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.
This is a story about a ghost tour that I went on in Prague where some pretty spooky psychic things went down.
Awkward or Amazing?
I had 5 days in Prague
There’s an awful lot to see in Prague. I think it’s the most beautiful city. Beautiful doesn’t cut it, exactly. I don’t think I have sufficient adjectives to describe Prague. It’s just… Prague.
I was staying in a really cool hostel right next to Charles Bridge on the new side of town. The hostel doubled as a travel agent and you could book all kinds of tours and adventures at the reception. They also served free hot beverages which was perfect as we had pretty cold weather even though it was technically summer. I decided to sign up for a ghost tour.
A ghost tour in Prague
Prague is such a spooky city with probably many stories contributing to the city’s rich history. Just around sunset a bunch of people, including me, gathered around McGee’s Ghost Tour’s reception, right off of the old town square towards the Jewish quarters. The guide, dressed in an eerie cloak and carrying a lantern, welcomed us and asked us where we were from. He had a cute New Jersey accent, which didn’t quite fit the setting, but it contributed to his story-telling skills. And what skills did he have! He thrilled us with suspense with the chilling tales of ghosts that haunted the city still. The cape added to the mystery.
The alchemist tale
The second place that he took us to was near an alchemist shop. Apparently, Prague was rife with alchemist activities way back in the day and the ghost story that he wanted to tell had something to do with the alchemists. His story angle was to refer back to the first Harry Potter book which included an alchemist’s stone that Harry had to rescue from the claws of Lord Voldemort.
So the story-teller started off in a mysterious voice:
“You see, I’m a bit of a psychic. I’m getting some serious Harry Potter vibes from South Africa (me). Are you a fan?”
“A fan? I’m a fanatic. I’ve Harry Potter socks on (Slytherin house).”
After a round of applause for his psychic abilities, he continued with his storytelling.
Afterward, he thanked me for playing along. He said that he picked me because I wore glasses and was most likely to be a reader. It was then that I had to correct him. I wasn’t playing along. I really was wearing the Slytherin socks I got for Christmas. Look, it had a Hogwarts crest and everything.
For the rest of the tour, he called me Hermione. And I was very proud to be associated with the best young witch of the wizarding world. Now that I think about it, the owls that hang around our house all the time make a lot more sense now.
Back on topic: I gave McGee’s Ghost Tours a nice review on Tripadvisor and wore my Gryffindor socks the next day.
Life list entry: Got to be Hermione for a night
PS: I was sorted into Gryffindor on Pottermore, but the Slytherin socks have a more subtle color scheme.
My friend and I decided to take a road trip in Sicily. When we arrived in Palermo, fresh of the plane from Milan, I was giddy with excitement to finally explore the island that I have dreamed of going to for the longest time.
We left our luggage at the hostel and went for dinner at a restaurant recommended by our hostel manager. We ordered a bottle of wine of the wine menu and I swear it was the best wine I’ve ever tasted, even though it was probably some commercial plonk. How would I know?
Meeting the locals
The meal was delicious and after we’ve finished eating, a man who we’ve assumed was the restaurant manager, came to find out whether we’ve enjoyed our experience. I was carrying a letter in my pocket from a friend who’s husband had translated into Italian that I was supposed to have read to me by a local. Something just told me that this was my guy. I asked him to read the letter. For a brief moment there was some confusion about whether I was South African royalty, seeing as my friend wished that I get treated like the princess that I am (figuratively speaking).
Turns out that this guy was not the manager at all, but the owner of a bakery down the street. He invited us to join their table where we enjoyed limoncello on the house. It was such a happy group of people around the table and for some time we were fooled into thinking that one couple got engaged that night. One guy told me that his grandmother lived on one of the tiny hilltop towns and I just got a sense of how entrenched the sense of hospitality and family were in the hearts of the people of Palermo.
When the restaurant closed, my friend wanted to go home, but I was still wired and wanted to go to the after-party. We dropped my friend off at the hostel and I kept the key to the outside door, while my friend kept the room key.
Getting some shut-eye
In retrospect I probably should have called it the night too. When I eventually got back to the hostel, I found the bedroom door locked. I knocked. Nothing. I called her name softly. No answer. I now faced a dilemma. My friend is an insomniac. She hardly ever sleeps for more than three hours. I didn’t have the heart to wake her. But that also meant that I was locked out of the room and had nowhere to sleep. I considered curling up in a corner outside the room, but it seemed very sad and desperate.
