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
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.
This is the part of your brain, the brain stem, which is responsible for basic functioning such as breathing as well as for your flight/flight/freeze response to, I’m guessing in my case pretty much everything. I kind of like the idea of going through life altering between states of minding my own business like a gecko in a sunny spot and responding to life with the passion of a fire-breathing dragon.
Zip-lining at Parque Aventura San Martin in Baños, Ecuador.
The service provider, going by the name of José and 2 Dogs (although I have it on good authority that there are actually 5 dogs), showed us a video of the zip-lining adventure that they offered.
Basically, it was an AC-DC pumped-up action extravaganza showing how we would be zipping at breakneck speed over a massive canyon and through a gorge after which we will oh so casually cross a shifty-looking suspension bridge above a raging river, climb up a perpendicular cliff and then zip all the way back to civilization.
Reptile Brain: EPIC!!!! Let’s do this!!!!
Rational brain: Don’t mean to interrupt, but you’re terrified of climbing remember
Reptile Brain: I don’t see a threat. I only see epic glory.
Rational Brain: But…what about when you’re actually doing it?
Next day we were lining up to zip across the canyon.
Appearing pumped up and ready for action due to over-active reptilian brain chemicals, I was (unfortunately) the chosen one to go first. As I was being strapped into the harness, it occurred to me that I’ve never zip-lined before. I had no idea what to expect. I was being held by strangers, facing a gigantic canyon, seconds from being rocketed straight through two cliffs. Naturally, I went from gecko to dragon in a millisecond dropping a fiery hell of swear-words until I was unleashed.
And it was actually quite okay. Not even scary at all. I even got a few whoops in as I flew over the canyon.
Next up: bridge of suspended suspense.
After taking a few corny group shots once everyone finished zipping, it was time to cross the bridge. Seeing as we were getting photos taken, I had to go first again.
Nothing to worry about, just crossing a wonky bridge over a raging river with a metal cable as a security blanket. No biggie. Rather not think about the sizeable gaps between the platforms making the bridge a bridge. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. Reached the end, phew.
Now there was a little ledge serving as a waiting station
We were a group of seven plus two guides and a camera man. The ledge could maybe fit four people. So there was not much time for the guide to give a step by step instruction on how to step by step climb up the via ferrata (iron steps hammered into the mountain side). He explained how to work the safety chains and left me with a “up you go”.
Reptile brain: Oh, f*ck. I can’t climb.
Rational brain: Told you so.
Reptile brain: Freeze
Rational brain: Only way out is up.
Reptile brain: I said FREEZE!
At this point, a line had formed behind me
The guide: “What’s up?”
Me: “I can’t go up.”
The guide: “Why not?”
Me: “I’m scared. I can’t remember how my limbs work.”
After some arguing and persuasion, the guide agreed to climb up with me so that he could handle my safety chains so that I could focus on figuring out how to put one foot up above the other.
Reptile brain: Oh man, left leg, right leg, don’t look down, breathe, left leg, right leg, never-a-flipping-gain…..smile at the camera (you kidding me?)…
Reptile brain: Breathe…nearly there, just breathe. We made it!
Rational brain: Told you so.
Reptile brain: And I told you epic glory. I’m the Dragon Master of San Martin! Oh look, another zip-line. Wheeeeeeee!!!
Let’s be honest.
If my reptile brain wasn’t in charge, I wouldn’t even have attempted the adventure. I would have rationalized my way past AC-DC to my fear of climbing. And yes, it was scary as hell, but I made it.
The San Martin canyon is not the bravest thing I’ve ever done.
Not by a long shot.
I can’t say for sure which part of my brain I used to find courage to face the worst task of my life. Or which part I used to endure the almost equally horrific aftermath. But I’d like to think that it is because I live close to my inner dragon that I was able to find courage where others could not.
Life List Entry: Zip-lined at San Martin Canyon, Baños, Ecuador