Before I left South Africa my brother, who has lived in an Islamic country for nearly two years, told me that I should befriend someone who practices Iftar or the breaking of the fast during Ramadan. Never would I have imagined that Moroccan tea would lead to just that.
Awkward or Amazing?
Both, but mostly amazing.
It started with some tea in Tangier
In Morocco, green tea served with mint leaves and a bag of sugar is called Moroccan Whisky. It forms part of any respectable meal and discussion. In Tangier, I stayed at a small hotel in the Old Medina and I became quite friendly with one of the receptionists. One night, I went out for a meal in one of the few restaurants that were open during Ramadan (my trip to Morocco was impulsive – I completely forgot about Ramadan). When I returned, my host was in the reception area and asked whether I would like to join him for tea. We talked of shoes and ships and sealing wax and many other things (thank you C.S. Lewis).
Do a stranger a kindness
The next day, he asked me whether I was going to the bus station to buy my ticket to Chefchaouen for the next day. I said that I was and that I would take a taxi to the bus station. No no, he said, he was going in the same direction for business, I can walk with him if I wanted to. Well, I like a good walk, so sure why not. We walked and walked from the Old Medina to the New Town and past the shop where he had to do go to and to the bus station. At the station he helped me to buy a bus ticket. Afterwards, he asked me whether I wanted to go to the Caves of Hercules. I had thought about it but, as usual, wasn’t particularly keen on doing anything that felt like an effort. He said that he had to go in that direction anyway and that we could share a taxi to the caves and then I could come back on my own. Sure, why not.
The Caves of Hercules
Once we reached the caves, I expected him to return to town, but instead he lead the way to the caves. The view of the Atlantic ocean was amazing, especially through the Africa-shaped hole in the grotto. Charming experience. Afterwards, he showed me a view of the beach and asked me whether I would like to visit the beach. Sure, why not.
We grabbed a seat on the beach in the shade a boulder. I sat hugging my knees to my chest, enjoying the smell of the ocean. Nothing like the beach to cultivate a friendship. I know what you’re thinking…not that kind of friendship!
The ride back to town was crowded and nothing short of awkward and extremely uncomfortable for the introvert in me. He talked about how we can have tea again after dinner, but by that time I was completely spooked by all the attention. As soon as I could see the road back to the Medina I excused myself and hightailed it back to the Medina. I hid in a cafe for a while and sneaked back to my room when I thought it was safe.
Later, I decided that I couldn’t hide out forever and when I arrived downstairs in the lobby, my new friend invited me to break the fast with them. I couldn’t believe it. Here I was invited to share in a very special and personal occasion. When the time came at 19:40, we attacked a spread of traditional fare as if we had never seen food in our lives. Dates and pancakes and soup and sweets and watermelon, carrot and orange juice and, of course, Morrocan tea. Our other guest was the boy from next door who entertained us with his antics and impersonations. His cat, who followed the smell of fish cooked in chili joined in for some morsels from the table.
Later that evening we shared Moroccan tea on the terrace and it really was a perfect ending to a perfect day.
Life list entry: Shared Iftar in Ramadan in Morocco
Patagonia is a mesmerizing place. It’s a wilderness where the wind blows without mercy, where men are still men, where the landscape pierces your soul and make it its own.
Awkward or Amazing?
I’ve always wanted to visit Patagonia
My favorite book as a child was Ms. Feenstra’s Great Dragon Adventure. It was the story of an explorer who went to Patagonia, captured a dragon and brought it back to England, just to set it free. I’ve read it over and over and adored the pictures of Ms. Feenstra exploring the wilderness of Patagonia.
Setting up for Horse riding in Patagonia
When I finally made my way to Patagonia, I visited El Calafate to see the Perito Moreno glacier and to partake in whichever other activities the area had to offer. I love horse riding and the idea of horse riding in Patagonia was idyllic. I took a bus from El Calafate to an Estancia close to lake Viedma. Two incredibly attractive gauchos greeted us and treated us to coffee before we went to saddle up.