In the end I slumbered on the couch in the lobby. Every time I heard a noise, I jumped up, unsure about how my new sleeping arrangement would go down with the manager. Finally, my friend unlocked the door and I could catch about an hour’s sleep on a real bed before we had to head out to pick up the rental car.
Definitely a night that I would never forget.
Life List Entry: Slept on a couch in a hotel lobby
The thought of camping always makes me feel like crumpled, slightly damp clothing in a suitcase after a long-haul flight. My friends know not to invite me to camping trips. I don’t camp. Period. Unless it is on the white continent, buried in snow, without a tent.
Last year, I did the Base Camp tour to Antarctica
We boarded the mv Ortelius in Ushuaia and crossed the notorious Drake passage, facing 10 meter waves. Luckily, we reached the Antarctica in one piece. Our first landing spot was Paradise Bay which looks like this.
The Best Spot for Camping in Antarctica is Leith Cove
Leith Cove is about 2 miles away from where our ship was anchored in Paradise Bay. Before dinner we packed our multiple layered bivy bags. I’m not familiar with the technical terms (seeing as I don’t camp. period.), but it basically consisted of the following:
A silver mattress to protect against hypothermia
A normal camping mattress
An inner sleeping bag
A slightly thicker outer sleeping bag
A very sturdy every-thing proof outer sleeping bag
A sleeping bag stuff sack
Try getting all of that into a bag is like trying to stuff a circus tent into a bag.
After dinner we headed out to Leith Cove
Hearts full of anticipation, we took a zodiac ride to the cove. On our way we saw a stray Adelie penguin trying to hitch a ride.
When we reached Leith Cove we had to dig a shallow grave to nest in for the night. Our team decided to build a fortress instead which involved building a snow wall to protect us against the prevailing wind. After wandering around the island for a bit we prepared our bivy bags. We took of our outer layers and hid it in the outer shell and our mid-layers were tucked in our sleeping bags to remain warm during the night. It was actually quite cozy in the sleeping bag.
For me it was an amazing experience. I’ve never seen so much snow and as we lay in our bags snow started falling onto our faces. I relished the experience, but after a while I zipped up the bag to protect my face, leaving just enough space for fresh air to enter my mummy cocoon.
Early the next morning we had to leave our warm nests
Getting back into your cold outer layers was not fun, but we knew we had another day of penguin watching, birding and seal spotting ahead of us in Paradise Bay. Which also looks like this:
One day, I went food shopping at the local bazaar. Before I left, Lola told me that I had to be careful as they were laying cement in the hallway, so I must just watch where I step while it dries. When I got back, the power was out and the hallway was very dark. And, you’ve guessed it, I stepped in the cement.
Luckily the only witnesses were the two little daughters of the family. At first they stood wide eyed and then one said: “Oh-oh.” A very universal term! While I was standing on one leg with a cement covered foot in the air, the more industrious girl went to fetch some wet wipes. We managed to clean my foot and to press the cement back down into my footprint, carefully covering up my crime scene.
I left for Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, the next day. I’m not sure if our crime was ever discovered and if it was, I hope that my two brilliant accomplices didn’t get into trouble and that they could successfully blame it on the tourist.
Our bodies contain about 60% water and we need to drink water everyday to replenish our cells. Our planet’s surface is covered by 75% water and our search for hospitable planets are governed by the search for water. Waterfalls are the perfect metaphor for how powerful and beautiful water can be.
In this post I’d like to share three amazing ways in which I have experienced the power of waterfalls on my travels. Of course, I have to start off with the question:
Awkward or Amazing?
1: Sitting underneath a waterfall
In Brunei, my brother and I hiked through the jungle to the Teraja waterfall. En route I had to remove several leeches from my breeches. The waterfall plunged into a small lagoon, which we had all to our selves. After a brief picnic, we swam to the waterfall. I decided to get as close as I can and sat down right underneath the waterfall. The water came down thundering and the droplets pounded my shoulders and back like rubber bullets. The experience was exhilarating and cleansing. I wanted to scream at the top of my voice to compete with the thundering sound of the water coming down on my head with a surprising amount of force for such a small waterfall.
2. Sliding down a waterfall
In the jungles of Ecuador we visited a lagoon for a bit of swimming. The lagoon was the last pool of water in of a cascade of waterfalls leading up to one of the Amazon tributary rivers. We wandered a bit deeper into the jungle to explore some more lagoons. At one point we reached another waterfall and the guide showed us that it was possible (if you are brave) to slide down the waterfall and to follow the current back to the lagoon. Our G-Adventures tour guide seemed a bit skeptical, but I decided to take the risk. So I had to sit on a very specific rock and then let the water take me. The slide itself was only about a meter before it dumps you into an abyss of water. The pressure of the water was immense and it took me some time to get up (I also had to adjust my bikini). My exit was graceful with all my hair slapped over my face, but it was one of the most adrenaline-fueled experiences I’ve ever had.
