vanished, hidden from the rain.

Kotor Old Town, Montenegro

It’s now or never, I thought when I had the impression the drops were becoming lighter. The rain has emptied the streets, keeping people inside, but also turned the old cobbled pavement into a true rink where every step was a change to slip and fall.

I took a ran on the empty streets, asking for directions twice from a few shops owners. I found the gate, payed the fee while the man there was surprised to see someone would adventure there while it was still raining.

I used the narrow steps made of stones and build next to the wall, the only way I could walk there in my flip flops. I thought to go barefoot but I was afraid I could cut myself. Happily I meet only 3-4 people descending and I could keep using the steps. The slippery wide slope next to the steps was a no way, a guaranteed fall.

The last drops of rain have left the clouds whiter and the sky as now spreading a fresh light. Slowly the terracotta roofs became visible, a few more steps the bay started to grow, offering amazing views. It was a struggle to go all the way up on those slippery stones, wearing flip-flops, but I got there, at the Church of Our Lady of Remedy. It’s half the distance to the Fortress but I was more then pleased. The iconic views of the Bay of Kotor developed in front of me, with mountains, heavy clouds, the Adriatic Sea, now like a silver bay contrasting the shades of the roofs. So Instagrammable perfect! I took my time to take all that view in, enjoy it to its every detail. Three people only were there besides myself. We owned the panorama. of the bay.

Bay of Kotor, Montenegro

Then I said a prayer hoping I won’t break my legs on the way down and started the ordeal once again, grabbing the slippery stones of the wall and trying hard to keep my balance every time I met other people that wanted to go up using the same tinny slippery stairs. Thank God, I arrived back safe, with nothing broken, just a few scratches on my hand, probably from the wall and a slight muscles pain from the effort. But my memories were worth it!

Seeing the tens of people that were waiting in line to pay for the access ticket at the entrance was a relief. The rain had stopped so the crowds were now pouring again.

Passing by local tinny shops with treats like olives, dried figs, raspberry or blackberry wines or the famous rakija, the local distilled fruit liquor next to fish, prosciutto or many other cured meats and of course the mouth watering selection of by absolute temptation – cheese. I realised I was starving. I gave up to a slice of pizza and as if the the pizza boy knew everything, I got a huge slice covered in plenty of delicious cheese. A treat that made possible one last walk on the little streets of old Kotor, where thousands of tourists were now testing their balance on the slippery stones of the pavement.

– Did you manage to… oh nooo, you did it! But it was still raining…

My smile was saying everything about my walk above Kotor, the one I was asking about since the very first hours of that morning. I showed my photos to the group. The majority of people were discouraged by the rain and sane enough not to take that risk. But I got to see the view. I got to see Kotor. A place I want to come back, in a sunny day.

Next: Dubai and Abu Dhabi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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, 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

 

Malaysia: meeting the tribe – Orang Asli

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

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

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

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

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

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

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

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

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

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

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

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

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

– Now you are a true jungle surviver! Abdullah said

– I should move here!

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

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

Malaysia, Orang Asli Tribe, Taman Negara

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Sri Lanka

10 Instagrammable spots in Chefchaouen

Top 10 most Instagrammable spots in Chefchaouen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places 

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

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

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

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

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

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

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

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

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

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

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

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

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

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

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

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

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

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

 

Morocco: blue memories of a perfect day

Good morning Chefchaouen!

If I only knew, that day, when I woke up with the sun, what an amazing day will be…

Who couldn’t have guessed, it started just like any other ordinary day… wouldn’t! I open my eyes to a white and blue room, with hand painted blue furniture and wide blue wooden doors, long blue curtains and a small wrought iron window, nicely carved into the white rough wall. I jumped out of bed losing no second of a morning walk on the streets of Chefchaouen, as its blue shades were becoming brighter and its people were waking up to a beautiful sunny Sunday.

Without any trace of tourists in those morning hours, it felt empty and cosy. Had that rare laid back mood that only small towns have the bliss of having.  

