Tag Archives: 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

 

 

Camping in Antarctica

Camping in Antarctica…Awkward or Amazing?

Amazing!

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.

Paradise Bay
Paradise Bay

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.

Adelie Penguin
Adelie Penguin

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.

Building our fortress
Building our fortress

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.

 

 

So much snow!!
So much snow!!
Having a philosophical moment
Having a philosophical moment

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:

 

Paradise Bay Antarctica
Paradise Bay Antarctica

Later that afternoon, I got to kayak in this gorgeous bit of the world… a perfect ending to an amazing Base Camp tour to Antarctica.

Life List Entry: Camped in Antarctica

By the way, if you do like camping, I have friends with a wonderful blog that’s full of camping, trekking and budget travel information

Horse Trekking to Song Kol, Kyrgyzstan

Horse Trekking in Kyrgyzstan – Awkward or Amazing?

Amazing and so very very awkward.

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

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

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

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

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

Topics of conversation while horse trekking

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

Our first pit stop revealed a big mystery

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

Taking a prayer break
Taking a prayer break

 Horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan involves yurt stays

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

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

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

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

Yurts on the Kyrgyz jailoos
Yurts on the Kyrgyz jailoos

Day 2: Destination – Song Kol

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

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

Horses at Song Kol
Horses at Song Kol

Horse trekking and dress-up parties

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

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

Homeward bound

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

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

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

Hitching a ride home
Hitching a ride home

Kyrgyzstan is a country of contrasts

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

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

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

Georgia by motorcycle

Exploring Georgia by motorcycle – Awkward or Amazing?

Awkward – then totally AMAZING – then somewhat awkward again….

A guest post by Mihan Louw – rookie solo adventure traveler and seasoned bike enthusiast – on his trip to Georgia by motorcycle.

A much deserved break from Dubai

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.

First awkward….

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.

kazbegi-monasty

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.

georgia-scenery

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.

fixing-clutch-cables-in-georgia

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.

ancient-vineyards-in-alaverdi
Ancient vineyards in Alaverdi

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.

Signaghi Town Square
Signaghi Town Square
Signaghi
Signaghi

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.

Tblisi
Tblisi

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.

Zip-lining in Banos: The Only Way Out is Up

Zip-lining across the San Martin Canyon – Awkward or Amazing?

Quite, quite awkward. But loads of fun.

Someone brought it to my attention that the brain function I default to in most aspects of my life is my reptile brain.

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.

It also explains my approach to dealing with potentially fear-inspiring situations.

Let me explain with a case study:

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?

Reptile Brain: I’m hungry. Overriding conversation.

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.

Through the canyon
Made it through the gorge!

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.

Bridge of suspense
Bridge of suspense

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

Oh oh...
Oh oh…

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?)…

Fake smile for the camera
Fake smile for the camera!

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!!!

Whohooo!!!!

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shopping at Osh Bazaar in Bishkek

Awkward or Amazing

As usual, a bit of both.

Where is this Osh Bazaar?

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.

Osh basaar

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.

Samosa for lunch

Life List Entry: Avoided food poisoning at a Kyrgyz bazaar

 

 

Sicily’s mud volcanoes

Awkward or Amazing?

A bit of both.

Sicily is a strange place

I have always been infatuated with Sicily, and on a recent road trip around this wonderfully strange island, I fell in love with it. We spent our last few days at a villa just outside of Agrigento. This gave us the opportunity to see:

The magnificent Valley of the Temples

Agrigento ancient temples

Spectacular Scala dei Turchi beach,

Sicily beaches

Horatio the Donkey

Our donkey friend in Agrigento

and the most curious phenomenon….

The Vucanelli di Macalube:

These little mud volcanoes featured in Lonely Planet’s Sicily guidebook as a somewhat off-the-beaten-track activity around Agrigento. Our host, Horatio the Donkey’s owner, also recommended visiting them at the Macalube nature reserve.

So we went.

Sarah, our GPS lady, guided us to the entrance of the Macalube nature reserve, which was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. We got out to inspect the wooden gate; this was clearly the end of the road as far as driving was concerned.

There wasn’t a soul in sight. We headed down the dirt road into the reserve, feeling a little uneasy about leaving our little Fiat to fend for itself. Everything was dead quiet and it felt a little eerie.

image

A little further along we came to a second gate where we found some information boards about the Macalube mud volcanoes. At least we were on the right track. The right track lead us across vast plains of cracked mud. We still haven’t seen a single soul. The further we walked, the more it felt like we were heading into oblivion.
image

 

When we finally reached the mud volcanoes we were completely unprepared for how underwhelmingly weird they were. There we were, standing on warm cracked earth surrounded by extremely ugly mud castles.

Can you see the mud volcanoes?

Here and there we could see the underground gasses bubbling through the mud. Just as I stopped recording a short and uninspiring video, one of the little volcanoes erupted, spewing mud all over itself. My heart nearly stopped and think I must have jumped about 5 ft in the air – it caught me completely off-guard!

On that note, we ran back to the car and drove straight to Palermo where we laughed about our little non-event over a delicious bottle of Planeta La Segreta.

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

Awkward or Amazing?

Amazing!

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

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

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

Once we arrived, we headed straight to the dolphin show

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

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

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

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

or

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

It doesn’t matter which…applause was spontaneous.

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

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

Another 3 hours later were were back at the hotel

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

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

 

On a Homestay in St Petersburg and the Quintessential Russian Breakfast

Awkward or Amazing?

Awkward to the extreme.

My expectation of a homestay

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

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

What we found at Ana’s

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

So much for conversations, never mind sophisticated ones.

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

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

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

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

The Continental Course

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

The savory course

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

The Desert course

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

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

Assumptions in Return

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

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

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