Canyoning involves repelling down waterfalls whilst strapped in a harness. In Baños, Ecuador we went canyoning with José and 2 dogs. We scaled four waterfalls of 8 m, 12 m, 18 m and 25 m respectively. The first two waterfalls was small enough that we could scale it down directly in the stream of water. It’s an amazing experience to lean back and skulk down the waterfall while the water splashes in your face. For the larger waterfalls, we came down the sides, but trust me, you get an amazing amount of respect for the force of the water crashing down next to you. For the fifth and final waterfall, we slid down like a water slide – a very bumpy one!
Life List Entry: Slid down a waterfall
If you can think of any other ways to enjoy a waterfall, drop a comment. Otherwise head to the About awkward and amazing page or the Hire Me page to learn more about the blog and my freelancing career
This weekend I’m going to visit my friend in Johannesburg. My plan was to take the train from Cape Town to Johannesburg on Thursday and to fly back on Sunday. Unfortunately, all the train tickets for this weekend was sold out! So, instead of writing a post about South African railroads I’ll give you a list of sites that will inspire you to pack a bag and hop on a train.
Best Train Journey Resource of All Times: The Man in Seat 61
Mark Smith has compiled the most comprehensive train website in existence. His website name – seat61.com – refers to his habit or requesting seat 61 on the Eurostar. The aim of his site is to inspire travelers to throw away their plane tickets and hop on trains instead. He explains in meticulous detail how to do all the big journeys across the world, such as the Trans-Siberian Railway. If you want to travel by train, seat61 should be your first destination.
Trains and Travels with Jim Loomis
Jim Loomis’ Trains and Travels site is an excellent blog on train travel around the world. He mostly specializes in North American train travel, so if you want an unbiased opinion on Amtrak rail travel from a real rail enthusiast – this is the place to go. When Jim’s convinced you that train travel is for you- head down to Amtrak – the national train network in the United States. With interactive route maps and a killer mobile app it’s super easy to plan your route. On Amtrak trains you can book a base fair which gives you a lounge car seat – which is very comfortable and the equivalent of a business class seat on an airplane. If you’re planning a cross county journey, such as riding the California Zypher from end-to-end, you can add as sleeper compartment for an additional fee.
The Savvy Backpacker’s Guide To Train Travel In Europe
The Savvy Backpackers, James and Susan, believes that traveling in Europe should not break the bank. They have posted a comprehensive list of pro’s and con’s to train travel in Europe as well as a very detailed section on getting and using train tickets.
Train Travel in Sri-Lanka by Nerd Nomads
Espen and Maria shared their off-the-beaten rail journey from Ella to Kandy in Sri Lanka on their website – nerdnomads.com. The article features photos of the beautiful scenery, interesting historical facts and important practical information.
Thailand by Train
A Train-Lover’s Guide to Thailand is a short, but entertaining piece on train travel in Thailand brought to you by Budget Travel and Tucan Travel. It describes the train riding experience, details around ticketing, popular routes and interesting routes like the Death Railway (Thailand-Burma) build by Asian and Allied prisoners of war during WWII.
Six of the Best by G-Adventures
A summary of the six most iconic train journeys in the world with links to G-Adventures tour packages, of course.They basically listed my bucket list along with dangling carrots:
Toy Train (Siliguri to Darjeeling, India)
Trans-Siberian (Moscow to Vladivostok)
Trans-Asia Express (Budapest to Tehran)
Trans-Karoo (Cape Town to Jo’burg, South Africa)
Orient Express (Paris to Istanbul, Europe)
Glacier Express (Zermatt to St. Moritz, Switzerland)
The most iconic train in Africa – a perfect symbol of colonial style and ultimate luxury. Recently, I went to Matjiesfontein and the train was stationed there. I was lucky enough to get a tour of the train – it is beyond beautiful. There are several routes, but the iconic route is Cape Town to Dar Es Salaam.
Life List Entry: Traveled by train (Trans-Mongolian; California Zypher; Paris to Prague)
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
With the approaching Eid holiday break in Dubai, I decided that instead of sitting in the searing 40 degree heat feeling sorry for myself for 5 days, I will take a short solo-break. My amazing wife and I have been privileged to see many wonderful places over the last 10 years, but rarely if ever, have I traveled alone (apart for business trips, of course).
