You can see it. It’s just there, stretching up above the flat desert plain in Central Australia.
Opening the windows of your 4X4 you feel the dry heat, you see nothing but the red sand and hear nothing but the engine of your car disturbing the peace and quiet.
The occasional snake crosses the road, the large red kangaroos hop by and you see eagles and other scavengers dinning on what’s died in the heart of this vast continent.
The rock stands still, all alone in the very middle of the bare orange earth. As you approach it it grows and it seems to be close by. You drive for miles and miles and what seems like a lifetime later you are in front of it looking high above you, holding your neck for comfort.
This majestic, world’s largest monolith, is … breathtaking. There is no other word to describe it. You suddenly feel so small and insignificant, standing next to this magical, structure – mother nature’s work of art.
The rock looks gentle, but it’s sturdy. It’s been there for millions of years. The things it has witnessed, or maybe it hasn’t… This is so far away from anything! Up until 200 years ago not many people knew about it. It was the home to the Australian Aboriginal Community, nomads who found comfort in its spiritual meaning and shelter in its numerous caves.
The rock tells stories, it has paintings, you touch it and can almost feel it breath. There is so much respect for this large monster, so much attention – it’s almost intimidating. Everyone is snapping photos, admiring its colours. It changes at dawn, mid-day and at dusk. I would not believe it if I had not seen it with my own eyes. No photo does it justice.
Uluru and Kata Tjuta National parks are Australia’s most visited tourist destination yet they hold many secrets, things you and I wouldn’t know about. Traditional ceremonies held here to mark significant occasions, births, deaths… Walkways which are off bounds to foreigners, history which can only be appreciated by the local community.
It’s beautiful and sad at the same time. As you watch tourists climb the rock and abuse the trust of locals for that one picture on top of their most sacred spot, my eyes tear up.
We admire it from afar appreciating it’s beauty, soaking in its energy. I feel it’s there for a reason, this lonely rock, in the middle of nowhere. It’s just that you and I might not know the answers and risk not understanding its true purpose.
Of all the countries in Southeast Asia Vietnam will always have a special place in my heart. Not because of the countless motorbikes on the roads or the endless cables towering above your head as you walk the streets, but because of the beautifully rich and unique culture this country is so well know for.
I was fortunate enough to travel across most Southeast Asian countries and have to admit that while culture and history from one have influenced the other, the countries themselves are quite distinct and very special.
The people from this part of the world are (in general) very gentle and soft spoken. The service they provide is impeccable and their smiles are some of the biggest I have seen.
Their cuisine is rich and tasty, they serve it with so much love. There is great attention to detail and every hand made or painted product is done with passion and purpose.
In Vietnam, some stereotypes are visible everywhere: people wearing conical – Non La (vietnamese traditional) hats and women do wear their typical dresses – Ao Dai in their day to day activities. People work in the rice fields and yes, usually ride a motorbike everywhere squeezing up to five people on a single bike. The traffic is mad and crossing the roads is an adventure only the brave dare to try. The honking never stops.. the sound pollution can be overwhelming.
One thing which I was unaware of before is the culture of flowers. Every morning, just before sunrise, people set out to the wet markets and as they buy their fresh produce they also buy fresh flowers. Flowers, which I later learned are produced in Vietnam for export across Asia, are a big part of their lives and bringing colour to the house is of extreme importance. The importance is also seen in people’s marked preference for names of flowers in the choice of girls’ first names.
In the cities you will notice many beautiful women with their straw hats squatting on the side walk next to big metal containers filled with water and fresh flowers of every colour. “Cheap cheap!” they shout at I pass by them inhaling the priceless smell of sweetness in the array of smoke and traffic fumes around us.
You buy a bouquet and take a deep breath in hope of loosing yourself in the moment and forgetting about the countless honking motorbikes around you.
Some of my earliest memories of water go back to sailing on the deep blue seas winding our way between numerous lush green islands scattered across the ocean. We would make our way towards abandoned beaches and jump from high cliffs into the unknown waters below. Life was simple. Summers were all about bringing a picnic fridge filled with cold tomatoes, bread and paté. We would stretch our towels across the rocks and take in the smell of fresh pine trees stretching out all the way into the sea.
I will always remember the taste of those tomatoes, the sound of children’s laughter and the stillness of the sea. We would watch the sun set into the water and everyone swore it was the most beautiful in the world. It was a happy childhood.
