Category Archives: Culture

Horse Trekking to Song Kol, Kyrgyzstan

Horse Trekking in Kyrgyzstan – Awkward or Amazing?

Amazing and so very very awkward.

The Song Kol horse trekking expedition departs from a tiny town called Kochkor.

One of the main highlights marked on the tourist map of Kochkor is a three-story building. While the building is not pretty, it was pretty easy to find; unlike the town’s obligatory Lenin statue. This is a particularly good example about why Kyrgyz towns are not the main attraction of this beautiful country.

This three story building is a main tourist attraction in Kochkor
This three story building is a main tourist attraction in Kochkor

In Kochkor, one can arrange a horse trek to Song Kol with several service providers. I used the CBT (Community-based-tourism) branch as I already had good experiences with the other branches. I’ve heard good reviews of Shepard’s Life as well. At the CBT I rented an English-speaking guide and two horses (one for me and one for my guide) for a four day trek to and around Song Kol (or Lake Song in English). To cut down costs, we agreed that I would provide my own lunch and that my guide and I would arrange our own transport to the summer pastures and back.

On the day, we easily found a taxi that we shared with some additional passengers. En route we stopped at someone’s house to deliver a package, a convenience store to buy a sim card (not for me) and a random stop for a cigarette and a hug at the taxi driver’s friend’s house. All the other passengers got of and by the time we reached our destination, I realized that no-one else had paid, so I guess I paid for everyone’s errands.

Topics of conversation while horse trekking

We got our horses, saddled up and head into rolling green hills. My first impression of the horse was that it was very responsive. It took a while to teach him that I was in charge, but on Day 1 we got on just fine.  The first part of the trek was up a very steep hill to a viewing point. En route, my guide tried to make some light conversation along the lines of Islamic believes (his) vs. Christian beliefs (mine), the existence of  heaven or an afterlife of some sorts. We talked about my marital status and then ran out of conversation. I noticed that he had a well-worn book with him and realized that it was a school exercise book for English vocabulary. It nearly broke my heart to see him go through his notes while riding.

Our first pit stop revealed a big mystery

When we first mounted our horses, I was curious about the size of my guide’s backpack relative to mine. I had a small day pack (10L) and he had a large military style duffel bag. At our first pit stop, he packed out his lunch and urged me to eat mine. He then excused himself and plucked a prayer rug from his bag. Mystery solved! He disappeared to do his thing and while I guarded the horses. I took some time to revel in the beauty of the landscape and had a quiet moment with my own God.

Taking a prayer break
Taking a prayer break

 Horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan involves yurt stays

Our first host family was an absolute delight. Mother, father, older daughter and two young tomboys. At first it was a little awkward, there’s not much to do besides admiring the scenery. But the family was prepared – the young ones are tasked to entertain the tourists. I was sitting next to the guest yurt when suddenly two little faces popped out the yurt next door. They immediately asked if I had a camera and we spent some time taking selfies of each other and pictures of them goofing around. This quickly escalated into games, which  mostly involved me carrying and swinging them around.

Making friends with the little ones
Making friends with the little ones

After a while, I was exhausted and decided to join the adults in the kitchen. The mother kindly allowed me to watch her make dumplings while I played at building blocks with the kids. I was offered some kumis, fermented mare’s milk. I’ve had it before in Mongolia, so the taste wasn’t completely surprising. It’s definitely not something that I see myself growing an acquired taste for.

After dinner, which was delicious and served with copious amounts of tea, it was time to go to bed. I actually loved sleeping in the yurts. The bedding consists of multiple mattresses and blankets piled on top of each other. It’s very warm and comfortable. Not all yurts have lighting, so I was thankful for my mobile phone flashlight (and my solar panel phone charger). I shared a yurt with my guide, and the next morning over breakfast he said that I look very beautiful in the morning. I (secretly flattered) called him a liar.  Awkward.

Yurts on the Kyrgyz jailoos
Yurts on the Kyrgyz jailoos

Day 2: Destination – Song Kol

The next day we saddled up to trek through a mountain pass to finally reach Song Kol. On the way we met up with another group on a horse trekking journey to our destination and we decided to ride with them. Today my horse kept falling behind, so it was a constant cycle of  strolling/trotting to keep up with the group. I didn’t mind, it gave me time to take pictures. I’ve become quite the horse-back photographer. Then, all of a sudden, my horse got down on its knees. I jumped off and immediately it started rolling on his back, saddle and all. Once he was done I caught the reign and got up. And in all this time, my guide didn’t even notice that I had an incident. When they turned around, I was on the ground trying to get the horse to stand still so that I could mount it again. So everyone thought, I got thrown off and it took quite some time to explain that the horse had actually very politely given me the opportunity to exit gracefully.

Once we reached the lake, the other group pressed on, while my guide and I decided to have a lunch picnic. As we sat down he realized that he had to go back for something – and off he went at full gallop – the image of a Central Asian warrior on horseback. I took a little lie-down with my head against his duffel bag, the soft sunlight stroking my face and the smell of grass and fresh water filling my senses. When I woke up, I was surrounded by horses and cows looking down on me. Clearly, humans taking a snooze next to the lake is a rare occurrence. Once I stood up, they realized that I wasn’t as interesting as they thought and scampered off.