So, due to some passport-fullness constraints I had to find a place where us SAffers do not need a visa. So I asked the internet and decided it will be Georgia. I read a bit and heard it has some good wine and great scenery and after a little bit of a search found a Dutchman (yes really) who rents motorbikes there. So thus the plan was made for a 3 day trip, which was to include 2 days of biking. I decided to take a mixed dorm room in a hostel, as Leanie made it sound quite appealing, and knowing it will ensure that I would at least interact a bit with other two-legged creatures.
Excited from booking my trip I told some of my colleagues about my plans and they all responded in some version of the following: “Wow, yeah…Georgia is great for wine and strip clubs….” Eh…? “So is your wife joining you?”…”Er, no…” Awkward…
First impressions of Georgia
Anyway, so I arrived at Envoy Hostel after being ripped off by the taxi (trip should be 20Lira, not 50 FYI). Next morning my ride, a Honda 1100 Shadow, arrived. My plan was to do about 160km out and back from Tblisi to Kazbegi – which is situated towards the northern border in the Caucasus mountains. Traffic was a bit daunting at first, but once you get out of the city the number of cars reduce rapidly and although the road surface is a bit bumpy, it’s fine for cruising at 80-90kph.
I have been struggling to find the right superlative to describe how breathtakingly beautiful Georgia is. Not just the scenery, or the mix of modern and old in Tblisi, but also the simplicity with which Georgians embrace life and their circumstances. The people are also more friendly and hospitable that anywhere else I have visited in Europe.
Instead of ringing off a list of adjectives I will rather explain it in a different way. Christianity was first preached in the first century BC and officially adopted as a national religion in 337 BC. Since then, in spite of multiple invasions, Georgia never ceded Christianity as their main religion. I just think that God decided that this most beautiful piece of His earth He would like to keep to Himself.
The road to Kazbegi Monastry and a lesson in motorcycle rental
The road to Kazbegi is essentially one long mountain pass. En-route, rolling hills, snow-topped mountains, waterfalls and Caribbean blue rivers form the backdrop to a mixture of unfinished concrete structures, small villages and friendly people. I made three planned and one unplanned stop. The first stop was a bit of a leg-stretch at a local restaurant half-way up one of the mountain passes where a stream allows travel-weary visitors a chance to re-fill their empty water-bottles. Here was the first chance to embrace the natural beauty that surrounded me. Second stop was at Kazbegi to see the famous mountain monastery set against the backdrop of the snow-covered mountains.
It was here that I learned two valuable lessons about renting a motorcycle:
Always ask how far you can ride with one tank of fuel
Not all motorcycles have GS-like long range fuel tanks…and Shadows definitely do not! End result was me literally coming to a stand-still without fuel within the forecourt. Close call. More about lesson 2 later.
Next stop was at the Russian Georgian Friendship Monument, a semicircular mural perched on a cliff overlooking a few-hundred meter drop. This was probably one of the highlights of the trip – not necessarily because the mural is so amazing, but the setting is just enormous.
By now I had gotten quite comfortable with the Shadow and the traffic and was starting to relax and I enjoyed the experience thoroughly.
Which brings me to lesson 2:
Never leave home without your toolkit.
I was still about 100 kms from Tblisi when my clutch cable broke. Now luckily – for those of you who are not bikers – one can change gears on your bike without a clutch, as long as you do not have to stop. I was tracking back on the same route I came, so I knew I could pretty much get to within 20kms of Tblisi without having to stop. I decided to keep going as far as I can and stop when I could not go any further and would then call the rental guys.
About 25kms outside Tblisi I saw 2 mechanics’ garages and decided to stop and see if one of them can help me. The gentleman who assisted me was extremely helpful, despite the obvious language barrier, and after having a quick look at the damage calmly told me: ”No Problem – I fix”. 25 minutes later the job was done and I was on my way after some hefty hand-shakes and smiles all round.
More of Georgia by motorcycle: Wine and ancient hill-top towns
The plan for day 2 was to do a triangular route to the Alaverdi wine-making monastery outside Telavi via the Tblisi National Park. From there I planned to travel the wine route and finally to lunch at the ancient hill-top town of Sighnaghi before returning to Tblisi. Both sites are well worth the drive and visit. Once out of the city traffic is virtually non-existent and the twisty roads make for great biking.