I had those streets all for me and I took lots of photos on my way, all the way up to Ras Elma. I was there again but for a different reason than the day before, when I ran to see the best view of the city called the Blue Pearl. This time all I needed was a fresh orange juice, from those oranges kept in buckets filled with cold water. I was the first customer and the owner barely noticed me as he was busy washing oranges by the small wooden table he called his living. A few local Berber women wearing those straw hats with colorful pom poms were arranging the merchandise, the carpets, on a stone wall. They were soon after open for business.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

I found my breakfast too, three delicious hot round donuts bought from a local place where a woman was preparing the dough while her husband was frying each piece in a meter wide hot pan, filled with oil. I loved how she puts all three donuts on a blade of dry grass, making a knot before she handed it to me. That’s what I call bio and plastic free. I trusted the locals waiting in line in front and I’m glad I did and so had a perfect traditional local breakfast. I must have been a sight eating with my mouth full and oily hands, sitting against a blue wall, enjoying my breakfast and watching the people passing, since a Chinese woman wanted to take a photo with me. It took me a few minutes to understand what she actually wanted. Well, people…

I don’t know wether was the orange juice, the donuts, the sunny day or the blue streets, but I got a purple idea: I wanted to have photos of myself in Chefchaouen. Was too beautiful not to, though usually I prefer the photos without people, myself including. There was only one slight detail to fix: the photographer. I was there on a solo trip.

With a well prepared Spanish phrase, I went straight to Ahmed, my host.

– Yes, of course, I know the right person. My nephew is a professional photographer and YouTuber…

He smiled and then gave me a complicit look:

– But do you wanna pay?

I got over the initial surprise, since I was rather expecting a “Nop, sorry” answer and assure him I was willing to pay smth… While saying this I was just hoping that Spanish sentence won’t put me now in the situation of having to pay for the services of a professional photographer.  I had no budget for that.

Ahmed passed me the phone, it was his cousin, the father of the photographer, who happily spoke French. All was arranged, we were waiting for the photographer to finish his school.

I felt relief, if he was that young, the cost must be decent.

One hour later I was following Ahmed on the streets on Chaouen. I didn’t understand where we were going. I thought all was canceled and he was going to help me take some shots.

We passed through a beautiful piazza with restaurants and terraces and we stopped in front of a house next to.

– My cousin lives here. Come, come.

I now understood where we were. Ahmed introduced me to his family, his cousin and his wife. A little girl was playing on a tablet, ignoring as, as all kids do.

Ahmed left soon but not before he assured me from the open door I was in perfect safety. I didn’t felt other way.

I started to talk to Saniya about her family, her three kids including Ilias, the one we were waiting for to help me with the photos, her studies at the university and how she learned English so well.

Ilias wasn’t coming…

She took me outside to see the terrace. What a view! The mountains and part of the city with its blue houses and the bluest sky above us. Her house was one of the oldest in Chaouen, she said. She took an orange out of the tree there and offered to me. I was so happy to finally have an orange straight out of the tree. It was so terribly vinegar-ish and seeing my face, Saniya brought me some honey on a plate. It was delicious, a little bitter and very dark, made from some flowers in the mountain area.

Ilias still not coming…

Saniya kept excusing herself for his late and tries to keep me entertained. She also calls people that might know where her son went after school instead of coming home, as usual. No answer…. Of course the conversation was great, she was lovely but it was almost the afternoon, my last day in Chaouen, outside was a perfect sunny day and I was indoor, waiting….

Saniya excuses herself for a few minutes and when she comes back she has her arms full of colorful clothes. I looked at her with surprise, not knowing what was her intention or if that had anything to do with me…

And then I saw there were Moroccan kaftans, the most beautiful I have seen, with handmade embroidery, made of silk or velvet.

I entered her game on the spot. I was dying to try those….

We went in a back room, behind two large curtains: all was red inside, big pillows against the walls, all covered in old wool carpets.

– See these? They are very old, more than 100 years old.

I try all the kaftans, one by one, each one is a piece of art and they fit perfectly. Some of those she wore at special occasions, like weddings in her family.

She even brings me some shoes which are the perfect match. Her daughter looks at us with big eyes as we came back in the first room, laughing. She totally forgets about her tablet and comes to look closer as Saniya is trying to arrange a pink light veil on my head.