Horses at Song Kol
Horses at Song Kol

Horse trekking and dress-up parties

When we finally arrived at our accommodation for the night, we met our fellow horse trekkers again. This family’s little one gathered up all the traditional Kyrgyz outfits and we went on a fashion parade at the banks of Lake Song.

Traditional Kyrgyz dress-up party
Traditional Kyrgyz dress-up party

Homeward bound

The family that we stayed with on the third night was under the impression that I could play the guitar and insisted that I try out one of the other travelers guitar. I clearly explained in English to the traveler that it was absolutely not the case- music is definitely not in my repertoire of skills. I got quite a few questions from the family on why I’m traveling by myself as a woman and why I’m white if I’m from Africa. Sigh. I did meet some very nice fellow travelers who were at the start of their trip to Kyrgyzstan, so I was able to give some advise. The next morning that group was surprised by a visiting cow in their yurt!

On the fourth day, my horse was pretty over it, and I struggled to keep it on the path. It kept wanting to go uphill and when we were at the top, he didn’t want to go down and my guide had to come save me. It was a constant struggle! Finally we reached our end destination – a teeny tiny little hamlet where I saw the tiniest woman I’ve ever seen in my entire life! Here we had a final meal with a host family. I paged through their visitors book and noticed that they have received a lot of post cards from previous visitors. All the post cards were pasted in a book, with the message part facing forward. I found it interesting that the family valued the message more than the picture and this was very much in line with my observation that the Kyrgyz people are warm hearted, generous and welcoming.

Since I was too cheap to pay for a taxi, we had to hitch a ride back to Kochkor. As we walked to the main road, my guide had a very long conversation with someone on the phone. By the way that he walked and grazed his fingertips through the long grass by the side of the road, I thought it could only be a girl. I might not speak Russian or Kyrgyz, but I understand the language of love when I see it.  At the main road a big Soviet-style truck picked us up. It was a long and slow ride home, but I was deliriously happy to have this perfect ending to my four day horse trek in the Kyrgyz jailoos.

Hitching a ride home
Hitching a ride home

Kyrgyzstan is a country of contrasts

Its cities are an eye-sore, but its landscapes are breathtaking. Its people are poor, but generous with the little that they have. Even with the language barrier, I have discovered an amazing people and have seen the most beautiful landscapes in the world.

I’ve made a collage of pictures from my Kyrgyzstan trip for my office wall. Everyday, I imagine myself back at Lake Song, snoozing in the sun and surrounded by horses and any troubles I might have just washes away.

Life List Entry: Went horse trekking for four days in Kyrgyzstan

How I almost didn’t make it to Machu Picchu

Awkward or Amazing?

Both

Disclaimer: This post has is not about Machu Picchu or hiking the Inca Trail; it’s about a string of random stuff that happened to me on the way there.

Not everyone gets to do the Inca Trail and see Machu Picchu

One might not have the means to travel to Cusco or one might be physically unable. Maybe you thinking the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu is too mainstream. Perhaps you don’t want to walk four days to see old buildings. Or you may have a relevant phobia such as a fear of llamas.

Llamas at Machu Picchu
Llamas at Machu Picchu

The main reason why folks who do have the opportunity to go and the interest to do so don’t get to do the Inca Trail is because they weren’t able to secure a permit 3-6 months in advance.

Now, despite having a permit and a fairly neutral attitude towards llamas, the fact that I made it to the Inca trail still feels like the end result of a collision of incredibly random events. An act of altruism, spotty knowledge of South American history and geography,  a missed sailboat, and an avocado-eating Finnish dancer. But wait, I’m getting way ahead of myself.

Like any good story, this one starts with a bad plan

My original plan for conquering South America was to travel (mostly) overland from Cartagena, Colombia to Ushuaia, Argentina. En route I would live my dream to see Colombia, do a package tour with G-adventures in Ecuador because it looked cool, swing past Machu Pichu, somehow make my way down to Bariloche, Patagonia and finally Ushuaia where I would board a ship to Antarctica.

A grand plan that was ultimately unrealistic. Apart from somewhat underestimating the size of the continent of South America, the ultimate downfall of my scheme was overestimating my ability to keep food down on long-distance bus journeys.

Confession: Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail have never really been on my bucket list.

It’s not that I didn’t want to see it. It was rather a case of “Yeah, that sounds cool and all, but look at all this other stuff.” When I worked out my preliminary route for South America, my decision to book a permit for the Inca trail was driven less by a sentiment of must do than a why not do it while I’m at it.

Maybe, if I had considered my predisposition for travel sickness in relation to the size of South America when I dreamed up my grand overland scheme, I might not have planned for the Inca trail in advance, since it wouldn’t necessarily have been on my way. As it were, thanks to not thinking things through properly, I set out from sunny South Africa with a pre-booked ticket to see the lost city of the Incas.

Fast-forward several months to Cartagena, Colombia and the dawn of my great South American journey.