A life-threatening mistake
Usually, I get hot when I’m horse riding, so I left my polar fleece top inside the bus. The wind was howling as it can only do in the wilderness of Patagonia. En route to the stables, I was nearly blown off my feet by the wind. Walking at a 45-degree angle – not fun. I was given a beautiful white steed, but once I sat in the saddle, my heart pounded in fear of falling off the saddle – not because of the horse, but because of the wind blowing me sideways.
We moved at a slow pace, following the gauchos and their two playful hounds to the hut where we were supposed to have lunch. The ride seemed to last forever. Despite my gloves, my hands were freezing. My body temperature dropped to zero and I was reminded of the South African legend of Rageltjie de Beer who froze to death trying to save her brother’s life. I dearly wished that I could hug my horse’s neck just for some extra heat, but I could tell that he wasn’t too happy about the weather conditions either.
A warm welcome
Finally, we reached our destination. A small cabin in the middle of nowhere. Blue and shivering, I got off my horse and handed the reins to one of the gauchos. Inside, a warm fire was being brought to life and a bottle of wine was emptied into the typical Argentinian penguin-shaped pitcher. Quickly, meat was being grilled on the fire and we were handed rolls filled with delicious pieces of steak.
Just when I was finally warm, it was time to head out again. With a belly full of steak and wine, I made some time for philosophy in my near frozen state. And that’s where Patagonia stole my heart. This wilderness where nature dictates and men are still men.
Later, in Ushuaia, I bought a pen sketch of a penguin battling to walk in the wind as a souvenir. A drawing to remind me of the day when the freezing Patagonian wind had nearly blown me off my horse.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Not just a question posed to introduce you to my new find, but also a question I asked myself repeatedly today as I trotted along Chuy avenue – Bishkek’s main road. Let’s take a few steps back. Osh Bazaar is in Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan. While Kyrgyzstan is renowned for its natural beauty, the same can not be said for Bishkek. The city has a few redeeming green park areas, but its bland buildings, overwhelming flatness and pot-holed sidewalks are quite uninspiring.
On my first day here, I walked about the gardens with a soft serve ice cream, trying to find the eight sites on Lonely Planet’s list. After I managed to find and correctly identify a few, I decided to head off to Osh Bazaar for a typical Central Asian shopping experience and to perhaps get a bite of street food. It didn’t seem too far on the map, but then again I have been known to walk across cities thinking the same. I walked and walked and walked for what seemed like forever, stopping every now and again to decipher Cyrillic street names just to find out that it was still several blocks away.
Osh Bazaar and what I found there
When I finally spotted the grey gate with big red Cyrillic letters I knew it would be worth it. I usually don’t take “beware of pickpockets” tips very seriously, but this time I was a little weary – perhaps because warnings about the infamous Narantuul “black” market in Ulaan Bataar were still ringing in my ears after so many years.
I snapped a quick picture of the main gates and then shopped in wonder, stopping here and there to take a stealthy picture. They literally sell everything at Osh Bazaar (except for the travel towel that I so desperately needed). Jeans, lingerie, vegetables, spices, linoleum, horse saddles, army boots, dried goods, shampoo, fruits, breads, shoes, eggs and raw meat of all kinds, including chicken.
I bought a fold-over pastry from an old woman for lunch. As I left the market, I started picking at the dough. It was delicious. Yet, the thought of the raw chicken sold close by made me feel a little uneasy about the filling. After gingerly taking a bite (yum), I decided that it wasn’t worth it to risk food poisoning. With great sadness I tossed it.
Luckily pastries are not just sold at Osh Bazaar. I walked past a food stand with pastries on my way to the Bishkek CBT office (Community-based Tourism). I bought a similar pastry and ate it with gusto, completely ignoring the possibility that the meat for this one may have been bought at Osh Bazaar.
Life List Entry: Avoided food poisoning at a Kyrgyz bazaar
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 EskimoPies for breakfast during a homestay in St Petersburg
Can you solve the Russian Breakfast mystery? Leave a comment!