– I never done it for someone else except myself, you know…

We were laughing and probably making a lot of noise. Her husband comes from outside and looks at us with the biggest surprise, seeing me wearing a long cream kaftan with golden embroidery from neck to waist and long wide leaves ending also in golden embroidery.  

– You look like a Moroccan girl now, he sais.  

Saniya takes me to see the rest of the house. It is huge, with three levels. Her husband had two moms as his father was married with two women.

– You need a big house for two wives, Saniya jokes about.

We reached the top level and as I entered the room I am stoned: an arch with two columns mark the entrance to the most beautiful room with red pillows and carpets and a broidery ceiling carved in the wall. It can’t be described in words:

I am blown away by this place and I tell her she lives in a palace not a house.

Soon after we hear Ilias arriving home.

He is so surprised to see someone looking so Moroccan.

We took plenty of photos wearing the kaftans and I felt like Sheherezade in a palace.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

After I changed back my clothes and I promise Saniya I will be back to kiss her before leaving, when we finish taking the photos on the blue streets. And so we leave, Ilias and I, ready to have some photo fun time.

I found out that he is quite a YouTuber and Instagrammer too, with a serious number of followers and a lot of knowledge about editing videos and photos and all that’s related to social media. He wants to become a journalist and the more time I spent with him I was more and more convinced he will be a brilliant one. He is smart, well educated and with a beautiful character. And he took the best photos I could have ever dreamed I can have in Chefchaouen and helped me discover the most Instagrammable spots in that wonder blue city.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

After two hours I had a new friend. We walked all the blue streets, through the bazar and among colourful shops, I bought, of course, my Chefchaouen bracelet (I buy bracelets not magnets) and a bottle of precious argan oil, the beauty miracle of Morocco. We stopped taking photos as I felt I had enough of that for three lives from now. We had a late lunch at one of the restaurants in the piazza, close to his house and we talked about religion, politics, extremists, islam and his future plans. He loves Morocco and plans never to leave it.

– Where else can I get food like this except here?

I couldn’t agree more, there’s nothing like the food from places we call home.

As evening was closer, I said goodbye to Ilias and his parents, insisting that he accepts some money from me as a big thanks for that day. I promised to come back one day to Chefchaouen to visit them. And I thank Saniya for that fantastic day.

I had a henna tattoo in the street and left happy for one last walk through Chaouen, still not sure I was really there or I was dreaming. Still not convinced those streets were really that blue. Too blue to be true!

A night delayed bus took me back that night to Tanger, the initial starting point of my Moroccan trip and the next day, an afternoon flight, back to Madrid. Tanger was nice, old, with friendly people and had its charm of city on the shores of The Med. But after that blue mirage… nothing could impress me much.

Tanger, Morocco, beautiful places

Before going back home I had one last stop, long time planned and almost missed because of Ryanair flight delay: Museo del Jamon, in central Madrid, in Sol.

I confess, I behaved as a true foodie and bought a plate of three types of jamon that big that I was ashamed with. But I regret nothing.

So this was Morocco and my beginning of March, this year. Actually a slice of Morocco but the yummiest for me. There’s more to see there and I have to go back.  

Next trip: Asia, 2nd time there. Fingers crossed 🙂

 

Morocco: The Blue Pearl of Chefchaouen

I got there right in time, after a race on the blue streets, among colorful shops, locals inviting me in their stores, tourists wandering too slow or photographers trying to get the best shot. I was only hoping that was the right direction to the best panoramic view of what is called the Blue Pearl of Morocco, Chefchaouen. I got to the river, crossed the bridge and followed the stairs up. The scent of oranges from the stalls around, selling fresh juice, gave me a boost of energy. Behind a bush of cactuses I saw the sun saying goodbye to that day as its orange light was pouring down on the blue houses of Chaouen, as locals call their home. Ras Elma offered wat was promised: a perfect panoramic view for a gorgeous sunset.  

The way to Chefchaouen

I had a blue obsession for a couple of years already: The blue city of Morocco, Chefchaouen. A name I even had difficulties to spell at first.   Like many other beautiful places I was, at one point, dreaming about, as Petra or The Great Pyramids, this too seem so complicated to get to. But when there’s a will there’s always a way and so that day came and my plan was done: flying to Madrid, the next day to Tanger, Morocco, both low cost flights and get a cab from there to Chefchaouen. Voila!

