Tag Archives: Funny travel stories

Experiencing Ramadan in Tangier

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.

Cave of Hercules

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!

Beach

 

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 Riding in Patagonia: How I Nearly Froze to Death

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?

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.

Patagonia
The Patagonian Wilderness

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.

patagonia
Wine to revive the spirits

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.

Patagonia
Penguin drawing

 

 

One night in Palermo

Awkward or Amazing?

Both, definitely both!

Arriving in Palermo

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.

After dinner

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

Awkward Crime and Amazing Accomplices in Kyrgyzstan

Just a short funny travel story that’s…

Obviously Awkward and Amazing

Last year in Kyrgyzstan, I stayed with a wonderful host family in Kochkor. Even though there is nothing to do in Kochkor itself, I decided to stay on an extra day, for the sole reason of enjoying the relaxed and peaceful atmosphere that this family provided in their home.

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.

Life List Entry: Covered up a crime

Tarot Cards – You Got to Know When to Fold Them

Awkward or Amazing?

Awkward.

I’ve always been fascinated by tarot cards

Anything magical, fantastic and arcane, really. Ghosts, wizards, witches and warlocks, vampires, unicorns, werewolves, angels, demons, voodoo dolls – the whole shebang. As a kid, I was really into astrology and palm reading. It was more about recognizing clues or features and then linking them to something else. Now that I’m older I recognize that these hobbies were just a form of data analysis – a large part of my day job that I really love.

I have never believed in divination. Only God knows what’s locked up in our futures – and He doesn’t need tea leaves or stars or animal intestines to figure it out. The idea of interpreting tarot cards – with the pretty and ominous depictions of cups and swords, hermits and empresses – felt exotic and somehow wrong. I knew that if I brought a tarot deck home, even though I just wanted to look at the pictures, I would be in big trouble. So I didn’t. And I stayed curious.

Nearly two decades later, I found myself in New Orleans

New Orleans practically drips with magic and horror. It’s the home of the 19th century voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. In the French Quarter you’ll find the LaLaurie Mansion, haunted by the tortured slaves of Madame Delphine LaLaurie. This house was also briefly owned by Nicolas Cage. In the Garden District you’ll see the home of writer Anne Rice – the mother of vampire literature. You’ll also find the grave of the vampire Lestat from Interview with a vampire (or at least the grave that the studio version was modelled on). There’s the house from American Horror Story: Coven – a television series about witches. While all these things are either works of fiction or remnants of centuries past, the streets of modern day New Orleans is littered with psychics, sitting at at tables decked with tarot cards and candles, just waiting to tell you all about your past, present and future.

I’ve made up my mind to have my tarot cards read

I had no expectation to have some divine wisdom revealed. I just wanted to see the cards. Get 20 years of mild curiosity off my chest. It would be fun. Little did I know how crazy my card reading experience would get. But, to explain what happened, I need to tell you about London.

London is a guy

No, his parents didn’t call him London. It’s just the town where he hails from. I’m bad with names. We briefly shared breakfast in a hostel in Chicago. Curious fellow. He’s in theatre and tends to talk as if he is delivering lines on stage. Very eloquent too. He had a slightly creepy something about him, something I couldn’t quite place. A week later, I bumped into him again at my hostel in New Orleans. That night, about 10 of us went out to paint Frenchmen Street red. It was my first night in New Orleans and I just loved it. Jazz everywhere. Good street food. London and I shared an awkward dance at the Spotted Cat during which I managed to knock over the mic with my heavy bag.

When we all left the bar to find some street food, London and I started talking. And I figured out what gave me the creeps. You see, London considers himself a magi. He claims that he can read palms and cards. Not only that, he truly believes that he had cursed some guy who stole his clothes. And I don’t mean that he called the thief unprintable names,  I mean he dabbled in the dark arts. Or so he claimed.

Personally, I think the thief is quite safe from having his flesh rot beneath his stolen breeches. But in the spirit of the conversation, I told London that I wanted to have my tarot cards read. And he apparently knew just the guy who could help me out with that. Some voodoo king who was definitely not a charlatan and divined all sorts of things with great accuracy.

You’d think finding this mysterious psychic would be hard, but at  4 am that same night he was sitting just around the corner

Yup, there he was. A morbidly obese bald guy with nails painted black, sitting behind a table with a tarot deck. The randomness of the situation was just too great to resist. What were the odds of that happening? So I sat down for a reading.

What the tarot cards said

He instructed me to shuffle the cards and cut the deck it into three equal piles. I then had to choose the pile that I thought was mine. They all seemed the same. It was dark, so I chose the pile that was most illuminated by the candle light. He cut the pile into three smaller piles: one for career, one for relationships and one for the future. We started with career.