About half an hour after I checked in at my hostel, I met C at reception where he, fresh from London, was frantically looking to exchange dollars for pesos to pay the cab driver. When I realized that the girl at reception had no interest in helping him, I decided to help him out and in the process we became friends. What I didn’t know was that making friends with C nearly meant the end for my Inca trail plans.

One day, he told me that he met this sailor from South Africa who wants passengers to join him on his sailboat to Panama. Did I want to come along? Of course I did. What kind of question is that? But. There was a big but. Even though it would only have taken a week or two out of my schedule, said schedule was pretty tight. I would have to skip a significant part of Colombia in order to be on time for my tour in Ecuador which I had already paid for. I could go back to Colombia after Ecuador, but then I would not be in time for the Inca Trail. I couldn’t go back to Colombia after the Inca Trail, because that messed up my plans to get down to Patagonia (really a life-long dream) before I catch my ship to Antarctica. Not to mention that the South African Rand just hit 14 to the US dollar for the first time ever and money was getting tight. I told C that I didn’t think I could make it.

Having said no to this opportunity really bothered me.

Wasn’t the whole point of long term travel that you can decide to just jump on a boat and go to Panama if you want?

I spent a sleepless night trying to work it out. Okay, the sleepless part had more to do with the fact that my room was right above the hostel bar and that I was out of ear plugs. I tried to wrap my mind around my Panama dilemma. Something had to give, but what? The best plan I could come up with was to skip Machu Picchu. After a lot of consideration I figured that Machu Picchu is on most people’s bucket lists and I was pretty sure I would be able to convince someone to do this with me at a later stage. I made the decision:  Forget the Inca trail, I was going to Panama!

Ironically, the next day, C and I found out that the South African sailor found a Brazilian dude to take my place.  Having missed my boat to Panama, I was once again set on course to the Inca trail.

Some weeks later I crossed the border into Peru

At this point I had some very real and very unpleasant experiences of the twists and turns of the Pan-American highway and I have since given up on my overland travel plans. I swallowed my pride and forked out an exorbitant amount of money for a 2 hour flight from Quito to Lima to save myself the ordeal of a 36 hour bus ride. I spent some days in Lima and bought a bus ticket to Cusco where I would meet my G-Adventures group and set out on the Inca Trail.

Now the bus terminals that I’ve traveled from in Colombia and Ecuador were all small centers of commerce, so I was quite surprised to discover that Terminal Terestre Atacongo where I had to board my bus was pretty much a shed with buses waiting outside. I got onto the bus and found my seat number  in the second row from the front. I remember being really proud of myself for remembering to check the seat numbers – I got told off so many times in Colombia for just sitting in random seats! I established a nest and settled in for the 20 hour ride to Cusco. A guy sat down next to me and I gave a friendly nod of acknowledgement, silently thankful that he was slim and wouldn’t be hogging my space. A woman sat down in the seat opposite the aisle and after a few minutes she tried to communicate something to me. I had little to no Spanish, but eventually figured out that she wanted me to swap seats with the guy next to her. I guess it did make more sense to have women sitting together on a long haul bus journey and agreed to do the seat swap. As I re-established my nest in my new seat, the guy in the seat in front of me turned around and offered me a slice of avocado, which I politely declined. All these little interactions quickly established a sense of familiarity among the first two rows of the bus.

Perhaps there was a little bit too much familiarity

The woman in the seat next to me, who so kindly suggested the gender segregation turned out to be somewhat of a snorer. Which was a little better than her habit to sleep with her hands behind her head and her elbows very literally poking me in the ear. The more I tried to make myself smaller, the more she stretched out into the additional space.

The next morning I woke up and was amazed to see that we were riding above the cloud line!

Soon we had a pit stop for breakfast and an opportunity to brush our teeth. I chatted with some of my fellow passengers, most of whom were also traveling to Cusco. A group of guys told me they were planning to go to Machu Picchu by train instead of the Inca Trail.

Up until that time I haven’t considered that I could see Machu Picchu WITHOUT having to do four permit-requiring days of hiking to get there. Somehow, in my mind, Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail was all rolled up into one. I guess it is like how many people talk about Darwin’s theory of evolution and the Big Bang theory in the same breath, even though the only connection between the two is that they both make Creationists uncomfortable.

Regardless of how I missed that little detail, suffice to say that I had an awkward internal moment where I realized my mistake. Suddenly I was facing all sorts of doubts. Was I ready to do a multi-day hike that included the so-called Dead Woman’s Pass? Did I even have the right shoes and backpack? What the hell was I thinking?

I’m not sure if I would have opted for the Inca Trail if I had thought about the train. After all, I am on a mission to complete all the epic rail journeys of the world. Luckily, the package that I booked for the Inca Trail included a return trip on the train, so I got to do both. But somehow I think that my lack of planning and gross ignorance of the options available to visit the archeological highlight of Peru got me on the right track.

Later in the day, the bus stopped.

I was in a riveting part of my book so I didn’t immediately notice. After a while I got off to join the rest of the passengers in getting some fresh air. Turned out that there were massive strikes in Cusco – our bus was going nowhere anytime soon.