Madrid

I love Spain and Madrid makes no exception. Being in its capital for the second time was a joy. And another happy occasion to taste the best ham in the world: Bellota jamon.

I already knew how to get to Sol, the city centre. It was almost midnight when I arrived in Plaza de Cibeles, but the city was so alive. It’s one of the reasons I love it so, for its constant fiesta vibe. I followed the boulevard and then the little cobbled streets where people were partying in small pubs, with tapas and cerveza con limon (beer and lemon juice), towards my hotel in Sol area. As I passed a corned and found the place, I stopped in a Awww moment. The best surprise for that time of the year! After months of cold winter, on March the 7th, Madrid welcomed me with a street full of cherry trees in bloom. Plaza del Angel was truly a corner of heaven. So spring was coming…

Madrid, Spain

The plan was to wake up very early the next morning, to see a little of Madrid before leaving to Morocco. I precisely wanted to get to the very 2 gems I so mistakenly missed during my previous visit. I don’t usually follow the plans when they evolve me being an early bird, still at 9am, my small yellow backpack and I left the hotel and head to that very one spot famous for the best top view of the city: Circulo de Bellas Artes. And so it did, the view was fabulous as the city was waking up in a morning rush, below by eyes, below the clear blue sky of March.

Madrid, Spain, beautiful places

My next wish was Palacio de Cristal, in the middle of Retiro park. I was so close to give up since I didn’t have so much time left. I give it a try, hurried my steps and follow the alleys until I got to this wonderful building, a palace made entirely of glass, mirroring its shapes in the lake in front, where ducks and swans and turtles were enjoying the spring sun. And so I declare this my most favourite place in Madrid.  

Madrid, Spain, beautiful places

Hello, Morocco

Lesson learned: never leave without a pen, mostly to countries when you need to complete a visa form. It’s about time I keep this in mind.

Happy Women’s Day, a boy said to me, handing a pink rose. A lady invited me to have some sweets. And so I was beautifully welcomed to Morocco.

Since it took me longer to complete that visa form, because of the missing pen and I was among the last to leave the airport of Tanger, I missed my change to find a big yellow taxi, a shared one. So I start the negotiations in my not so perfect French with the only one left, a 70 years old taxi driver, stubborn as a mule. After 15 minutes I got nowhere so I accepted its price: 60 euro to Chaouen.

I jumped, pretty disappointed, in its old cream Mercedes and so we left to Chaouen, as he called it.

Welcome to Morocco, he said, just like the taxi driver in Egypt, after he scammed me of an extra 5 euro.

I was expecting to see a lot of vast dry lands, instead Morocco, this part of it, was incredibly green, with billions of colorful tiny flowers covering the ground. The air blowing from the open window, messing up my hair, brought scents of grass and early spring. We stopped at one point as the taxi driver wanted me to get a look at what was a beautiful valley between three green hills and a dark lake among them. If seen in a photo, without knowing where it was, I could have place this spot anywhere, but never in Morocco.

We talked about his family, his life in Tanger, his favourite places in Morocco, how Casablanca was not so nice but Marrakesh was great, about Sahara and the Morrocan food.  

After 2h of speed driving among green lands, passing through the beautiful white Tetouan and a few other small villages where locals, mostly women, were selling products in small markets and men were hurry to get to the afternoon prayers to the mosques, I started to see the first signs of blue. My excitement was on the rise… Soon after we were in Chefchaouen city centre, a part which looked modern, with new buildings, with cars and people wandering around and most of all, not so blue as expected.

Since my taxi driver didn’t trusted my Google Maps, we wandered around in vain, sent to different hotels by locals that didn’t actually understood where I needed to get to. I soon understood what was happening, meaning I was losing time, and insisted that we follow only my directions. In a few minutes we were close to my hotel, right in front of the entrance gate to the medina, the old town, as they call it.

He pretended he didn’t had any change and I won’t find a place to change money there, thought I insisted we find a money change office since we left Tanger and he kept promising we’ll do that in Chefchaouen. I got really mad for this new scam that cost me an extra 10 euro but all I wanted was to leave this taxi driver for good and go see the blue city I was dreaming about.