Croatia is the home to some of the most beautiful coastal beaches, virgin and unspoiled by resorts and imported sand. And when you step off the beaches the surrounding is surprisingly peaceful. The smell of traditional baked pastries and freshly brewed coffee will lure you into places where people sit and chat for hours in the sun.
The Croatian coast will always have a special place in my heart and a few people will always make sure it stays that way.
Her name is Seka and she is 74 years old. For the past 50 years she has lived on the coast, watching the yacht-filled marina from the apartment. She has used similar backdrops for quite a few of her paintings and is always inspired by the different shades of blue. Having moved before the city had its touristic boom, Seka and her husband Ivan enjoyed life in this beautiful Roman city. Each morning she would get up, carefully putting on her make up and feeding the pigeons on her balcony while getting ready for her daily coffee excursion. Seka meets her friends each day of the week in one of the cafes located in narrow, flat stone alleys. She would walk for 20 minutes to get there and as always, would cross the long bridge leading her to the 2,000-years-old city center. She wears her high heels every day and always makes sure she dresses up for herself and the city. Her friends and her would sit for an hour or two in the shade, order cappuccinos and watch people passing by. They would discuss their daily topics, exchanging words of advice and wisdom with anyone who was willing to listen. It’s a happy hour for the ladies who use this time to discuss art, politics and the usual favorite – fashion. As a child I would sit in the shade sipping my cold juice watching people with dogs and pretty foreign ladies pass by, not entirely consumed in Seka’s debates about my new haircut or ballet classes. I would occasionally run off to the sea and watch the boats make their way across to the islands on the horizon.
“You know, Zadar has the world’s most beautiful sunset!” she would always ensure me as I look out into the sea. I would play games trying to count the islands, at least those that I could see from the pier I was sitting on. Once the coffee is drunk and the topics for the day have been exhausted Seka would get up and walk 100m towards the open air market where she buys fresh fruits, vegetables and meat for the day. She knows all the sellers and out of 20 stalls selling fresh farm eggs chooses to shop only at one (don’t ask me why!). She bargains on the price of tomatoes and almost always decides that the quality of the fruits is not good enough, or not as good as it used to be when she was my age. The market has an attached fish market and always smells like the sea. Today, the smell of fish, oil and shells brings back sweet memories.
I would do my best to help Seka carry the bags as she has a talent for always buying more than she can carry. She walks back across the bridge in her high heels and magically makes it just in time for her favorite soap opera which she follows religiously. Her husband, Ivan helps her up the stairs and waits patiently for the instructions on how to prepare the food before disappearing into the kitchen coming out only hours later with the most delicious Mediterranean food served for kings and queens. This a daily ritual, one which demonstrates the joy for life and at the same time is a great example of Croatian lifestyle. The slow and easy coastal life, dictated by the hot summer sun and laid back Dalmatian mentality. When the tourists leave and the summer fades to autumn, the small community life doesn’t change. The daily rituals continue but the city becomes more peaceful, the sea is calm and the islands are happy and green.
This beautiful scenery fosters a feeling of bliss and joy, opening a chapter of gratitude in all those who visit this coast. The sight of white-stone churches against the cloudless blue sky and the sound of prayer bells which stretch all the way out into the sea is priceless. Seka, to me, remains the one true ambassador for Croatian coastal lifestyle. With the sun, sea and stone which serve as a canvas for her beautiful art, I will always believe that Zadar indeed has the most beautiful sunsets in the world.
After all, you have to believe what your grandparents say.
The passageways were narrow and the stalls were tightly stacked together leaving little room for us to pass without getting our clothes ripped in one of the metal bars sticking out from the sides.
Following the masses we approached the entrance to the biggest market place in Bangalore, South India embracing ourselves for what was to come.
One thing we have learnt over the years is that when travelling you ought to throw aside the guide books and chat with the locals. They are the ones who always know what to do, what to see and which place serves the yummiest local food and coldest beer in town. They are your best bet, almost always guaranteeing you will experience the culture not as a tourist but as a traveller.
In order to do this you need to scout for the places where you will be sure the locals hang out. With this in mind, we head to the best place we know your typical tourist won’t go in India – to the open air local food markets.
They say that the ‘early bird catches the worm’ and in case of markets that is definitely true. Early morning is the best time to go and experience the bustling crowds and observe from the sides every day life of the locals.