This is when I started talking with the avocado sharer who turned out to be a dancer from Finland. I told him that I was a writer (which was true at the time) and for a while it was nice to sit on the grass next to a bus, talking about the creative process while the smoke from burning tires rose to the skies in the distance. Perhaps I didn’t have time to go to Panama, but I had plenty of time to get to Cusco and it was nice to just be someone else for a while. And if I could be a writer, then maybe I could be a hiker as well. One of my best friends  was on her way to scale Kilimanjaro and she was most certainly not a mountaineer – if she could do it, I could do it.

Many hours later the bus finally made it to Cusco

Due to the strikes I had to walk all the way to my hostel – no taxis for me! I had a serious talk with myself regarding the weight of my backpack. Once at the hostel, I was desperate for a shower. Alas, I seemed to have forgotten my padlock key in Lima. Reception lent me a big-ass bolt cutter with the promise that they’ll send the handy-man up in a minute. I attacked the padlock with everything that I had, but no luck. Luckily the handy-man brought a bigger, better bolt cutter with him and managed to clip the lock in one swift maneuver. Show-off.

After one of the best showers of my life, I treated myself to some fine dining with really good red wine and a gorgeous alpaca tenderloin cooked to such perfection that I could have written a sonnet about it. And with that I was ready to take on all that Cusco and the valley of the Inca’s could toss at me.

I’m really glad that I did do the Inca Trail.

I think my Machu Picchu experience would have been a lot less rich without it. I’ll save my story on the trail itself for another day. For now, I’ll tell you that I loved the experience. Here are some pictures to prove that I did make it to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu in the end.

Yes, I did do the Inca Trail

Life List Entry: Made it to Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail

 

 

Why Bikers and Backpackers are the Same

Awkward or Amazing?

Amazing

This post is dedicated to adventure biker Tibor, whom I met while backpacking in Kyrgyzstan.

My family loves two things: travel and bikes

My mother loves nothing more than the cobblestone streets of Paris and Rome. My father and brothers’ hearts soar on solo trips on obscure South African gravel roads on his 1100 GS. While I scratch out countries on my scratch map of the world, my father highlights dirt roads on his map of South Africa.

For a brief period, I tried being a biker. I bought my brother’s old 650 GS and my dad tried to teach me to ride on our farm. I did okay on the gravel road and even managed to ride standing up, but once I hit the tarmac my brain short-circuited. When I eventually got better at picking up a bike than riding it, I gave up and sold the bike. It wasn’t a total fail. Picking up a bike turned out to be a useful and transferable skill.

This weekend two bikers visited our farm

My parents turned our old manor house into an agri-turismo styled, biker-friendly guest house. It’s not a full time endeavor and sometimes we forget that the house is advertised as such. Yesterday, a biker couple called my mother and I was promptly put out of my room – the official guest room. I didn’t mind so much. After all, I haven’t stayed in one room for more than a week since May last year.

It can be awkward to open your house to strangers

We initially decided to make ourselves scarce so that the visitors can enjoy the peace and quiet of the farm. When the visitors arrived, my parents welcomed them and made some small talk. About bikes of course. Very soon small talk turned into long conversations. When my dad discovered that we might not have enough beer in the house, he came up with the ingenious idea that we should all go to the Darling Brewery for a beer tasting. The five of us squeezed into the car and set off to the Tannie Evita’s little town, chatting all the way. As we tasted great beers with quirky names (my favourite being the Rogue Pony ale) we shared stories about everything from our New Year’s Eves to devastating illnesses.

Now, I know the difference between being polite and really getting on like a house on fire

At a lakeside yurt camp in Bokonbaeva, Kyrgyzstan, I had a really hurtful experience when I realized that my fellow guests were only speaking to me because I was forcing them to. So I know that this instant friendship with our biker guests was real.

This made me think that bikers and backpackers are not so different

All of those people who excluded me from their conversations in Kyrgyzstan were there for short trips. The people that I’ve met that I did get on with were all backpackers on extended trips in Central Asia or round-the-world travelers like myself. Somehow these individuals were easier to connect with than the holiday makers. Okay, maybe the holiday makers were just trying to unwind and didn’t feel like talking to strangers (even delightful ones such as myself). Maybe backpackers are just starved for company and therefore willing to take the risk to engage.

More likely, backpackers are all kindred spirits who rejoice when they find each other. And I think it is the same with bikers. Just as you cannot understand what it’s like to float around from hostel to hostel with nothing to root you to the ground if you haven’t done it yourself, it’s impossible to understand what it’s like to be a biker if you’ve never been on one. If you’ve never smelled foliage from an open visor or rode standing up on a sandy road.

Backpackers don’t ask other backpackers why they want to travel to remote regions of the world. Bikers don’t ask other bikers why they take the long way to some hole in the wall. They know.

The camaraderie between bikers and backpackers are different than what you’d find between cyclists or vegans or martial artists or other groups of people who share a particular passion. Backpackers and bikers are driven by the pursuit of  freedom that can only be found on the open road. When you find a kindred spirit who understand your particular brand of adventure, it’s impossible to remain strangers.

I’m not surprised that our guests this weekend turned into friends. Just like I’m not surprised that one of my dearest friends that I’ve made in Kyrgyzstan happened to be riding a 650 GS through Central Asia. It’s in our blood, after all.