Signaghi was quite a surprise. Perched on top of a hill, surrounded with the ancient stone city wall it reminds very much of the small towns in the French countryside (without the tour buses). Its cobble-stone streets are surrounded by parks and restaurants and wonderful views.
On the Honda Shadow
Now I can hear the bikers reading this blog shouting: “So when are you going to tell us about the bike!!” So – to the non-bikers, please bear with me…
As already mentioned my weapon of (not so much my) choice was a 2007-ish Honda Shadow 1100 – a two cylinder sport-tourer.
As this is not a bike review I am not going to spend a lot of time to evaluate the pro’s (comfy seat, low-end torque) and con’s (small fuel tank). I will rather tell you how this bike feels to drive.
Upon reflection I think the name ‘Shadow’ is perfect. Think a bit about the word ‘shadow’ – In most of our minds a shadow is the dark place where something sinister and scary lurks. It is the dark alleyway or underpass you have to walk through on the way home from work – and even though you have done it a 100 times – the mere thought of it raises the hair at the back of your neck as the adrenaline starts to flow through your veins.
It is the place where our worst nightmares lie and wait. A shadow is something you can see and feel but cannot touch. It made me think – what would that shadow sound like…what if that feeling can be expressed as sound. The sound of all our collective nightmares roaring into life. As I pressed the starter button and the beast roared to life sending flocks of doves into the sky I realized – this is exactly what a shadow sounds like.
At low revs it’s the deep throated purr of a 500lbs lion walking past your tent in the middle of the African night. Twisting the throttle turns it into a WW2 Spitfire rattling off its 20mm gun into its fearful enemies. As you devour mile after mile of mountain road your distant growl and echo bouncing of town walls is a rolling thunderstorm threatening on the horizon – waiting at any moment to light up the night sky with a crack of lightning.
It is the roar of the unknown approaching disaster that makes horses bolt and dogs pull their tails between their legs as you pass by. Rolling into town you see on the faces of those next to the road the relieved excitement – you were heard and felt long before you were seen. I believe it is one of the reasons why in most of our hearts we are still just a little afraid of the traditional image of a big-bearded, tattoo-covered leather-clad biker.
The Shadow is all of that. It is a feeling of falling towards our most primal fears – entering the deep dark cave where generation after generation have told of the murderous beast lurking there. It is the excitement of hearing the bellows in the depths of the mountain and reaching that moment when you realize that your worst fear is about to come true – but somehow you just cannot get yourself to stop.
It is that beast of the deep that I was riding and it is was breathtaking and glorious.
Back to Tblisi
The city is mixture of old and super-modern which makes for an interesting contrast. Roof-top bars are plentiful and small outdoor restaurants line the inner-city streets. Weekend evenings are bustling and it is well worth staying 2-3 days. The Georgian wine is good and the cuisine mostly international. The most famous local dish is a strange cheese-pie topped with an egg. My advice is to order a small one, share it between 4 friend and have your ENO’s ready.
The final awkward
So after 3 days wonderful days in Georgia I was in a (20 Lari) taxi back to the airport. The driver strangely looked a lot like my late grandfather, and he was intent on finding out exactly how much I enjoyed my visit to Georgia – even though he spoke no English. After about 5 minutes (in which time he smoked 3 Marlboro’s) I got to tell him that I really enjoyed the Georgian wines – which made him very happy.
Next he made a strange gesture that looked like a lot like what I can imagine it would look like if you dragged a hippo very fast over some speed bumps. At first I did not quite get it, but my mind was taken back to awkward moment number one. The question he was asking was, yes you guessed it, “How was the sex!”. I laughed and shook my head – showing him the wedding ring on my finger. At that point he let out the type of laugh that can only be generated in a substantial belly, shouted “No problem!” and grabbed my leg and squeezed it like I was his son!
At the airport I was given a big bear hug and was reminded again of my grandfather who passed away more than 15 years ago.
A lasting impression of Georgia
It is not often that you travel with little to no expectations. Georgia was supposed to be an anonymous breakaway, spending time with myself and my own thoughts. And there I found God’s most beautiful canvas with good-hearted people in a country where ones riches are not necessarily measured in dollars. And best of all, I found a new two-wheeled friend who reminded me that beyond the project plans, Powerpoints and business meetings there is inside me still an African soul that remains ultimately Wild at Heart.
Mihan’s Life List Entry:Explored Georgia by motorcycle
My Life List Entry: Posted a Guest Blog on Awkward and Amazing AND convinced my brother to stay in a hostel.