In India this experience is special. Your senses are enhanced. You become hyper-sensitive to smells, tastes and sounds and can easily have an out-of-body experience overwhelmed by everything that’s happening around you. If this is the rush you are after, the market is, guaranteed, the best place to go.
As you approach the stalls, which to seem to stretch to eternity, you are aware that you are part of it now but still might choose to keep a distance and enjoy the life from afar, carefully watching the fruit seller weighing mangos, the black market money changers counting rupees and the florist making beautiful jasmine designs for a wedding happening that afternoon. Everyone has a story or two and they are happy to share them with the by-passers including foreigners.
You will be blessed by a passing priest and run to avoid a stray dog. You will hold your camera tightly but take the most colourful photographs and taste the most exotic fruits. The smell of curries and other spices will fill your nostrils and the local food sellers will try and lure you to buy their freshly made naan selling it as ‘the best in the whole of India‘. The sight of food will make your tummy rumble.
Your eye will linger upon the most gorgeous sari patterns and you will surely bump into a few beggars along the way while small children will pull onto your clothes, excited to practice their English and find out what your name is.
The rickshas will be sounding their horns in the background but the sounds of the market will filter the traffic and bring you back to the moment where everyone around you is in their own world. The sellers will be shouting, the customers will be nodding their heads and everything will evolve around you, seamlessly, perfectly – as if you are not there.
You will watch, you will observe, emerging yourself into real India – and you will love it.
After an eventful few hours of hustle and bustle of the South Indian market you will pop across the street into a cafe which will surely have a checkered black and white flooring and hard seating benches.
Their vast array of yummy sweets and local delicacies will be displayed in a glass fridge and the waiters will be eager to serve you chai and recommend their favorite sweets. Almost surely you will get more than you can eat and be encouraged to take some home for your friends.
And so with a full belly, a camera full of vibrant photographs and a smile on your face you will continue on to your next adventure, but you will never forget the excitement of an all-sense awakening Indian market.
Following Bali’s negative PR over the past decade this magical Indonesian island has suffered a substantial loss of tourism. Fortunately for the locals, over the past few years the popularity has picked up and Bali, which is 5 times bigger than Singapore, has seen masses of tourists swamp its South and Southeast coast.
While many complain that the backpacking culture of Bali is corrupting its pristine natural beauties with carelessness, drugs and wild parties, my experience has shown that this is concentrated only to Denpasar, Kuta, Seminyak and the surrounding areas.
To experience the real Balinese lifestyle and its incredibly rich culture, avoid the tourists, fold up your tour guides and make some local friends.
Here is my list of must-see places on this beautiful island:
1) Ubud - many people will note down Ubud as the must-visit spot in Bali thinking it’s one of those spiritual centers where hippy yogis go.
Ubud is in fact the very heart of Bali, surrounded by rice paddies and gorgeous tiny villages where you can, within 10 minutes drive from Bali watch the locals produce their crafts and observe the morning offering rituals. Ubud is a great cultural center where you can also attend one of the performances from the Ramayana and indulge in some great local food. You can rent a bicycle and ride through the Monkey Forest, drink fruitshakes overlooking the rice fields and enjoy some incredible massages using the local hot volcanic stones.
2) Singaraja - located in North Bali this old capital of Bali is far from touristy and very few foreigners end up coming here to see the black volcanic beaches and watch the dolphin migration from East to West each morning at 5am (spider boats depart from Lovina). Singaraja, or the ‘Lion King’ is a typical Balinese town where you should stay for a few days to experience the real local life style and perhaps even attend one of the local ceremonies.
Mingle with the locals to learn more about the local traditions and you might even get to attend a local wedding or some other traditional ceremony.
On the way to Singaraja make sure you visit the numerous waterfalls where you could enjoy some white water rafting and other water sports.
3) Check out Bali Temples - Every Balinese village has several beautiful temples but the most famous ones include Tenah Lot, Pura Besakih (Mother Temple), Ulun Danu Temple, Pura Luhur (Uluwatu), Pura Tirta Empul and Taman Ayun Temple in Mengwi. Each temple is special in its own way and the best way to see them is to rent a car (ideally with a driver) or a motor bike (please be careful on the road) and drive for 2 days. Given that Ubud is in the center of the island making this your home base would be ideal. The temples are scattered around the island and each one has its own story.