Life List Entry: Bought, rode and sold a bike

Halloween on the Amazon

Awkward or Amazing?

A creepy encounter on one of the 7 natural wonders of the world? Amazing, of course!

This story starts in a hostel in Iquitos, Peru.

Iquitos is a small town. It has a nice waterfront and some interesting old colonial-style buildings. Mostly, it’s scruffy and infested with mosquitos, moto-taxis and dread-locked hippies on ayahuaska diets. In case you were curious, an ayahuaska diet is a way of purifying one’s body and mind before taking part in an ayahuaska ceremony. So basically you have to go on a clean, alcohol and drug free vegan diet and take a break from intimate interactions for at least a week. Once you’re cleansed you get to drink a special yucky herbal tea with a shaman – followed about 2 hours of vomiting and if you’re lucky – hallucinations that’s supposed to give you clarity about all the important questions in your life.

While all of that sounds absolutely delightful, most folks go to Iquitos to get access to the glorious Amazon river and the surrounding jungle.

I booked two nights in Iquitos with the hope of getting a good night’s rest, followed by a day of browsing for the perfect 3 day Amazonian jungle trip. My roommate at the hostel was a 23 year-old exchange student in Cusco who came to Iquitos to experience ayahuaska. She told me that her yoga-vegan-spiritual journey lead her to want this experience and how she was concerned that maybe it was too mainstream, because everyone seemed to want to do it.  Hippies could be hipsters? Who knew?

That night she was going for the big event and I knew I could kiss my good night’s rest goodbye. Before she left she introduced me to the guy who organized her trip into the jungle. This guy, with the unfortunate given name of Hitler, apparently only arranged tours by word of mouth. I had a quick chat with him in the corridor during which he gave me a low-down on the tour.  I was in luck, because he had a group leaving at 9 am the next morning.  At $30 per day, all inclusive, I figured – why not. If it sucks, I’ll do another one. After a quick cash deposit street-side, I settled in for a night of worrying about my roommate, because her parents clearly had no idea where she was and someone should at least be worried about whether she gets home or not. Which she did.

The next morning we set of for the Amazon

Satisfied  that my roommate returned from her ordeal in one piece, I hitched a ride with Hitler to meet the rest of the group. My excitement dimmed somewhat when I realised I have pretty much gate-crashed an exchange student party. I nearly copped out, if not for one redeemable American fellow called Nathan who seemed almost human (ironically, he was the youngest person in the group). I tried to blend in as best I could. I disguised my wrinkles with a sun hat and glasses and dutifully carried my bag full of expensive age-defying skin care products in silence while the young’uns joked about accidently buying anti-aging sun cream.

Being on a low budget trip we had to sacrifice luxury items such as life jackets and in-door plumbing, but an ample supply of hammocks and a very knowledgeable guide more than made up for it. On the first day we had a wonderful time playing with sloths and anacondas, feeding piranhas and swimming with pink dolphins.

Day 2 was Halloween

We started with a morning of playing with all sorts of monkeys on Monkey Island and was scheduled for an afternoon of piranha fishing followed by a nocturnal river game drive in search of Cayman alligators and boas. We had a bit of a late start for our afternoon program since our guide had to spend more than an hour in search of more drinking water for the group, only to return empty handed. We still had some water, but trust me, there’s nothing like the prospect of running out to bring on the mother of all thirsty throats.

Eventually we reached a good spot for fishing and settled in with our wooden fishing rods. The little critters were really biting, but after a few tries it was clear that I was feeding the piranhas instead of fishing for them. I settled for watching the sun set over the jungle instead.

When we headed back, it was pitch black and we all had our torches out, looking for snakes and other nightlife that might be visible in the trees. We didn’t see much apart from a few nocturnal birds, but it was still exciting.

A thunder storm broke loose that lit up the sky like broad daylight. It was spectacular! I wish I could capture it on camera, but we were getting thoroughly soaked. Unfortunately it didn’t rain quite enough to raise the water levels; at one point the water was so shallow that we had to push the boat. With every “uno, dos, tres, VAMOS!” we moved only a few centimetres, but progress is progress, right? We were soaked in rain, the water flooded our rubber boots and every now and then a massive flash of lightning would illuminate the sky to the point that we didn’t really need torches.

Once the boat was in the clear, we decided that it would be easier to just walk back. Our group got separated from the guide for some bizarre reason, so when the path started to turn towards the jungle we weren’t sure what to do. We decided to walk in the river instead since we knew that it lead back home. But a few steps in we were already waist high in the water and we had no choice but to follow the path into the jungle. We trudged the unfamiliar path for what seemed like ages. With each step the vegetation seemed to grow a foot higher and we had no idea where we were going. Finally we saw a flashlight shining like beacon in the darkness – home!

It always seems better in the daylight

The next morning I wasn’t surprised to see that our treacherous jungle path of the night before was actually just a muddy trail in the grass. Nevertheless, it was the best Halloween experience I’ve had since forever. Which probably has a lot do with the fact that I’ve never celebrated Halloween before, but that’s besides the point.