Another lesson learned: always change money

My yellow backpack and I were now in the middle of a busy street with not so clear idea where to head to. I was in a very bad mood after that scam. I had to find my hotel in a labyrinth of small streets, according to the map and I already knew Google Maps is not helping in places like this. I tried my chances entering what seem to be a gate, like an arch opening in a stone wall, following many locals and 2-3 tourists. This was like stepping into another world, the blue world of Chefchaouen. In a second, all was blue, all shades of blue. Literally all, wherever I was looking. The old medina blued my mind on the spot, surpassing instantly all what I have previously ever seen in all the photos of this corner of the world. The bad mood was now forgotten as I was getting more and more charmed with every step.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

– Where are you from? An old beggar dressed in old grey rags asked me as I arrived in front of him, catching my breath and all smiling. He was sitting at the end of a street made of big cobbled steps, a crossroads of three blue streets, with his back against an old wall, also blue, of course. As the sun rays reached his face half covered in a white beard, lighting the marks left by all the years he had lived, he looked like someone in a Pulitzer awarded photo. He smiled when I told him I have just arrived.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

I stopped in admiration for a gorgeous tall blue door, sculpted in a wall and happily, right next to it, I saw the name of the hotel I was looking for. The small square interior yard, with a few round tables and chairs and a little round fountain in the middle, offered, from inside, the perfect view to this old building. It was three levels high, the 4th was the blue sky. Each floor had a surrounding terrace with white columns and a blue door on every side, painted by hand with colorful drawings, a technique that I later found out was specific to this place.

I met my host, Ahmed, who spoke almost 0 English and French. With the 3 words I know in Spanish and many sight we understand each other perfectly.  

I wandered the blue streets and it was so incredibly beautiful, I thought I was dreaming. Every corner was a blue little story, with small windows carved in the walls or the beautiful blue doors in all the forms and sometimes even the steps were painted in blue. The only color non matching that blue everywhere were the cats and the kids playing around. I took photo after photo and I couldn’t get enough of this blue everywhere.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, beautiful places

I really needed to change some local money to buy some delicious looking desserts I saw, so I left the old town and went to the city centre, where the taxi driver dropped me earlier that day. After 10 minutes of wandering and asking people, I found the exchange. It was just a few meters from where my taxi driver said there’s no exchange in the area. God damn scam.

Now that I had some dirhams in my pocket I realised I really needed to eat and drink something. The tiny slice of pizza from Madrid was long gone and I was very dehydrated too. I follow a small crowded street with a few fast foods and local restaurants. I saw one serving fish. It didn’t look promising but I trusted the TripAdvisor stitcher on its door. I felt a little adventurous to eat fish there but I was starving. I ordered using mostly signs since the owner spoke Arabic only. And I waited for what seemed to me an eternity. I was the only person in the restaurant, so another good sign. Not. I was melting of hunger with little energy left but I almost exclaimed when the owner came back with two big plates, one with rice and fries and another, much bigger, with a large fish, a lot of fried calamaries and 5 little fish. A mountain of food was in front of me! The calamaries was just as delicious and soft as those I had in Vernazza, in Cinque Terre, the best I had in my life and the fish had that sweetness that only fresh and wild fish has, something so rare these days. All seasoned with fresh lime zest. Unbelievable good and I finished all.

I was afraid now that maybe I didn’t understood the price when I ordered. But nop, all that and a big bottle of water was less than 5 euro. I loved Morocco on the spot!

As round as I was, after that huge meal, I wanted to catch the sunset. And I did. I reached the panoramic view point at Ras Elma and caught the sky on fire above the blue city of Chefchaouen. I so wanted to come here and now I couldn’t believe it.

I bought lots of deserts on my way back, home made cakes. At dark the medina was not so spectacular, that blue needed light. I ended up a perfect day with a 10h sleep. I needed it badly.

Next: making friends in Chaouen

 

Finland: looking for Santa in Rovaniemi

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

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

No traces left of any other colors except all white.  

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

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

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

Hunting the northern lights. Second episode

– Where are you from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The others must have believed I was hallucinating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

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

Santa’s Village

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

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

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

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

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

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

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

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

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

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

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

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

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

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

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

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

Next: The blue pearl of Marocco