Make sure you learn something about them before visiting or at least get a driver who could brief you on each one. When visiting temples make sure you are appropriately dressed. Most of the temples provide covers (sarongs) for both men and women when entering but you could also bring your own.
4) Mt Agung or Gunung Agung - this volcanic mountain is one of the tougher ones to climb in Bali and is located just an hour drive from Ubud. The climb ideally begins at 2am in the morning so that you can reach the top just in time to see the sunrise. Being about the clouds, overlooking the entire island and witnessing your guide providing the spirits offerings is priceless and worth the steep climb. On a good day, from the top of Mt Agung you can even see Mt Rinjani in Lombok – the island East of Bali across the sea. The view is simply stunning.
According to the Balinese Hindu religion, Agung is the most sacred of mountains and is home to Bali’s largest temple, Pura Besakih. Make sure you get a guide if you plan to climb this mountain and ask them to bring along some good Balinese coffee. If you are not an avid mountaineer make sure you let you guide know as they could guide you through a different, easier path up to the summit.
5) Coffee Degustation - Indonesians are proud of their coffee and the Balinese guides will be quick to suggest visiting one of their numerous coffee plantations where you can enjoy various blends, aromas even (if you are lucky) try the famous Luvak coffee (Kopi Luvak)
It’s yummy and once you see the price tag you will want to enjoy even more :)
Remember, unless you are a surfer Bali is not about beaches and expensive hotel resorts. You can also opt to stay in a local villa, away from the buzzling night life, surround yourself with monkeys, stop and smell the frangipanni flowers and enjoy the local delicacies. You can camp in the national parks in the West and snorkle with tourtles in the South. You can dive in various sites along the coast and enjoy the colourful culture, smiley people and unique language. Get lost in Bali and write your own last chapter of Eat, Pray, Love.
The date is 8 March 2008 and newspaper the headline in front of me reads: “66,500 dead and 40,000 missing”. I don’t have the heart to pick it up, despite the fact it would be the first source of English news in days.
I know what happened. I was there…
6 days earlier Myanmar was hit by cyclone Nargis which killed more than 138,000 people and flooded most of the southern part of the country. It resulted in electricity, water and telephone line cuts, separating this secluded southeast Asian nation ever further from its neighbours. The thought of this country being further crippled by forces of nature, on top of everything it’s already gone through brings tears to my eyes and makes me upset that in case nature disasters, there is no one to blame. Nevertheless this trip had taught me more about the country and more about travel than any other.
1st May holidays were closing in and Myanmar was still on my list of countries to visit. It was one of the less touristy destinations on our bucket list, making it automatically more fascinating. Despite being eminent travelers, none of our friends had visited this part of the world before, which was why we had to read up on everything well in advance and prepare well for what awaited us in land once known as Burma.
We landed in Yangoon, Myanmar’s largest city and decided to spend the day exploring what the city has to offer. We were disappointed to find out that it wasn’t much. Other than a complex of huge golden pagodas, several smaller temples and the local market there wasn’t much to see. We were caught in heavy traffic and were followed by stray dogs, passing large open air markets where meat was sold in the hot summer sun. It didn’t seem different from most of the Asian countries we visited before, but the regular power cuts, lack of ATMs and Coca Cola ads as well as the fact that our phones were not working reminded us, continuously, that we were not just in any Southeast Asian country.
After some preplanning in the hotel we befriended a local who was running the facilities we were staying in. I spent some time chatting about the must-visit spots of Yangoon, the hot weather and local fashion. He eventually told me about the special yellow thanaka wooden bricks women mix with
water to create a paste-like substance and put on their face as as cream which serves as sunscreen protecting the skin from the harsh sun and make up at the same time. In no time he was mashing up a paste, showing me how it’s done and dabbing it onto my cheeks, carefully drawing large yellow circles across my face. I ended up putting thanaka on my face every day during this trip.
This is probably the most vivid memory I have of Yangoon which had not fascinated us much. We quickly purchased tickets to visit the northern territory and natural spots which were both UNESCO heritage sites as well as sacred spots for locals.
Bagan is probably the most well known and most visited town in Burma. It is comprised of 3000 Buddhist pagodas built between 11 and 13 century AD. Our hotel was the only one located in the very middle with a 360 degree view of all the temples. As we would sit on the patio, watching the
sunset over the perfectly flat land, we would observe the thousands of temple tops of various shapes and sizes and I remember thinking that we were in heaven.