Life List Entry: Pushed a boat in a thunder storm in the Amazon

 

 

 

All aboard the California Zypher

Awkward or Amazing?

Amazing!

Why train travel is the best

If I had to rank modes of transport, trains would without a doubt be right at the top of the list. Which would look like this:

  1. Trains
  2. Horseback riding (walking)
  3. Motorcycles
  4. Walking
  5. Segway
  6. Cars (with myself as the driver)
  7. Horseback riding (any other gait)
  8. Cars (passenger)
  9. Horse-drawn cart/carriage
  10. Bus
  11. Plane
  12. Boat
  13. Raft in shark-infested sea
  14. Bicycle

I haven’t been in a spaceship or helicopter yet, so I don’t know where to rank those.

Physical comfort and my susceptibility to motion sickness are big contributors to the ranking order.

The top 3 reasons why I prefer trains are these:

  1. I don’t get motion sickness
  2. No harassing security checks or bagging of liquids before boarding
  3. Being able to see epic scenery without having to concentrate on the road

But on the California Zypher, the Amtrak train from Emeryville (San Francisco), California to Chicago, Illinois, there was a fourth reason, that I haven’t considered before: The opportunity to meet and talk to amazing people.

Meeting people on the California Zypher

Authentic “interaction with locals” is like the holy grail for travellers who are always urged to go “off the beaten track” and “immerse themselves in the local culture”. Midway through my journey on the  California Zypher, I realised that here in the USA, this excessively beaten track from California to Illinois is in fact the perfect place to meet and interact with some very real Americans. Between Amtrak’s policy to make passengers share tables in the dining cart and Americans’ love of conversation, every meal turns into an opportunity to talk to someone else on the train. I have shared meals with many fascinating people from all walks of life over 2438 miles of railway tracks. Besides being one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys, it was also one of the most culturally rich experiences of my life.

California Zypher Scenes and Conversations

East-bound from California

California Zypher
Scenic California

I met my first group during lunch as we were rolling through the California countryside. They were a  three-generational trio of train enthusiasts: father, son and grandson. They were on their way to the East Coast where they would meet up with a family friend who’s having a big birthday celebration aboard a vintage train.

The Observation Deck

The California Zypher has an observation deck with large windows where passengers can enjoy the scenery. In fact, from Sacramento to Reno, the staff from the California State Railway Museum joins the journey to provide all sorts of interesting information about that part of the journey.

I wanted to take a picture of the observation car when this young Amish man happened to turn around the precise second that I pressed the shutter button. I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to speak to any of the Amish passengers.

Passengers enjoying the view on the California Zypher
In the observation deck

Nevada

California Zypher scenery
Playing with filters in Nevada

While passing through Nevada over dinner, I met a second Californian family, parents travelling with their daughter towards Denver where she will start her studies in Liberal Arts. The family were very passionate about politics and the daughter was delighted to be voting in a swing state where her vote might actually impact the outcome – unlike predictably Democrat California.

Colorado

Workers by the Colorado River
Workers in Ruby Canyon, Colorado

The next morning we woke up in Colorado, ready for a day of epic scenery.

Lunchtime in Colorado was one of my favourites. I shared a meal with a young man on his way to take care of his elderly mother in Denver and a 82-year old lady traveling back to her farm in West Virginia. The young man entertained us with stories of his days riding bucking horses and how his dogs found a rattle snake on his porch just a day before, while the lady shared her wisdom regarding the secrets to happiness.

After lunch I moved to the observation deck to settle in for an afternoon of scenic photography. I shared a space with a young girl from The Bronx, NY who couldn’t get enough of the wide open spaces.  She has lived in the borough all her life and spoke with great longing about moving to Costa Rica. I hope that she will.

Dinner time was just before Denver, the final stop for my dinner companions. These two yummy mummies had escaped to Glenwood Springs for a girls weekend. The one lady was unbelievably a grandmother of 2 in her early 40s and spoke with pride of her son in med school and her artistic daughter dreaming of owning an upmarket tattoo franchise. We had a really heart-felt discussion on the importance of getting a good education and the value of growing up in a home that sets a good example.

Nebraska

Nebraska Scenery from California Zypher
Nebraska Cornfields

We had breakfast as we passed into Omaha, Nebraska. I was joined by a young sociology professor from Portland and her writer girlfriend. The couple were on their way to a conference in Chicago. Breakfast conversation was light-hearted and we discussed tattoo choices, faking sport-enthusiasm for social purposes and the use of the term “non-traditionally-aged” to refer to older students.

Iowa

Missouri River from the California Zypher
Crossing the Missouri River into Iowa

We crossed the Missouri River into Iowa, where I had the honour of dining with two retired gentlemen. The one was a chemical engineer and the other a physician. As we grazed on our burgers we discussed everything from the gasification of coal to create fuel, interesting rail journeys on vintage trains and the best places to see Dixie Jazz in New Orleans.