All the statements were very vague, but cleverly constructed so that it is possible to link something vaguely similar in your life to the cards. I was a little disappointed because he flipped the cards so quickly that I didn’t have time to look at the pictures. He said a lot of things that I might have been able to link to my work life. Stuff about company restructures and alternative career paths that were surprisingly relevant. But all the predictions were three months off. He clearly couldn’t see that I’d still be travelling  when all these work- issues were supposed to happen.

We then went into relationships. And boy, did he get literally everything wrong. As in everything. Every now and then he would take my hands, stare deep into my palms and say ridiculous things. I tried to keep a straight face, but it was difficult.

The reading on my future was more of the same. He ran out of cards and moved on to the next pile. I wanted to say: “Hey, I didn’t choose that pile. How do you know those are my cards?” Finally, he took my hands and told me: “You have a deep love of music. Music moves you like no other. You should take up an instrument when you get back home.”

Say what? The only time I listen to music is when I commute. I go to concerts, but I never know the songs. When I took piano lessons as a kid, my teacher recommended occupational therapy. I have so little rhythm, I have trouble knocking on doors. Hell, I knocked over a mic just that evening.

I thanked the psychic, left a tip and walked home with London. Disappointed and perplexed.

On the way, we couldn’t help comparing notes.

I didn’t want to offend him, so I told him about the career bits and kept quiet about the rest. After all, it’s possible that I’m just really difficult to read. I’ve been told I’m a complex person. What did I know about magic?

But then London said: “He told me that music moves me like no other and that I should take up an instrument.”

Really?

Suddenly, the mysterious veneer disappeared. All the magic vanished from the world and all I could see was fairy tales and insecure suckers. I never believed in divination, or any of the other stuff for that matter. But somehow the real life story of a real life magi not being able to recognize a real life charlatan was like a bucket of cold water in my face.

I knew that I would cancel the New Orleans ghost/voodoo/vampire tour. I  couldn’t stomach the idea of someone selling my beloved fiction for something fake.

Instead, I spent my time searching for a signed copy of an Anne Rice novel. I found one, but it was too heavy to carry and too expensive to mail back to South Africa. Pity that you can’t sign an e-book.

Even without magic, my time in New Orleans was still magical

At  the risk of sounding like Albus Dumbledore, friendship and love are the strongest kinds of magic.  And I found plenty of that in New Orleans.

Life List Entry: Had my tarot cards read

 

 

Horror in Hong Kong: Enter the Clown

Awkward or Amazing?

Awkward. And scary.

First, my view on clowns

I’m a child of the early 80’s and thus form part of a generation whose collective psyche was damaged beyond repair by Steven King’s IT. The infamous demon clown, Pennywise, may have seemed too silly to be scary to folks who were older and less impressionable when it was released in 1990. But he has instilled a lasting fear into our hearts that now causes anyone around the age of 32 to experience anything from at least mild discomfort to complete paralysis when faced with clowns.

I realize that all clowns are not demons. Even so, I struggle to accept them as bearers of joy and laughter. When I look at them (from a safe distance) I can not understand why parents allow their children to interact with these atrocities.

Do they not see the grotesqueness of their features?

Do they not see how unnaturally tall some of them are?

Do they not see with what cruelty they torture innocent balloons by twisting them into all kinds of horrid and unnatural shapes?

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong…

I did not expect to have to face this particular irrational fear during my first visit to Hong Kong. After a morning of exploring Kowloon markets selling everything from goldfish to songbirds, we headed down to the Salisbury promenade to watch the Hong Kong dragon boat carnival. We found a nice spot where we could watch the dragon boat crews racing past and feel part of the general festiveness of the event.

After a while, I was in need of something thirst quenching and set off to scout for soft drinks. When I saw them, I froze. Clowns. Two of them. And masses of balloons tortured into grotesque decorations and cocktail dresses. I can not describe the horror that I experienced in that split second.

I tried to run, but alas, I did not get far. My friend, aware of my fears, but too young to truly understand it, summoned the clowns and their balloon-wearing companions, and shoved me towards them.

“There…you love clowns, right? Now, smile!”

I was surrounded by my worst nightmare, but I managed to smile for the picture.

It may look like an innocent and somewhat cheesy picture of a South African girl at the Hong Kong dragon boat carnival. But if you look closely, you’ll also be able to see the pure terror of the moment.

Life List Entry: Turned my worst nightmare into a cheesy photo.