It was one of those moments in time when everything stops, everything is tranquil and you can only hear yourself breathe and try not to, so you don’t disturb the perfect stillness.
We spent several days and numerous sunrises on top of different pagodas watching this ancient city, observing the ruins and learning more about their significance.
I don’t know whether it was because it was out of season or if Myanmar was just not the spot of choice for tourists, but we were the only people around and we seemed to have all the time in the world. Everything seemed too good to be true.
As we were sitting on the patio one night the local hotel manager who joined us observed that there was a slight breeze. I clearly remember him commenting that the breeze was not good and that they
wouldn’t get the wind so high up North during May. The following day we found out that our flight to Inle Lake, further southeast of the country, was cancelled and that there was a “big storm” in Yangoon which landed all the flights.
We had a few more days until our departure from Myanmar but we were desperate for more information. The last thing you want to do is be find yourself trapped in a land of no internet, lack of phone lines and political instability. Our minds were working fast, we needed to find a way to get back to Yangoon. It was the only way to get more information.
After a grueling 20-hour ride south to Yangoon, we finally entered the southern territories at 6am. The sun was creeping up, waking us from the flimsy sleep in the car. Everything was perfectly still and at one point in time I raised my head only to notice we were moving through water. The wheels of the car were submerged and we were passing behind other vehicles trying to enter the city.
At that point in time we looked out into the horizon and saw that the city was flooded. Houses seemed to be floating and by passing through this river we seemed to be disturbing the peace, causing ripples around the car.
An hour later, following a very slow ride to the city, we finally entered Yangoon to see that the city was fully awake and mobilised. The army was engaged moving the trees which were in the middle of the roads. People were clearing glass from the streets and moving lamp posts, billboards as well as collecting food and scraps to make shelter.
Most of the buildings were severely damaged and it wasn’t until we saw trees laying horizontally, ripped out from the ground together with their roots that we gasped in disbelief. We were witnessing the aftermath of what was one of the biggest tragedy Myanmar has ever had.
Over the next few days, we desperately tried to get in touch with loved ones, using the only satellite phone in the city, gathering the spare US dollars we had and dealing with a huge rise in food, hotel and transportation prices. The cost of petrol jumped 10 times following the disaster and suddenly we could no longer afford the regular trips to the airport to enquire what was happening with our flight and when the airport was due to open.
We learned that the cyclone washed up various debris onto the runway and damaged some of the communication equipment. This resulted in a general airport shut down and thousands of tourists stranded in Yangoon. All those tourists we couldn’t find during the first few days suddenly appeared at the airport – desperately trying to get out. People were trapped with no money and no way to get cash. They were refused to stay at the airport and couldn’t even afford a trip back to the city. All this however was not even close to what the locals were experiencing.
The villages surrounding Yangoon were flooded, with poor sewage systems, drowning thousands who couldn’t swim and trapping many more inside their houses without food or fresh water.
It was incredible to watch so many people get together and everyone working on a rescue mission or towards obtaining food and other supplies. The army we heard so much about was utilising equipment to remove trees and enable traffic, working in teams spread around the city. It felt like a war zone.
Cyclone Nargis had cut off Myanmar even further from the rest of the world.
Within a few days we were able to get on the first flight out to Singapore and officially became the first foreigners to leave Myanmar. We were extremely lucky! Having landed in Singapore we only then started getting information and reading what the international media was reporting. We were interviewed by various media houses and our photos and stories made it around the world. It turns out everyone wanted to find a way into Myanmar and international press was not allowed to enter without the appropriate visas. We found out the people were desperate for help but due to sanctions agains Myanmar international agencies couldn’t get their act together to deliver aid by air for quite a while. And while the politics played their usual role, people were suffering, dying.
It was the only time I was truly grateful to be a foreigner and have a safe haven to escape to but at the same time my heart went out to the locals, their families, loved ones who were suffering so much. There was nothing we could do. The feeling of helplessness is the worse.
Myanmar will always remain in my thoughts as one of the most naturally pristine countries visited and one I ought to go back to. Despite the political instability and years of suppression and isolation the people we met were lovely, helpful and joyful individuals who had that same Southeast Asian gentle charm I adore.
Maybe one days things change, people stop hating and nature stops punishing the already vulnerable.