Illinois

Illinois from the California Zypher
Wind turbines in Illinois

Crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois signalled the final State for the journey. So let me introduce you to Janell, my cabin attendant from Chicago. Janell has worked for Amtrak for 17 years, most of which she spent rolling along this epic cross country track. I told her that I thought she had an amazing job and she admitted that, besides the scenery, she loved the atmosphere of happiness that prevailed aboard the California Zypher. I hope that if I ever board this train again, that it will be Janell that greets me at the door.

Life List Entry: Rode the East-bound California Zypher

Brunei Darussalam: An Unlikely Cultural Diversity

Awkward or Amazing?

Amazing to experience completely unexpected sides of Borneo. Brunei is not the obvious tourist destination in Borneo. Apart from its lack of attractions, the Bruneians’ love of paperwork can make it quite difficult to get here, especially for South Africans. Even so, experiencing the place that my brother calls home at the moment was incentive enough to visit this tiny slice of Borneo. So, one somewhat unsettling Air Asia flight and 3 visa applications later, I find myself amused by the unlikely experiences I’ve encountered here. Let’s start with the expected.

The Sultan of Brunei

The Sultan of Brunei’s wealth and car collection is probably one of the most famous things about Brunei. In fact, every business sports photographs of the royal couple, each in their own frame according to decorum. Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien looks quite dapper in his gold suit. The Queen Consort, Saleha Mohamed Alam, looks like she’s desperately trying to remember her husband’s full name.

Brunei Royalty
Brunei Royalty

While we unfortunately missed the opportunity to meet Their Majesties and sneaking a view inside the world’s largest royal residential palace during Hari Raya, we did visit the Royal Regalia Museum in Bandar Seri Begawan. The museum is dedicated to the Sultan’s coronation ceremony and was actually quite interesting. It included an impressive life size replica of the royal procession, complete with a cardboard cut-out crowd dressed in 90’s fashion (even though the coronation took place in the 60’s). My favourite part was the display of gifts from monarchs and ministers across the world, ranging from beaded Swazi necklaces to dazzling scale models of Mecca.

Islam and Sharia Law

One of the main controversies around Brunei is the 3-phased implementation of Sharia Law. As a Westerner and guest of the British Forces, I didn’t really feel the effect. Granted, I had to drink lime juice in an Italian restaurant instead of Chianti and eat chicken bacon (yes!). Clothing-wise I could go around Seria as I had in more moderate Muslim countries like Kyrgyzstan, but in Bandar I stuck to maxi dresses, leggings and covered shoulders.

Censorship

Being a Millenial, I’ve grown up with access to anything and everything online. Bombarded with masses of data, it’s my own prerogative to decide what is good or bad. Here though, someone decides on your behalf and conveniently removes whatever they think might influence you negatively or give you ideas. Let’s look at the censoring of Wheatus’ Teenage Dirtbag. According to Wheatus, it’s okay to listen to Iron Maiden, but if you bring a gun to school that makes you a ****. Brunei Authorities agree, but prefer to censor out the idea of bringing a gun to school AND calling someone a ****. I see where their coming from.

Gender segregation

One curious example of the accepted gender roles in Brunei reared its head on a boat of all places. We hired a water taxi to take us on a quest to spot proboscus monkeys in the mangrove forests near Bandar. The taxi driver quickly rearranged us so that my brother sat closest to him, not to balance the boat, but so that they could talk. Apparently his very informative commentary had to be directed to a man. I wasn’t offended by this, each to their own culture, but I was heavily offended when the man thought I was my brother’s mother!

Nepali Hospitality

It’s always a privilege to be invited to a party when you’re travelling in a foreign land. I was invited to the farewell party of one of the Ghurkha soldiers of the British Forces. He was on his way back to the UK and the rest of the regiment was ready to wish him well, Nepali style.

After failing abysmally to wrap myself in a sari, I ended up attending in a Western cocktail dress. With platform shoes borrowed from my sister-in-law I stood about 3 heads taller than the Ghurkha wives, which made me even more conspicuous.

After a series of speeches we were treated to some musical escapades ranging from traditional dances to a excellently harmonized rendition of a Nepali pop song from the 90’s that everyone seemed to know the words of. This spontaneously lead to a vigorous dance-off among the men, while the women boogied in their sari’s on the side. At first, I felt quite self-conscious about my status as a giantess, but the ladies’ enthusiasm was infectious and soon we were having the time of our lives.

The next week we were invited to lunch by one of the Ghurkha wives. And that’s where I discovered the most glorious morsel of Nepalese cuisine…fresh homemade chicken momos!

Wine Tasting, Polo and Poolside Shenanigans

Yes, that’s right. Wine tasting in Brunei. In return for my brother’s hospitality, I agreed to host a wine tasting to the British officers. I won’t lie, this was quite a daunting task, for a few reasons:

  1. I haven’t presented a wine tasting in 10 years.
  2. The variety of wine available at the only liquor store in Brunei (located on the army camp) was extremely limited
  3. While I know quite a bit about alcoholic beverages and their innards as an oenologist, I’m not exactly a sommelier and there was a big chance that my Sandhurst graduated audience knew their Sancerre from their  Chablis much better than me.

So, I rocked up with my geek chic glasses in the hope that they would make me seem smart and presented some random Chardonnay wines. Lucky for me, my guests were more interested questions that I DID know a lot about, such as the chemistry behind hangovers. Which probably explained why we ended up jumping off the roof into the garrison pool at 2 am. After some sophisticated discussions such as the possibilities of arranging a polo match, of course.

 

In the end, all travellers want to experience the authentic culture of their destination. While wine tasting, country clubs and saris are hardly the first images that comes to mind when you think about Borneo, I do think that my two weeks here a were pretty authentic view of life in Brunei.

 

Life List Entry: Danced at a Nepali party in Brunei

 

 

 

Dolphin Show in Okinawa: Six Hour Bus Ride to Pure Joy

Awkward or Amazing?

Amazing!

To get to the Aquarium in Okinawa, we first had to miss a bus before we could catch one

We had very few free days during our week-long karate training seminar in Okinawa – the heartland of traditional martial arts. Somewhere between kicking, punching and sweat soaked take-downs, we forgot to pre-book a trip to the Okinawa aquarium. Sadly, by the time we wanted to hop on board, we found the bus has come and gone.

Set on going anyway, we found the bus station and someone who could speak English. The man kindly showed us which stations we had to get off at: the one that looked like a little house on fire and the one that looked like a choking fish. Probably a good thing that he neglected to tell us that it would take three hours to get from the bus station  in Naha to the aquarium.

Once we arrived, we headed straight to the dolphin show

We had about ten minutes before it started and somehow managed to get nice seats.

I have to tell you a secret: I think it must be virtually impossible to be unhappy in Japan. Japanese voice intonations make everything sound utterly joyful.

The quality of the commentary at the dolphin show was no exception. It might have been:

“Look, these dolphins are jumping through hoops. That’s neat”

or

“And here come the hoops: remember, the worst jumper is tonight’s supper!”

It doesn’t matter which…applause was spontaneous.

The show was a theatrical display of the athletic ability of dolphins and other sea creatures. But it sounded like there were puppies wrapped in rainbows hidden somewhere in the program.

After the show, I wiped my tears of joy and browsed through the quite impressive aquarium.

Another 3 hours later were were back at the hotel

When asked what we did, we tried to make it sound cool that we sat in a bus for six hours so that we could spend an hour at an aquarium. Even though it’s difficult to explain, it was absolutely worth it.

Life List Entry: Traveled 3 hours by bus to see the most amazing dolphin show…narrated in Japanese

 

On a Homestay in St Petersburg and the Quintessential Russian Breakfast

Awkward or Amazing?

Awkward to the extreme.

My expectation of a homestay

We’ve spent the first few nights in St Petersburg in a hostel. Soul Kitchen Hostel was actually a pretty great hostel, perfectly organized and set up to ignite interactions between fellow travelers.  Even so, waking up in the morning faced with the growing pile of underpants in front of my Dutch dorm-mate’s bed, had me longing for more peaceful surroundings.

For the rest of our visit to St Petersburg, we were to stay with Ana, an English-speaking local in her late twenties. I imagined sophisticated conversations over a Russian dinner table and authentic insights into life in St Petersburg.

What we found at Ana’s

My dreams were shattered when we arrived at Ana’s house. Our contact from the homestay organization explained that while we were very welcome at Ana’s home, Ana herself was actually at her dacha in the countryside. But not to worry, Ana’s grandmother was there to provide the breakfast, seeing as that was included in the price. Oh, but you should probably know that Nana doesn’t speak a word of English and can not understand it either.

So much for conversations, never mind sophisticated ones.

Somewhat disappointed, we took off our shoes, donned the house slippers and found our rooms. Since our only way of communicating with our hostess was through Pictionary and Charades, our insights into understanding the “Real” Russia was to be based on assumptions and inferences. We could safely assume that the excessively haphazard decor, best described as “Hoarder’s Kitsch”, was uncommon.

Yet, when it came to breakfast time, I wanted to book a 100 more homestays with Russians –  just to figure out if it was normal or not. It certainly wasn’t normal for my Parisian companions.

The “Russian Breakfast” as Inferred from our Homestay in St Petersburg

Russian breakfasts typically consists of three parts. Although these parts are served together, I’d like to think of them as courses.

The Continental Course

This course consist of a foodstuff typically associated with continental breakfasts such as small tub of yoghurt or a fruit.

The savory course

This is the Russian equivalent of eggs and bacon. In fact, one morning we were served eggs and bacon. In the form of pasta carbonara. Other options for this part of the meal include paella or stews. Whether the savory course meals were made specially for breakfast or were last night’s dinner repurposed remains a mystery.

The Desert course

Every breakfast should be ended by something sweet, typically something ice cream based like an Eskimo Pie or and ice lolly.

After a trio of yoghurt, pasta and ice cream you should be all set for a day in St Petersburg. Pozhaluysta!

Assumptions in Return

I have to say that Nana turned out to be quite a sweet old lady. We’ve tried to be considerate guests and we hope that, based on our behavior, that she could infer that South Africans are well-mannered and neat individuals with a slight disadvantage in the game of Pictionary.

Life List Entry: Ate Eskimo Pies for breakfast during a homestay in St Petersburg

Can you solve the Russian Breakfast mystery? Leave a comment!